We’re All Burning Ourselves Out to Keep Money Flowing Up to the Rich

Increased productivity has failed to translate into fair compensation, and we’re all working ourselves to death. Not having time to rest or think is not just terrible for human beings — it’s terrible for democracy.

Worker at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Ontario, Canada, on May 30, 2020. (Cole Burston / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Last spring, a survey found that nearly 40 percent of professionals in Canada were experiencing increasing burnout. The data from consulting firm Robert Half found the top causes that workers cited were workload, poor communication and support from management, and a toxic work environment. Consistent with data from the United States and around the world, the Canadian survey found Gen Z and millennials were most affected by burnout. But the phenomenon isn’t unique to them. It’s a broad and deep crisis — and it stretches beyond the workplace.

There are several causes of burnout, but it’s often fundamentally a problem of imbalance and a lack of control of one’s life. Being under another’s control risks stamping out autonomy and exposure to over-taxing and unreasonable working conditions and environments. Such conditions include an imbalanced workload and a lack of time off and rest. In sum, we are forced to work too hard, for too long, with limited support and time off.

All Work, No Play

In our market society, time spent outside work is often infiltrated by work-related concerns, upsetting what ought to be a sacred time and space of rest. When we’re not working, we’re thinking about working, we’re worrying about working, we’re checking e-mail, or we’re being asked to “go the extra mile” and put in more time. The digital tether has contributed considerably to the blurring of work-rest boundaries, making us constantly available to our boss’s demands 24-7, effectively transforming home-life into a mere work extracurricular.

All of this presupposes that one’s cost of living allows for any time off. In Canada, the affordability crisis — particularly in housing — has forced millions to push harder and work more just to keep a roof over their head. This, in turn, restricts the already scarce free time one might manage to secure. And while overall work hours aren’t exactly equivalent to the Dickensian era, work hours are on the rise. The exact extent is hard to gauge because of the rise of temporary gigs and side hustles enabled by developments in technology. The promise that technology would liberate time for workers has yet to materialize; instead, it has contributed to an escalation in exploitation.

In a Harris Poll in May, Canadian workers offered some suggestions for preventing or alleviating burnout, with a common theme being workplace and personal control. A flexible work schedule topped the list, followed closely by supporting time off. To the extent that burnout is a problem of control, transferring more of it to workers is key to addressing burnout. More time off is a no-brainer, too. Naturally, paying workers more is also important — though that doesn’t necessary solve the overwork problem.

We live in a culture that expects and venerates unreasonable work hours despite mounds of data that suggest working longer doesn’t make you more productive — and, indeed, often makes you less productive. We should be wary of the cult of productivity, but pro-productivity narratives in the workplace are often wrong on their own terms insofar as they preach long hours as the measure of good work.

Burnout for the Working Masses, Payout for the Owning Classes

Adding insult to injury in the pro-productivity narratives is the reality that, despite decades of improving productivity in North American workplaces, workers’ pay has not mirrored this growth. Between the early 1970s and the present, productivity has surged by almost 65 percent, whereas hourly wages have seen a mere 17.3 percent increase. With productivity outpacing pay by 3.7 times, one might rightly question where this substantial surplus in production has gone. The answer, predictably, lies in its diversion toward shareholders and corporate managers.

Our lives outside the workplace are meant to be spaces where we can relax, reset, and connect with the people and things that give us meaning. Overwork, underpay, exhaustion, stress, and anxiety induced by our working lives undermines those spaces and connections, as we drag the worst of our work lives into our personal lives. So, our time-off becomes a space of festering anger and resentment, which further fuels the burnout. It’s a vicious cycle that undermines both our working and nonworking lives.

In the private time we have, we are often forced to confront a world that further tests the limits of our patience and sanity, and our capacity for hope. Staring down an ever-running river of awful news at home and abroad compromises our ability to rest and enjoy what there is to enjoy of life outside work. The classic logic of the good, civic-minded person calls for someone who is conscious of and engaged with the news of the day — all the better to be informed, prepared to mobilized, and unlikely to be duped by the powers that be. Or so goes the theory.

Burnout Weakens Democracy

An engaged citizenry presupposes that people actually have time to stay abreast of news and policy issues. Many of us don’t. For those who do, reading, day-in and day-out, about climate catastrophe, war, geopolitical instability, unhinged politicians, and whatever bite of hell is on the menu that day is itself anxiety and anger inducing. Moreover, in liberal democracies like Canada, which prioritize individuals as economic units of production and consumption and de-prioritizes them as active political subjects, one ends up feeling helpless above all.

The way we have constructed liberal democracy is extremely weak on self-government and communal ties. As I’ve argued before, it’s so weak as to lack, perhaps, the strength to keep itself upright in the long run, especially when the going gets tough. The going is now tough, and it’s only going to get tougher.

Even if one were inclined to push beyond such helplessness and engage in civic or political life — to push the boundaries of liberal democracy and take on a greater role in self-governing — with what time or energy or resources would the many who are pushed to the brink at work and at home be doing such work?

Solving burnout in Canada and beyond — structurally solving the problem, not merely displacing it for a time — starts with workplace democracy and control. Workers ought to have control over their schedules, whether they work from the office or from home, and of the processes, expectations, and norms that shape their working conditions and environment. Solving the problems posed by burnout also requires sufficient and enforced time off, good pay, and safe working conditions.

Battling burnout means transferring control and power to workers. It also requires a broader shift in cultural expectations about work and productivity. Productivity gains must benefit workers, not just owners. Yet we also need to abandon the modern Taylorism cult that dehumanizes workers and recognize that more hours don’t necessarily equate to better work — and often signal the opposite. Dismantling the surveillance models ingrained in contemporary capitalism, driven by technologies monitoring and penalizing workers for being human, is crucial. With this agenda, workers can reclaim their lives and redefine the nature of their work.

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David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He hosts the podcast Open to Debate and is the author of Too Dumb For Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

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