I was so impressed by the arguments detailed in this review by Stéphanie Favreau of a new book by Pascal Chabot that I am posting up a quick translation. These ideas tie in extremely well with my own observations and sentiments in relation to the current situation in the higher education sector as well as other sectors. Chabot provides a very useful analytical framework to help understand and gain some distance from what is currently occurring. I am looking forward to reading his book.
Global burn-out : Syndrome of an ideology of the absurd
The Cholera of modern times
Attention must be drawn first of all, to the sleek and precise style of this book: a book which allows the various elements that make up the heart of that complex and multifactorial phenomenon which is burnout, to be distinguished. The reader will also be surprised by the first pages of the book which are like reading a novel. The detailed description of this woman who suddenly burst into tears at the wheel of his car, stopped in the emergency lay by on a highway is indeed reminiscent of some scenes from the The Horseman on the roof where Giono depicts emptied bodies, distorted by cholera, their disease oozing from every pore. We see a similarity in style but also perhaps more fundamentally, it is tempting to see burn-out as the cholera of modern times.
To better define burnout, the author first proposes a quick overview of the history of the notion. We learn that if the contemporary psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Freudenberger was the first to introduce this term into medical language, there are much older traces of this phenomenon in quite another domain. Thus the rapprochement with the acedia that affected the most devoted of monks and other theologians is particularly well-chosen insofar as it illustrates the paradoxical nature of burnout, namely the fact that it is the most fervent defenders of a cause who eventually exhaust themselves through their very dedication. Acedia for the religious “is the Our Fathers which can no longer be uttered, the forgotten Hail Marys, the genuflections that one doesn’t get up from”. In the same way, according to Freudenberger’s observations, it is the doctor or nurse who, one fine morning, after having believed for so long in the value of their commitment, simply cannot get up and go to work.
If there has been so much discussion around burnout today, it is because it no longer affects just those in the caring professions working at the bedside of those, which an ideology that we will look at later on, defines as “weak links”. But it affects the very pillars of the liberal system, “the meritocratic battlers, the heroes of rewarded effort”. If burnout is of concern, it is it because it represents a “challenge to dominant values: it generates new atheists in relation to techno-capitalism”.
Mechanisms of the absurd
To try and explain this paradox, Pascal Chabot distinguishes three characteristics of our postmodern era which are of course in practice all intertwined.
Burnout is perfectionism which has run out of steam. Global economic development is largely based on the ideology of the self-made man. In this archetype which characterises liberalism, the individual is encouraged to transcend him or herself chasing the mirage that he or she will reach full self-realisation through work. In short, professional success has replaced salvation. What gives such a life its zest, is that given the best places are rare, you have to elbow your way through the crowds to win. Engaged in spite of themselves in this competition, individuals then throw themselves into the melee and sacrifice an entire part of their own person on the altar of work. Hence it is not enough, once the career has been set in motion, to maintain cruising speed, more and more has to be done because the competition never sleeps and profit waits for no man. Perfectionism in the service of such an abyss is transformed into a veritable regulatory nightmare.
Burnout is also humanism which has run out of steam. Indeed, to keep up the pace, more direct means accompany the race for recognition. Every enterprise worthy of its name, thus has at its disposal two major components: a human resources department and a management team. Of course, the human resources department is an essential element for the survival of the company, but what the author criticises here is the slippage from a figurative sense of the term to a sense that transforms the formula into a true oxymoron. In effect, in the postmodern era, “the human is a resource: which disgorges its best energies, its sweat, its time. It is, in every way, supernumerary, and therefore replaceable”. Human resources are therefore responsible for identifying the best stallions for the line up in the race for profit, and also for the letting go of the lame and other washouts while the management team deals with those who are still on track. To give us an idea of the completely dead souls that such a system generates, the author gives the floor to the manager himself: “I have fulfilled my mission. I managed by terror, I singled out the weak links. There were indeed suicides, but what could I do?”
Because there is necessarily a hidden motor in this infernal machine, burnout can also be defined as a race for recognition. In effect, “the human, who, constrained by necessity, does violence to his selfish needs, wants to see his or her sacrifice recognised”. He or she is willing to sacrifice themselves, but a minimum of recognition must be given in return. The height of cynicism is that it is precisely because they have the all too human feeling that people are grateful to them that they will persevere in their efforts. On this point, Pascal Chabot also cites Axel Honneth who understood very well that “recognition can be an ideological weapon with which, under the guise of flattery, individuals can be confined to a subordinate function in order to prevent them from escaping”.
