Prologue: The Burnout Industry

Burnout is so normalised and integrated in the tech industry, that most people in the industry don’t even know they’re already burned out. Here’s why that’s about to change in Europe.  

I first burned out at 17. I was trying hard - as an undiagnosed person with Dyslexia and ADHD - to win a scholarship for university.  I needed a 97% grade average in that systems equivalent of high school, which, as it happens, I was learning in a secondary language. 

I can’t tell you how long it was before the finals, exactly. Burnout is a blur. At this point I’d never heard the term, and wouldn’t for many, many years. I used to sit in front of my books in tears and incomprehension as I realised I literally could not absorb a single word anymore. 

I would burn out several more times over the course my career: 
  • During University (our biochemistry course was alleged to have more modules and hours of classes and assignments that a popular pre-med course). There were a lot of all nighters. 
  • During my first round of freelancing, while simultaneously doing a masters degree and job hunting. 
  • After the year I got settled immigration status (about a years work in itself), and after spending a year job hunting and hopping between temp jobs. Somewhere in the middle of this was a family crisis that lasted maybe also a year and culminated in a medical emergency. 

Three things I’ve learned about burnout since then: 
  1. You don’t get more than maybe two, three burnouts before it affects your health irreversibly.  There is no “rollback” function for the human body. You’ll waste several years trying yoga, fasting, veganism, raw, paleo, keto and every kooky therapy and miracle supplement before realising “this is how it is for me now”.
  1. Many young people are entering the workplace with a few burnouts already under their belt. And the bar today is even higher for getting a job today than it was for me.
  1. What I, and many other people in the tech industry call “burnout” is actually point  of crisis way beyond the actual definition of burnout

Why don’t we recognise burnout for what it is before it reaches the crisis point?
Because this story of suffering as a path to the  a very slim chance of glory is so persistent in our psyche. 

In the 1939 book, The Grapes of Wrath, it’s what compelled people to move to california and work on farms. 

Today, the tech industry have rebranded (pre-crisis point) burnout as “the hustle” or “the grind” and sold it as a lifestyle, a badge of honor, a necessary pain that will lead us to glory. “Like Facebook.”,”Like Twitter”, “like Uber”.

Like all San Francisco startups.

And so millions of people in the tech industry still look to California as the model of how work today. 

No longer moving to California farms, but emulating the same “disposable worker” mindset from their desks around the world. The bosses also work on the farm with us now. At least in the beginning. 

I wonder, looking at those numbers, if they’re using my (and the people with whom I’ve spoken)- “crisis point” definition of burnout, rather than the actual definition

Burnout hurts companies, too.  A 2017 study that says 95% of human resource leaders say the syndrome sabotages workplace retention. 

Another survey by Blind had a simple yes/no answer: “Are you currently suffering from job burnout?” (burnout was not defined to the survey takers)
And over half of respondents (57.16%, to be exact) answered yes.

If an industry like manufacturing resulted in short and medium term disability for roughly half its employees (44% - 57%), there would be a government enquiry, fines and regulations. 

But because the disability of burnout - and that’s what not being able to work for months or a few years is- is invisible, the industry is still flying under the radar of scrutiny. For now.

This is beginning to change. 

On the 28th of May 2019, the world health organisation categorised burnout from a psychological disease, to an occupational one

This change may seem slight to many.

In the same year, a Spanish royal decree legally requires Spanish companies to track the work hours of all staff, be they remote contractors, or in-house full time workers.