Exhaustion is Not Your Fate

This post is reprinted with permission from Burnout Culture. Please visit and subscribe!

A conversation with one of my favorite thinkers: cultural historian & exhaustion coach Anna Schaffner

When I was doing research for The End of Burnout, I knew I needed to read Exhaustion: A History by Anna Katharina Schaffner to understand better burnout’s prehistory. The book turned out to be so much more than merely informative; it became a model for how I could write my own book. I loved how Schaffner told a big-picture story with intelligence and grace, informed by literature, philosophy, art, and psychology. Since then, I have closely followed Schaffner’s writing on exhaustion, self-improvement, and other topics. I wanted to bring her work to the readers of this newsletter, so I recently had a conversation with her. An edited transcript is below.

Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, England, and does individual coaching as The Exhaustion Coach. She is the author of Exhaustion: A HistoryThe Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths, and other books. She is also one of the few people using LinkedIn as a forum for genuine thought. Here is her profile on that platform. You can find her writing all over the place, including Times Literary SupplementAeonThe Guardian, and Psychology Today.

J.M.: What are you finding now that you are working with clients who are complaining of burnout or exhaustion that is different from how you had understood exhaustion as a theoretical and scholarly project? Are people exhausted in the way that psychologists and the various literary figures that you write about describe exhaustion? Or is it somewhat different?

A.K.S.: I was quite shocked by working with really burned-out people, how serious a condition it is, how utterly devastating and existentially threatening it is. In the serious cases, they can just not function anymore, and they have to very dramatically change their lives. They have been working towards certain aims, professions, and ideals, and they’ve been performing incredibly well. And then in midlife, they have to rethink everything. I knew it theoretically, but I’m always quite shocked by how dramatic it is when someone who wanted to be, or was, a really successful lawyer or academic suddenly has to rethink everything and also find new ways of surviving financially, which is not easy and can be very stressful as well. With coaching clients, the psychology, obviously, is the basis of our work. But I try to bring in the social, and I try to really make them feel and understand that it’s not their fault.

Burnout is a cultural problem. It’s a structural problem. It is often something for which people have no personal responsibility. And yet they feel so guilty and so ashamed. Working with clients to make them understand that it’s not their fault, and to bring in the social factors, can have of therapeutic and healing effect.

And the historical as well: I think the historical can be very healing, when you’re like, “You’re not alone! People felt like that before!” Just that insight can have a very powerful effect. That’s also what I’m trying to do in my in my current book [in progress], Exhausted: An A to Z for the Weary. It’s a self-help book, but it’s a self-help book that draws in the social and historical and philosophical in the hope that this will be curative.

I think that that is very much needed, and I will look forward to that book. From a historical perspective, what resources from the past do you think are most helpful in today’s pandemic era exhaustion? What do people really resonate with?

It’s just the timeless truth that our energy resources are limited and that it’s natural and OK to worry about them depleting for whatever reasons. I think there is an appreciation of our finitude and the fact that we age, that we become weaker, that we lose strength and energy. These are the deeper, archaic reasons for why we worry about exhaustion.

That this one aspect. And then what helps is to think about what drains us personally. There are obviously toxic working environments and structural issues that can be the sole cause of burning out, but often it comes down to “know thyself.” You have to understand what your preferences are, what your weak spots are, what your strengths are, what gives you joy, what gives you energy. And that’s very different from person to person. Human energy is often not something we think about before we actually lose it. Once it fades, then we begin to pay attention to it.

Another thing to learn from the past is, there are quite a lot of cultures who have preventative energy management schemes in place, especially Eastern cultures who do a kind of energy self-care regime before people burn out, before people start to lose it. They find it natural and necessary to take care of their energy on a daily basis, and to think about it and to imagine it and to worry about it. That’s also something we can learn, to not just do something about energy when we’ve lost it or are about to lose it, but to think of it as something that we need to take care of on a regular basis.

You bring up cultural differences and how cultures can inform each other. A decade or more ago, everything that is being said in Anglo-American culture about burnout was being said in German culture. What is striking to me is that in the United States and Canada and the UK, working hours tend to be pretty long. In Continental Europe, on average, they’re shorter. And yet there’s every bit is much concern with burnout. Having observed these differences between supposedly extremely work-obsessed cultures and supposedly cultures that have a little bit more balance and moderation in work, why do you suppose that is?