What burnout reveals through three characteristics is that basically not even those most dedicated to their work are dupes of the non-sense of service which taps their forces. Burnout means that flattery and smiles are no longer sufficient to hide the vertigo of the logic of profit. Only sensed, not explicitly spoken or thought, absurdity is lived and somatized. “Bodies are smart. They sometimes know more about our needs than our blinkered psyches”. Burnout tells us that we cannot ignore the need that everyone has to have time for themselves. No number of fetishes can help, we have to live.
If this phenomenon has come to undermine the body, it is also perhaps because there is no space to express the absurd: culture also having entered in effect into the race for profit. In this sense one can only observe “the false promises of the knowledge economy”. Capitalist logic, which can thus be described as absurd insofar as nothing seems to be able to assign limits to profit, this logic which sustained enterprise, has now spread its tentacles into the private lives of individuals to the extent that leisure itself and any kind of search for meaning have become profitable. You are sold everything right down to recipes for happiness.
What burn-out reveals, is an uprooted form of existentialism where “there is an immense tribe of people who feel with ready-made feelings, [...] think with ready-made ideas, [...] who want with ready-made wills”.
To better conceal this incendiary spread through the postmodern world, some claim that burn-out applies only to “the weak” and other “maladjusted individuals”. In short, they take refuge behind that other ideological weapon which is the pseudo-Darwinian argument of the survival of the fittest which necessarily involves collateral damage. “But this is not the right axiom. In reality, humans are plastic beings par excellence.” Humans adapt to new situations and ethnological museums are bulging with the remains of this human diversity. In every civilization besides, we find a form of spirituality and culture which responds to other requirements besides those of simple adaptation to the environment. This is because adapting, controlling one’s environment is one thing, “but one must also in addition realise oneself”. Humans are those beings who needs to find meaning in what they do with their life, they need to project themselves towards a horizon that transcends everyday concerns thereby giving them confidence in themselves. When the logic of the absurd ends up covering every base, the system goes into crisis.
Thus “humanity groans, almost crushed under the weight of the progress it has made”. Technical advances that were meant to liberate are now in the service of a logic of production which is cut off from any sensible relation to reality. The work by means of which people should be able to free themselves from the grip of nature to devote themselves to “more interesting metaphysical and more caring purposes,” has become a trap that no one is able to avoid and that nothing seems to be able to undo.
Finally, in relation to this cult of performance, which has its roots in the patriarchal model, another remark by the author deserves to be pointed out. The issue of burnout takes on a particular dimension when it comes to women. Numerous cases occur in the area of professional care and education – positions occupied primarily by women. Mechanically therefore, burnout most often affects those who are white-collar battlers. A double trap opens up here. The cliché is that women turn to these professions because they are naturally gentler, more compassionate, more dedicated. In reality, it is history that has shaped this myth and “this naturalism is controlled by more or less understood corporate interests”. But the tragedy of this situation is that somehow women have allowed themselves to be caught in this trap, that it adheres to this discourse and interprets their behaviour in the light of this reading.
The author’s emphasis on the issue of “Women’s burnout” is interesting insofar as it may, to some extent, also illuminate the overall situation. Indeed, in the same way that no-one is responsible for anyone else’s situation but nonetheless to some degree contributes to the survival of patriarchal values, no postmodern individual is responsible for anybody else’s situation even though he or she continually endorses it. It is of course tempting to apportion blame but in reality everyone is “half victim, half guilty, like everyone else”.
Psychologists say that burn-out is an endogenous reaction, sociologists that it is an exogenous phenomenon. But “this is where the philosophical approach which is relational, enriches the debate. For philosophy, in the diseases of civilization and the troubles which mirror it, it is the relationship between the individual and the social which is the problem. It takes two to build a relationship”. Of course both types of factors may be intertwined but burnout is not visited on the individual from above, neither does it come up from below, it appears on this edge of existence where the individual strives to achieve as much as take in relation to his or her environment. If burnout indeed characterizes a logic of the absurd it is in that it corresponds to some extent to the Camus’ famous definition: “The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human appeal and the unreasonable silence of the world”.
Towards a technological pact
To take the first steps towards eliminating “the burn-out machine” the author proposes two things.
Firstly, we need to seriously “consider reflecting on creating penalties for personnel management techniques which use fear and bullying as strategies”.
Next, we need to envisage the development of a pact or “technological contract” which as a regulatory ideal puts logics that have no other ends than themselves back in their place.
The analysis of burnout shows that there are two possible paths of evolution. On the one hand, there is the path willingly embarked on by the post humanists. To overcome the shortcomings of modern man, they invent technologies capable of making a machine that doesn’t call on “the bureau of metaphysical claims”. On the other hand, there are humans with all their flaws, or rather a vision of humans in which the need for time and the search for meaning are essential conditions for which “there is no solution because there is no problem, but only life which continues on through the generations and which is the raw material for all humanisms”.