By Carlos García León, Queer, non-binary, Mexican-Statesian, and fundraiser
… there is something more about burnout that we have been missing in this sector.
Throughout the week I have been hearing these mysterious stories of tiredness, crying fits under blankets, graying and thinning hairs, and general anxiety over work. All of it just sounds like there is a monster chasing us around. For example, have you ever wanted to take a nap during work hours but felt that you couldn’t because eyes were following you? It seems that this conundrum is an illusion because we are often quick to blame ourselves for not getting enough rest.
Well, what if I told you that you should be blaming your employer and the work culture that we’ve been systematically programmed to believe in — rather than yourself?
Not too long ago, my dear friend Selia wrote a phenomenal piece about burnout focusing on the notion that burnout culture is inherent to nonprofit work. As I was reading the piece, I felt this mix of joy for getting to see Selia’s first piece with this lovely community — and also so much frustration and anger about the fact that organizations are building burnout as part of the system.
There was also thought in my head that there is something more about burnout that we have been missing in this sector.
Grab your Scooby Snacks cause the Mystery Machine is moving.
What is ‘burnout’ really? Let’s take a journey into this systemic phenomenon
If we peek behind the curtain, the real culprit of our burnout woes is employer exploitation.
Once I found my glasses, the pieces of the puzzle started coming together. It is an error on our part as a sector to call what Selia describes as burnout “burnout.” We are allowing burnout to get the blame when in reality, it is something else altogether that we should be scrutinizing for these symptoms. If unmask this monster, the real culprit of our burnout woes is employer exploitation.
By calling employer exploitation “burnout,” we are giving organizations that exploit us the best PR that they could wish for. This switch in language — calling it employer exploitation — is critical because it no longer centers the feelings we have as workers, of our burnout, but rather it centers how it is the work culture and the policies in place that have not only allowed for us to experience burnout, but also makes it so we have to continue experiencing it in order to continue working at an organization.
Why do organizations allow for this? How come it is built in the workplace system?
And, is it only folks who are non-white or non-cismen the only ones experiencing and expressing burnout?
As I pondered these questions, scrolling through Twitter, this lovely tweet came on my page, as if the stars were listening to my queries.
What if the reason why we’re all burned out is because the productivity norms of our profession are based on white men whose wives who took care of everything from cooking to copyediting for them a century ago?
— Amy Achenbach (@AmyAchenbach) December 13, 2021
The kids are meddling again
Thinking about how we still are doing the same work hours and work practices as we did in the past is truly wild to me. As Amy demonstrates, it is no wonder that we are feeling exploited. While we are no longer assimilating to the same norms of the past, with heteronormative and sexists actions against women, who had to stay at home not working outside the home (by that, I mean not being paid for the huge amount of work that they actually did).
How ridiculous it is that we haven’t changed the rules to fit the new societal norms of living, the dangers of Capitalism working us to the bone, and how the pandemic continues to proliferate the erroneous belief that Capitalism will save the economy? If we are to solve these systemic designs, we need to start meddling with ways to stop being exploited.
Amy’s provocative question led me to another thought: Are our white cis male colleagues and supervisors feeling any of this?
Jeepers, looks like we have another mystery on our hands!
Jinkies, exploitation among different races
I may not be a researcher, but I am adept at using Google, so I asked dear Google: “Burnout differences among races?”
This led me to articles describing and sharing the ways work exploits activists and mothers the most, particularly Black activists and mothers, respectively. The articles demonstrate the additional mental and physical labor that BIPOC individuals are going through daily that impact them that our white colleagues will never experience.
It also showcased the fact that because of the dangers of not allowing ourselves to rest due to the fear of not having enough money for healthcare, or even our own livesakes, that we are diminishing the chances for change to continue in the long term.
As I kept reading, it seems that some studies even show that BIPOC individuals tend to even recover from burnout faster than their white counterparts. That to me means that us BIPOC folks have been forced to experience burnout for so long now that we are generationally adept at overcoming it. We still experience it, no doubt — we just no longer crumble at it ‘cause Capitalism and the hustle and grind culture do not allow us to.
If I may add my own catchphrase to the mix of Scooby Doo references, this level of exploitation among everyone, but particularly Black women and Black activists, is a “yikea,” which is an IKEA full of yikes.
We may have been napping on employer exploitation — but when’s the real nap happening?
This past year (and for the foreseeable future), I have been taking a 15-30 minute nap every day during work hours. I take much of my inspiration from the Nap Ministry where resting is a form of resistance from Capitalism.
