Opinion | Our society’s burnout problem

Opinion by Rebecca Wang
Nov. 30, 2021, 9:10 p.m.

Roughly 600 days after my undergraduate institution announced we would not be returning back to campus after spring break, I find myself devoid of the growth, gains and glow-up I was supposed to achieve during this extended “down-time.” While people were working on their fitness, learning new skills and spending more time at home, my sleep schedule was in chaos, and I started therapy for the first time in the month leading up to the start of graduate school.

Coming to the realization that burnout, amongst other factors, led up to my existential turmoil was really difficult. We live in a world where our parents’ generation write us off as lazy and unmotivated when we blame burnout, and a study needs to spend the first 500 words of its report justifying the concept of burnout to its audience before jumping into its insights. I therefore despaired over whether my ill-adjustment was a product of poor self-discipline or actually sensible. I didn’t know where to place the blame, and I flirted with the idea of no longer harboring any blame or shame as I navigated this transitory and young period of my life. 

More and more, this problem of burnout seemed larger than myself. It felt institutional. The society I lived in was becoming harder and harder to satisfy. When I finished my summer internship this year, I was a shell of a human. I threw away respectable standards for basic self-care. The 16-hour days drained me completely, physically, emotionally and creatively; its impact was so severe that I came back to campus with my high-functioning self nowhere to be found for the first few weeks of school. Slave to my own apathy, I watched my responsibilities slip past my attention as I simultaneously neglected to give my hobbies the love they deserved. In retrospect it seemed that since the midway point of my college career, periods of burnout had plagued my life every few months like clockwork.

I genuinely began to question: how did everyone else deal with these pressures? Perusing job descriptions made me anxious; I consistently saw “must be willing to work overtime, as needed”. When I asked “what are your working hours like?” to recruiters from a prospective employer, it was no longer a courtesy — I was becoming more afraid of being hired into a “fast-paced, able to wear many hats” environment. My hope for other countries was quickly squashed. I had heard about the “996” (9 am – 9 pm, 6 days per week) work culture in China; Japan suffered from extreme overworking, while South Korea and Mexico competed for the most hours worked according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

My generation is increasingly getting the worst of both worlds as working members of society. We’re expected to be available 24/7 and engaged to our company unlike any expectation that’s ever existed in previous generations, yet the stress and anxiety of this sits with no reprieve from outdated organizational policies and a haphazard government. Young workers between the ages of 20 and 34 lead the numbers of Americans who are neither working nor looking for work. Whether policies are instituted to have employers set publicly embraced working standards, to report and collect data on the satisfaction of employees and the sustainability of their jobs, to create a national paid family and medical leave plan, etc., one thing is clear — we need our government to step in and regulate. Slowing labor force growth minimizes U.S. competitiveness and economic strength; if our government isn’t interested in the wellbeing of the American people, then they should at the very least be motivated by the former.

Looking back, it’s clear that societal pressures heavily impacted my upbringing. I grew up with two very hardworking, and possibly overworked, parents with “9-5” corporate jobs. As a baby, I was sent to live with my aunt, who resided in a city 800 miles away while my parents were still finding their place in America; my parents brought me back home once I became a toddler only because my grandparents came to live with us. I spent many summers home alone, beginning at an age well under what would have been appropriate, and up until the last day of high school, I never came home before 7 or 8 p.m., despite school ending at 2:30 pm and most club activities wrapping up around 4 pm. I will never know the extent of the sacrifices they endured during the prime of their child-rearing years, but I feared for my ability to maintain a personal life when I eventually became a working adult. 

I’m not sure what my outlook on life should be when societies benefit from happier citizens, and yet we are the most overworked developed nation in the world. Quarantine may have seemed to give us more time on the surface, but it also gave people more time to tend to preexisting responsibilities that may have been neglected before the pandemic. These include child-care responsibilities for parents or familial commitments for people of all ages. These bleak circumstances, often out of our control and due to the lack of resources built into the pillars of our society, create a stressed and mentally unwell workforce, permeating into all corners of society with relationships to the employed.   

Then shouldn’t our goal be to move towards a reality where all citizens can maintain a livelihood sustainably?

Thankfully, perhaps, not all is lost. Recently, some governing entities have stepped in to curb the overpowering grip of these fundamental pillars of our livelihood. As the Chinese government cracked down on the 996 work culture, ByteDance, owner of TikTok, became one of the first companies to pioneer a new work culture amongst China’s booming technology companies. This “1075” system involves a working schedule from 10 am to 7 pm for five days a week. Although real working conditions take time to adjust to newly passed mandates, the Japanese and South Korean governments have released new amendments curbing the maximum work week hours. In Europe, many countries are rated highly by the OECD for the best work-life balance, with Denmark in the lead. National policies in Europe also allow for much more generous parental-related entitlements, annual leave and sick pay compared to those in the U.S. Though some American companies are following in these footsteps with the help of federal leadership, more can follow suit. 

If you were my dad, you’d tell me my underwhelming efforts towards “carpe diem!” were due to a lack of discipline, but as I continue to unlearn and learn habits to construct a more sustainable life, I wonder how much of this is not my own doing. I wonder how much of this conversation is still in the hands of forces much, much larger than my own. 

Rebecca Wang '22 is one of Vol. 260's columnists for the Opinions section. She is a graduate student studying aeronautical & astronautical engineering. A Texas native, she enjoys reading, frisbee, and spending time with friends. Contact her at [email protected].

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