Work and burnout: where’s the balance
The metro is filling up again. The bus stops are finally seeing queues, and the bicycle lanes are busy once again, especially between 8am and 9am. In the UK, “work from home” restrictions ended last week, and over 900,000 commuters arrived in the centre of London, to resume work in the office — face to face, embodied, synchronous.
With articles popping up all over the place on the topic of work and life – where to find the balance – how to draw the best boundary lines – let us take a moment here to review a recent publication on work and burnout.
Earlier this month, the Guardian UK published a provocative piece entitled: “Your work is not your god: welcome to the age of the burnout epidemic”.
Let’s rewind a little, first though. Why are we in the burnout epidemic? How did our work become our god? Well, cast your mind back to pre-pandemic days and the booster philosophy of side-hustles, part-time jobs, entrepreneurial ventures, and weekend passion projects. In the world of 2018 and 2019 many of us were talking about how to “optimise” our life, in both finding more passion in our work and also finding more income in the hours of the day. Fast forward to the repeated lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and this world of optimisation and efficiency all lands in our kitchen. Or our shared lounge or communal areas. Or (for the lucky few) our spare room which is converted into an office.
Working from home (or WFH as it became known) blurred all the boundaries between work and home. The breakfast table was a mixture of cereals and crumbs and emails and to-do lists. The home became a gateway to office conversations and work meetings, thanks to Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Our calendars quickly filled up with “catch up calls” and “weekly review meetings” and “manager check-ins”. The green light of our webcam seemed to be on for most hours of the working day. Zoom fatigue started to set in. The pursuit of the “zero inbox” was like a zombie rising from the dead. Work and home blurred so much that we forgot if it was a workday or a week-end day, and every day became blursday.
In our survey with the Cross-Current community, around 150 people responded from 22 countries around the world, revealing these interesting points:
- 55% of us were working from home (WFH)
- 70% of us said we were enjoying work less during the pandemic
- Work hours seem to have gotten longer, and less easy to manage, for 6/10 of us
- 65% of us felt that we had grown in flexibility at work since the pandemic began
- More than 50% of respondents felt more resilient at work now, than before
How is this linked to burnout then?
Well, on the surface, there are at least two clear links – first to identity, and second to idolatry.
On the topic of identity, we spoke at our November conference in 2020 about the issue of resilience and fragility in the workplace. We agreed that there is a form of excessive fragility in the modern world: of being unable to overcome obstacles and challenges, or to face criticism. We also agreed that we kid ourselves if we think we are not fragile, or invulnerable, or beyond weakness – the LORD has his ways of reminding us of this, sometimes quite dramatically. As both Christ and Paul did, we are to "press on" even in our weakness and recognise both our limitations and our humanity in Christ - it is by his power, and in his strength, that we are able to move forwards. With him, we can be resilient under pressure. We should also remind ourselves that as humans, we never cease to be fragile.
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things”
With regards to idolatry, let us consider the link between it and our work. Perhaps one way we can do this is by charting some of our thoughts on our work hours, our work identity, our work anxiety, and whether we succumb to an “always-on” culture (of 24/7 availability).
The Guardian article gives an example of work in the USA. “Hard work is arguably what American society values most. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2014 that asked people about their personalities, 80% of respondents described themselves as “hardworking”. No other trait drew such a strong positive response, not even “sympathetic” or “accepting of others”. Only 3% said they were lazy, and a statistically insignificant number identified strongly as lazy. Gallup, which surveys workers on engagement, describes engaged workers in heroic, even saintly terms: Engaged employees are the best colleagues. They cooperate to build an organization, institution, or agency, and they are behind everything good that happens there. These employees are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. They know the scope of their jobs and look for new and better ways to achieve outcomes. They are 100% psychologically committed to their work. And, they are the only people in an organization who create new customers.”
To this analysis, they add another layer of intrigue: “The system that gives esteem to engaged employees also creates anxiety only quelled through working more intensively. The cure is also the poison. To calm our anxiety, we work too much without adequate reward, without autonomy, without fairness, without human connections, and in conflict with our values. We become exhausted, cynical, and ineffective”.
One answer is to accept that work anxiety is built into the very logic of capitalism (and thus modern Western economies). A key premise of the book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” published by Max Weber in 1905 is how the European Protestants created a mode of thinking about money, work and dignity that we, to this day, cannot escape. It is our “iron cage”.
The article continues: “The Protestant ethic, Weber argues, derives from the theology of John Calvin, the sixteenth century Christian reformer noted for his doctrine of predestination, which means God chooses, or “elects”, some people for salvation, with the rest destined for eternal death. Only God knows who has been chosen and who hasn’t, but humans understandably want to find out. Good works, in Calvinist theology, cannot earn you salvation, but they can be signs of election. That is, God’s elect will perform good works as an outgrowth of their blessed status. So if you are curious about your election, examine your actions. Are they saintly? Or sinful?”.
The reporter for the Guardian UK, Jonathan Malesic, gives an example of a millennial-generation British public-relations worker (PR), called Tristen Lee. He writes that “Lee’s experience [of throwing her absolute heart and soul into her work] is the 21st-century echo of 16th-century Calvinist theology. She has internalized the all-seeing judgment of a society that values her only insofar as she works, so she feels a need to assure herself of her worth. But there can never be enough assurance; in the present-day work ideology, your accomplishments matter less than your constant effort toward the next accomplishment.”
How can we respond to this, as Christian young professionals?
Firstly, perhaps we can admit that the Protestant work ethic has been adopted into the Western European mindset for work, and perhaps morphed into a monster of ideals – hitting financial targets, pleasing our team and our boss, working endless hours, and throwing our heart and soul into our work. If we find our sense of worth and assurance in our performance, or in the hours we work, or in our status in the workplace, we will find ourselves on a constant treadmill, fighting to keep up and enslaved to the opinions of other people.
Secondly, perhaps we can bring more of the refreshing gospel of Christ to our workplaces – replacing the myth of work ethic and salvation by works with the freedom that comes from salvation by grace – and the goodness and freedom that flow from this. How can we do this? Let us know in the comments section below or on our social posts.
Let us continue to be ambassadors for the gospel of grace, in our workplaces.
“Your work is not your god: welcome to the age of the burnout epidemic”
Jonathan Malesic (6th January 2021)