I have been so indebted to this mentality that I have brought it to my cubicle where I wrote that napping is a part of my agenda for the day.
I tie this notion often to the much laissez faire attitudes I saw during my travels in both Europe and Latin America, where many workers often take the time to really enjoy their mid-day meal, whether or not they had company around them. They removed themselves from having a work-work-work mentality.
On top of that, I also take rest as an act of defiance, in combating the work I am asked to do compared to the amount of money that I am paid — which is too much work for very little pay. If an organization starts crumbling because you aren’t present, it says more about the organization and its inequitable structures and less so about the work you are doing.
Do you see how this small shift in articulating this as employer exploitation unpacks burnout culture for its true design?
In my experience within my company, my team is aware of my stance on resting. My supervisor has never woken me up from an office nap, nor have they told me it is a problem. However, even if they did, my response would be that because of the circumstances that we find ourselves in the work culture, due to employer exploitation, I cannot do my work as well unless I take a nap.
(Also, I do not get paid enough to buy or make coffee everyday to continue working while also feeding myself and ensuring that my plants don’t die.)
Ruh-roh, I think coffee is the worst.
For as we have known, society tells us that if we aren’t making money, we are losing value.
Now, coffee drinkers, take a seat on a comfy chair and grab a blanket.
There is a reason why I hate coffee. Beyond its bitter taste, there’s also the notion that coffee is a device for us to use in order to continue working. Coffee doesn’t allow us to rest because our society has always held shame around taking breaks and resting. Capitalism has used caffeine as a tool — a drug really — to keep us in this cycle of productivity. For as we have known, society tells us that if we aren’t making money, we are losing value.
We have been drinking ourselves into being overworked and underrested. The hustle/grind culture that we have applauded ourselves and others for is creating high levels of exploitation that if we do not fix now, will be much harder to solve in the future. I see this often in my colleagues and others in the field, who have had at least one side hustle to make ends meet on top of their already demanding job.
How this hasn’t been classified as exploitation is truly beyond me.
Solved the mystery, onto the next!
Now, we have solved the mystery of burnout, and who the villain really is — there’s probably a bigger villain around the bend, right? (I mean, that’s the trajectory of any mystery show.)
Capitalism is that bigger villain.
Much like how the Scooby Gang found themselves as they grew up, we are also finding ways to continue working while keeping our mental and physical health intact. Experiencing burnout, even just once a year, is impeding our overall and long-term possibilities of success and is completely antithetical to the idealized notion of Capitalism that gets spun — the idea that we can work constantly for the long haul.
If anything, just think how incredibly proud your ancestors would be of seeing you take a nap, for even allowing yourself to think you can take a nap.
Even having an hour for lunch is seldom enough time to make and cook lunch. It’s not enough time to rest and heal from the many things that keep us up at night, whether it be handling care of children and/or elders, the mental health toll of the pandemic, the ongoing ways that the government has not taken care of its citizens, the racism that is prevalent in Capitalism, and the financial stresses of our world.
Shaggy and Scooby may be able to indulge and eat everything on the menu of the food venue they are in all the time, but in reality, we as people generally do not. I wish that we were given the chance to rest more so that we could do our work better.
Normalizing exploitation in the workplace is a violent act of harm to the body, mind, and the spirits of our workers, coworkers, and colleagues in the field.
If anything, just think how incredibly proud your ancestors would be of seeing you take a nap, for even allowing yourself to think you can take a nap. I often envision my ancestors looking with pride as I fight Capitalism via rest, something of a privilege that they were never given or even could think of, for the sake of providing for the family due to the lack of opportunities they had as immigrants and non-English speakers.
The Mystery Machine needs a tune-up, but let us continue fighting against normalizing burnout and more exploitation in workplaces by centering our health and deconstructing the harms of Capitalism. After a Scooby Snack and a nap, of course.
Carlos García León
Carlos García León (he/they ; el/elle) is a queer, non-binary, Latine, Mexican-Statesian, and fundraiser. They were born in Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico, but currently reside in the stolen land of the Shawnee and Miami tribes, also known as Cincinnati, Ohio and work as the individual giving manager of Cincinnati Opera. Their work, both in the arts and through writing, is driven by a fight for cultural equity, decolonizing the arts, and social justice. Outside of working and writing, Carlos likes to stream TV and movies, read a good book, learn German, take naps under their weighted blanket, drink milkshakes, and look for the next poncho to add to their collection. They can be reached via email or on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms @cgarcia_leon. Tip them for their work via Venmo @cgarcia_leon or via PayPal using their email, email@example.com.