With burnout officially recognised as a medical condition, we question the co-option of self-care to perpetuate the very system that is making us sick
What motivates you to practice self-care? What drives you to take the time out to do yoga, exercise, journal, meditate, take a long bath, or download that app for better sleep hygiene? Does part of that motivation somehow link to a desire to perform better at your work? When you practice your self-care rituals – whatever they may be – are you restoring yourself for yourself or are you restoring yourself so that you can maximise your productivity when it comes time to work?
The idea of utilising self-care practices in order to optimise your productivity has been propagated, in large part, by the tech industry, which has latched onto the idea of mindfulness in particular. There are hundreds of apps such as Headspace and Calm, promising life-improving results with just a few minutes of practice a day. In her book Natural Causes, Barbara Ehrenreich dedicates a chapter to “The Madness of Mindfulness”, in which the writer explores the ways in which Silicon Valley tech tycoons have become obsessed with the idea of using mindfulness practices to “hack” their brains into optimal productivity.
While Ehrenreich casts doubt over the ability of mindfulness to actually change the brain in any long-term meaningful way, she concedes that it can be effective in reducing stress, although no more so than other interventions, such as muscle relaxation, medication or psychotherapy. She even recommends spending time with small children and babies “who can charm anyone into entering their alternative universe”, for a similarly, calming, centring effect.
The financial impact of employee stress is real for businesses. In Mindful Work David Gelles quantifies the financial impact of the de-stressing effect of mindfulness. His study of American insurance giant Aetna found that mindfulness programs reduced stress and increased productivity. He found that in 2012, as mindfulness programs ramped up, healthcare costs fell and productivity gains alone were about $3,000 per employee. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that amongst their perks, global companies like Google, Nike, Apple and Goldman Sacks offer mindfulness programmes to help reduce the stress and increase the productivity of their employees.
However, despite the rise of self-care tools and office mindfulness perks, burnout is becoming a critical issue, so much so that last week the World Health Organisation announced it would be officially recognised and added to its International Classification of Diseases. Symptoms include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy. WHO defines burnout as a "syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, whether that implies it has not been successfully managed by the individual or by the workplace is unclear.
“Many of us have learned that the only worthwhile time spent not working is when those activities will ultimately make us perform better at work”
Some of the most resonating recent writing on burnout – evidenced by how viral it went – points the blame at working culture itself, and not the individual workers’ ability to perform. Anne Helen Petersen’s massively talked-about Buzzfeed article “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” argued that many of her generation have “internalized the idea that I should be working all the time.”
Petersen recently appeared on American journalist Ezra Klein’s eponymous podcast, alongside Derek Thompson, writer of the similarly popular Atlantic article “Workism is making Americans Miserable”, to discuss work culture in the US and beyond, including how it has influenced their leisure time and activities you might call self-care.
Thompson said he had a realisation that he had forgotten “how to do leisure”. “The very concept of leisure had for me become part of an equation to maximise productivity hours,” he said. “I’d internalised this lesson of ‘the reason to spend time restoring yourself watching TV is to become productive at work, the reason to go on vacations is to clear your mind so that you have better ideas when you come back to work,’ and this was a fairly gutting thought.”
Consensus amongst the guests was that many of us have developed a value system whereby we measure our worth on our productivity, and as a result, many activities where we invest time in ourselves – practices that might be considered self-care, or even more broadly just enjoying free time – are valued according to how they make us more productive. Many of us have learned that the only worthwhile time spent not working is when those activities will ultimately make us perform better at work.
As a previous Dazed Beauty article commented, the commercialisation of self-care can mean big profits for brands, but what also must be unpacked is how individual practices of self-care may also benefit capitalism in another way. More than simply taking basic good care of yourself so you’re fit and healthy enough to work, this is optimising yourself so as to life-hack your way to performing ever better under a value system that holds work in such high regard. We might turn to self-care to sooth our stresses and also to boost our productivity, but, as the rise of burnout might suggest, self-care does not actually seem to be fixing burnout.
“If self-care is to truly improve our wellbeing, then perhaps the best way of caring for ourselves and others is by engaging in action that dismantles the system in which we’re currently operating”
Self-care is sold as something that is good for us. That it has been co-opted to perpetuate a system that is making us sick feels like a perversion of its supposed purpose. If self-care is to truly improve our wellbeing, then perhaps the best way of caring for ourselves and others is by engaging in action that dismantles the system in which we’re currently operating. What is required here is an ideological shift when it comes to how we value ourselves, which is currently very much related to how well we work, and this will require not only a private reframing of our own personal life priorities but collective action. Indeed, beyond individual work on ourselves, we should be redirecting our efforts at the structures that put pressure on us to perform ever optimally and a culture that measures an individual’s worth by their work. For some, this change might come through collective action, in the form of labour unions and advocating for politicians that offer a radically different model for society.
Momentum for this change is building. Petersen makes the explicit link between this realisation amongst her generation and the rise in popularity of democratic socialism. It’s why Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are heroes for her demographic – and why many Millennials are forming unions in their workplaces. “We are beginning to understand what ails us, and it’s not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix,” she writes.
In his 2011 essay “The Privatisation of Stress” of stress, the late British philosopher Mark Fisher wrote that “What we urgently need is a new politics of mental health organized around the problem of public space.” To deal with individual worker stress, Fisher argues, external causes, in particular, government policies and the rule of capitalism, need to be addressed. The burden should not rest on the individual to adjust themselves to working more optimally under difficult conditions.
A shift in collective consciousness might be encouraged by government policies that re-centre people’s lives around other priorities—in his article Derek Thompson suggests universal policies like universal basic income, parental leave, subsidised child care, and a child allowance, which would help reduce required working hours, for example.
Our environments and not our individual thoughts, feelings and behaviours, have the biggest impact on our wellbeing, so argues Michael Ungar in his book Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. What he calls self-help, but can be understood in very much the same terms as we think about self-care, “fails because the stresses that put our lives in jeopardy in the first place remain in the world around us even after we’ve taken the ‘cures.’”
We may perform self-care rituals to restore ourselves, but these practices are ultimately futile if we re-expose ourselves to the causes of our stress over and over. In a world where work is intrinsically linked to our identities and sense of self-worth, there is only so much inner-work we can do before we need to look beyond our individual experiences and address the structures that keep us this way. Our personal habits of self-restoration may be better directed at energising more universal changes to society in an act of collective self-care.