lessons on burnout
we took the wheels off the trebuchet
life is full of wonderful allegories. here is one of my favorites:
a bunch of engineering students who found the plans for a medieval trebuchet and decided to build it. a trebuchet is a siege weapon capable of throwing enormous rocks vast distances and battering down city and castle walls. it was a helluva piece of technology and this one was alleged to be able to toss some pretty impressive tonnage. so they followed the plans and made one. when they fired it, it tore itself apart from the stress of its action. so they built it again using stronger wood, better fittings, etc. same issue. tore itself apart when fired. at this point, they were about to give up and presume the plans to be faulty when someone noticed something: in the plans, all the devices had wheels on them. the presumption had been that they were just to move it around. they were not. they were to suck up the recoil and diffuse the stress. they added wheels, and the device started tossing boulders with alacrity.
this has led to a phrase in my group of friends: “they took the wheels off the trebuchet.” in our secular vernacular, this means “they did not understand the system they were tinkering with and removed a vital part because they did not realize that it was, in fact, vital and now, it does not work anymore.”
generally, when this happens, everyone starts casting around for explanations. (and they are almost always wrong) they rarely see the vital piece they took out. they seek to ascribe malfunction to outside factors or orthogonal/tangential issues.
all this talk of “job burnout” seems to be very much a “we took the wheels off the trebuchet” issue.
the explanations provided seem trite and overly pat nonsense designed to sell management consulting and to ignore the wheels lying on the ground.
it’s fascinating watching every business magazine and pundit try to explain the massive burnout of the “great resignation” on something the bosses did.
they all seem rooted in this notion that we need to find “ways to adapt to the new normal” of distance work and new priorities to find a happy balance.
in my view, this is pernicious nonsense that, even if well intentioned, is going to make the problem worse and run us yet further in a really bad direction.
more often than not, the solution to having taken the wheels off the old catapult-o-rooney is to, wait for it…
“put them back on.”
there is an interesting bit of truth wrapped up in here: respite is relief.
people need breaks and constant, unremitting bludgeoning and intrusion is what drives despair.
people are burned out. badly.
the last two years of working at home in your jams jams has turned out to SUCK for most people and it has sucked in ways the zoomers failed to see coming or even realize were and are happening.
working from home puts you on the slippery slope of the 24/7 always on career space normally confined to the point of the investment, legal, and start-up spears.
this is a hard, savage space with 99% wash out because people simply cannot take it or acclimate to it. it’s a space that will seek out and amplify any little piece of your life that is out of balance and turn into into a weapon of self-destruction. (i work in a space like this. i’ve seen it firsthand for decades.)
most people think they know what this means. they don’t.
most people think they can hack this. they can’t.
they don’t know how and probably still could not manage it if they did. knowing a path is not the same as walking a path and neither is the same as enjoying the walk while you do it.
and therein lies the rub: it looks easy, but it isn’t.
it’s really, really hard and that fact is very hard to see until it gets dropped on your head.
and it will.
people also misunderstand what it takes to live here and not just survive but thrive.
it’s not about being smart enough or tough enough. that just drags the process out and ups the magnitude of the eventual collapse.
it’s about having and being able to sustain real balance.
the gains: no commute, work in PJ’s, seemingly more time with family, etc look tangible, but the costs are hidden and easy to miss. the “always on” work lifestyle the dissolution of the home/office boundary leads to is not what they are imagining. it takes A LOT to manage it. i flat out tell most young-bucks and buckettes hankering for a shot at it not to do it.
who can manage this is not always obvious, but who for sure can’t nearly always is.
it’s not about tough. that can make it worse; you just pile more on before you inevitably crack. there is a weight that cracks everyone. it’s not about that. it’s about balance and managing it.
“managing stress” is too late. that’s a losing war of attrition.
so let me opine on why this is current state of affairs is grinding so many to dust, why they are not seeing it, and why they are not responding to it correctly.
because that’s how we put the wheels back on.
it’s not “rotten managers.” it’s inability to set boundaries, and that is a thing that most humans are terrible at.
consider what working from home means: more than anything, it is the dissolution of boundaries.
some of it is cute, like cats on zoom calls.
some of it is distracting, like kids screaming and setting the couch on fire while you try to wrangle the audit committee.
and some of it is insidious, like the fact that because home is now work, it feels like work never ends and never stops. this is the always on lifestyle. and unless you are one of the really rare ones, you are not ready for it.
you used to go to the office. it was the place of work. you knew what that meant and you knew what to expect. you also had clear demarcations: you came, you left. the office was the office. home was home. they did not mingle and when they did, people probably said things to you like “hey, sorry to call you at home, but…” or “sorry to intrude upon the weekend but…”
when you were home, you were in a place of other things, of kids and family and dishwasher repair guys and of (inexplicably) dogs. you were there mentally as well as physically. you were there emotionally. “home as castle” is a very real thing. it’s the place of refuge and where you get to step out of the rest and to recover.