When I wrote my book on exhaustion, the Germans were absolutely obsessed with the idea of burnout. You couldn’t open a newspaper without reading another article on burnout. People in the UK talk about it now a lot. But I would say, five years ago that wasn’t really the case.

And I think in Germany and in France they have higher expectations of the state to intervene, because they’re traditional welfare-state, social-democratic countries, where I think people have more of an expectation of the state to protect them, even on a psychosocial level. They expect the state to step in and to regulate working hours so that working conditions are OK. And I think in Anglo-American countries there’s obviously more of an anxiety about Big State. That’s considered to be nanny-cultureish, or they’re just afraid of paying more taxes.

What is really interesting is that in the Netherlands and in Sweden, burnout is considered an illness, and you can get proper health support and sick pay and insurance support when you’ve burned out. It’s recognized as a proper medical diagnosis. That means that people who burn out in Sweden and in the Netherlands actually have access to proper health care. They tend to get CBT therapy prescribed, they get paid sick leave, and so on.

And here I think people still think about it as, the people not being resilient enough, not being great time managers. It’s still, in some circles, considered the fault of the individual, as personal weakness, rather than in many European countries, where there is a bit more of that structural, political view of burnout, which is very positive.

And what do you think is the best way to go in addressing burnout? What’s the right balance between structural changes and individual changes? It’s a paradox that I encounter in my coaching practice a lot, because I can obviously only work with the individual. And at the same time, I really think it’s very important that they become aware of the structural and the political and some of the external causes of their burnout, for which they are not responsible. So I think the key step is to stop taking responsibility for something that has happened to us, and that isn’t our fault.

And at the same time, this is just one step. Disentangling our purpose, essence, meaning, status, identity from work and investing less in work is so difficult to actually do. It goes so deep in our culture. I have some interesting millennial clients as well for whom this problem seems to be even more extreme than it is for us. They really want their work to be meaningful, intrinsically meaningful. And sometimes I just feel like maybe that’s the problem. We need to step back and say, sometimes work is just work, and it won’t be intrinsically meaningful.

That expectation of work to be intrinsically meaningful – it’s so interesting where that came from and how that became such a dominant narrative. And you could see it as just another neoliberal ploy to make us more engaged and to give our all to work, but I wonder whether there is also a kind of sense that we’re entitled to meaningful work, that it’s become an expectation, that we deserve our work to be meaningful. So I think there’s also something to be said about more humble attitudes to work again.

What I like about your book The Art of Self Improvement is, there is such an optimism. We’ve seen in the pandemic and many other social, political, cultural, ecological crises all at the same time, many people are very pessimistic. And it seems like the answers to these problems are all on the massive geopolitical scale. In that context, what do you see as the value of self-improvement?

I see the purpose of self-improvement that it frees up our energies so that we can project them outwards to other people and to external projects. I think all great self-improvement will result in us becoming less self-obsessed and will result in us to stop wasting our energies on the inside with negative thoughts, guilt, shame, unconscious processes and patterns.

There’s an inherently social dimension to self-improvement, because if we are unaware of how we interact with others, if we constantly battle with our shadows or enact stuff from our childhood in unproductive patterns with others, we cannot really concentrate and focus our energies in the ways that we all need to right now. I really do believe that we need to be very outward focused in our collective efforts to address the complex interconnected crises, but I think there are a lot of inner obstacles to us doing that.

There’s a lovely initiative out there called the Inner Development Goals. The people who have created that initiative have argued that we’re not meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals because we lack the inner skills. We lack the will, we lack the ability to collaborate, we lack the complexity thinking, we lack the empathy. They basically say we’re not able to address the outer crisis because we lack very crucial inner skills. I think self-improvement is ultimately an act of learning.

For me, the person that I’m most trying to convince is myself, and perhaps that’s true in your writing as well.

Absolutely. I mean, I only ever work on things that I have to learn myself.

Reprinted with permission from Burnout Culture.

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