and it went away.
work followed you home like an increasingly voracious and insistent stray dog that your starting to wonder about actually being a hyena. it probably happened little by little. the boundaries moved, the window of acceptable intrusions moved, and it moved for both sides rendering each ever more frustrated. and pretty soon, you cannot separate any of it.
your boss got more and more annoyed about calls being truncated to “go make lunch for the kids” or “because the rug cleaning guy is here” or “to see what the dog is freaking out about.” these are not things of the office. the office is, by design, meant to keep them out because they are distracting as hell and they break workflow and atomize it. they waste other people’s time. you probably did 100 of these things. perhaps you realized they were annoying to co-workers and employees, perhaps you didn’t. but, it started to create a new kind of license to demand accommodation and a sort of passive aggressive tit for tat of “well yes, i AM chopping onions because last week you were eat pizza!”
no one’s time is “their time” anymore. it’s all “our” time. this sets up a full blown tragedy of the commons. no one owns the resource of time, so no one takes care of it. everyone tries to overconsume and it gets grabby.
meanwhile, you were under pressure as well. work hours blurred. everyone got used to calling you at home. it was no longer an imposition, it was standard business flow. your private sphere was pierced and then eroded and then eliminated. once you let that camel get its nose under the tent, you’re gonna get the whole dromedary inside before long. always.
and they will expect you to respond. being at home is no longer an excuse. the number of people who now seem to feel OK calling you for work stuff at 9PM expands exponentially and the importance of a matter required to elicit such a call drops like a rock from “emergency” to “hey, did you see that email from karen?”
this sets up a form of mutual frustration society.
bosses and colleagues get ever more frustrated at your scattered attention and being put off for “home” distractions. this makes them ever more needful and willing to intrude upon your time especially in the presence of this dissolved home and work boundary. “hey, if he doesn’t mind taking calls while feeding the kids, then i guess it’s no problem to call during meals.”
this made you ever more “always on” which, in turn, forced you to incorporate more and more distractions into your workday and workflow. if you’re going to call me at 6.30, yeah, guess what, i may be making dinner… and, of course, the fact that you are just makes colleagues more annoyed and over time tends to instill an even greater sense of license to intrude.
lather. rinse. repeat.
welcome to the passive aggressive miasma of attention wrestling with no place safe.
who started the arms race is irrelevant. it’s a spiral until you find some sort of osmotic balance where no one feels like it works and everyone inhabits a sort of fug of low to mid grade being annoyed all the time. you’re never really paying attention and everyone is always clamoring for it. there is no home vs work delineation, just an MMA grudge match for mindshare and everyone starts playing. the kids are mad you took another call during dinner but the whole idea of calling you during dinner never even existed before this hodgepodge of compromises began.
the simple fact is this: remote work does not fricking work.
it is, for 90%+ of people, a disaster.
you cannot manage it and you cannot handle it. you’re trying to solve the 3 body problem with microsoft teams.
it cannot be done, information is being transferred poorly, attention is scattered in all the wrong places, and the idea of downtime disintegrates. home is work. there is no refuge. and this breaks companies and employees alike because it’s a stupid system. this is not the new/new thing. it’s a slow motion decent into madness.
as one of the weird ones for whom this does actually work, i have been watching others try to do it with a sort of bemused fascination. the meltdowns and jacked up stress loads it’s causing are as outlandish as they are obvious (well, at least to everyone who is not caught up in them).
y’all are funny.
very few people can set working boundaries without externally imposed structure and even if they could, the actual act of sustaining these limits against constant encroachment into personal spaces would be so unpleasant for 99% of humanity that they still go barking mad in (checks calendar) about 12-18 months. that’s about how long most of the new kids last in the always on world.
it is, frankly, not a place for humans of normal mental makeup, and that is WHY we created a world that was not like that.
it was a positive structure that emerged from what worked and what generated productivity and balance. the office was not a pledge hazing prank, it was to collect people and enable productivity and information sharing but ALSO to separate the spheres of work and home which is what allows the respite that keeps neurotypical humans sane.
you thought you know which holes all the pieces went in.
but reality is not the model. the map is not the terrain.
zoom and email and slack and teams and whatever else you’re using MIGHT (and i say might because i’ve been watching it fail and flail) be able to address info sharing and productivity, but it does not help with respite. it steals it.
and that separation of domains was the wheels on the trebuchet. it was what kept the machine from tearing itself to pieces.
mark my words: all this new management consultery around distributed offices, work from home enabled free agency, and “give the employees the flexibility they want” charlatanry is going to be a truly epic disaster.
it’s not what people want. it’s a thing that people see the benefits of but completely fail to understand the price.
go back to work. after 2 weeks to adjust. you’ll be glad you did.
reclaim and re-establish boundaries. you’ll be glad you did.
more productivity tools means less private sphere, less home, less castle.
it’s more always on, less personal space.
the always on virtual workplace was not designed for humans.