Slaves to burnout

In my previous post I looked at the question of stress in the workplace and whether, in some strange way, this could be something ‘enjoyed’ by those suffering from it.  In this post I want to take things one step further and consider what happens when stress gets to the point where the person just can’t take it anymore and experiences what is commonly described as ‘burnout’. This appears to be particularly prevalent amongst employees who work in the health, social care and related professions.

A commonly accepted definition of burnout is:

….a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind1

It is important to note that there are three main aspects of this definition: emotional exhaustion; depersonalization, which often manifests itself in a withdrawal from clients; and a sense of reduced personal accomplishment, i.e. feeling that one is less competent than before and thinking that one has failed. What’s also important to note is that much research into burnout has shown that it coincides with difficult interpersonal relationships, i.e. that there is an intersubjective dimension to burnout. This is something I want to highlight in what follows.

Interestingly, there has been little work done on burnout from a psychoanalytic perspective. This is somewhat ironic as it was a psychoanalyst, Herbert Freudenberger, who first coined the term as a psychological category in 1974. However, the Belgium psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist Stijn Vanheule has conducted some interesting research into burnout using a Lacanian framework, and one of the things he has highlighted a number of times is precisely the intersubjective nature of this problem. More specifically, he argues that there is something in the relationships between sufferers of burnout and their clients and other work colleagues that seems to make them particularly susceptible to burnout.

What I find particularly intriguing is a paper by Vanheule and colleagues which utilises Lacan’s reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to explain why some people are more susceptible to burnout than others.2 At first sight this might seem a rather unlikely connection: what have the rather abstract (not to say complex) ideas of a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century German philosopher got to do with employees in the health, caring, teaching and related professions in the early part of the twenty first century feeling that they’ve reached the end of their tether?

I think there are a number of different ways to look at this question. Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that the concept of master-slave (or master-servant) is enshrined in many (if not all) employment contracts. By entering into an employment contract with an employer you are essentially putting yourself, legally, in a subservient position. I think this is significant when it comes to developing Vanheule’s argument in relation to burnout because it provides a framework for understanding the structure of relationships between individuals within a particular organisational setting. Of course, in many cases, the relationship is not directly between employee and employer, but more often between employees in different positions, for example between a care worker and their line manager. However, this can still be thought of in terms of one person exercising power and authority over another. And, of course, this unequal relationship is ultimately sanctioned by the fact that the employee has entered into a contract which, legally, puts them in a servile position.

With regards to Lacan’s reading of Hegel, it should be noted that this is actually Lacan’s reading of Hegel read through the French Marxist political philosopher Alexandre Kojève, whose lectures Lacan attended in the 1930s. Furthermore, in my view Vanheule presents a rather simplistic, and, in part, a somewhat misleading, interpretation of Hegel’s/Kojève’s concept of the master-slave relationship. However, with regards to burnout the key point of Vanheule’s argument relates to the way intersubjective relationships come into being, and in this sense I think his rendering of Lacan’s ideas is quite useful. Also, I think it’s important to regard Hegel’s idea of the master-slave(servant) relationship as a form of allegory, or extended metaphor, rather than portraying an actual relationship between two human beings in the workplace (at least, not in Britain in the early part of the twenty first century…..)

With regards to workplace relationships, the essential point here is that one person, for example a care worker, sees another, for example their line manager, as being in a superior position to them, and therefore exerting power and control over them. Furthermore, the person in the subordinate position (the ‘slave’) believes that their superior (the ‘master’) has access to enjoyment that he or she (as ‘slave’) does not have. In fact, to make matters even worse, the ‘slave’ believes that the ‘master’ is enjoying at their expense. In other words, the ‘master’ is enjoying the fruits of the ‘slave’s’ labour.

This recognition (on the side of the ‘slave’) gives rise to envy and resentment: the care worker/’slave’ resents the fact that their line manager/’master’ is benefiting from the ‘slave’s’ hard work, and in some cases this resentment gets to the point where the ‘slave’ decides enough is enough and enters into a struggle for superiority with the ‘master’. Of course, in the actual workplace such struggles can take many forms, and can be on both an individual and collective basis. For example, workers may go on strike, work to rule, take out grievances, go over their superior’s heads, go off sick, and so on.

The problem with all these kinds of struggle, however, is that they are ultimately doomed to failure. This is because, as Vanheule points out, by taking up such a struggle the worker is actually reinforcing their position as ‘slave’ – and by doing so, is reinforcing their superior’s position as that of ‘master’. The key point here is that the relationship ‘master-slave’ is based on a mutual recognition; in other words, the slave is slave because he or she sees (recognises) their master as master – and in so doing, recognises him or herself as slave. Likewise, a king or queen is only king or queen because their ‘subjects’ recognise them as such – and in doing so recognise themselves as ‘subjects’.

As indicated above, Hegel’s/Kojève’s argument is far more complicated than this, but with regards to the problem of burnout, Vanheule and his colleagues carried out some research on employees working with young people in residential care and with people with learning disabilities. They found that those people who engaged in conflict with, or who challenged, their superiors, or who were in some other way dissatisfied with their work situation and blamed their employer for this, were more likely to score highly on measures of burnout. More interestingly, perhaps, those employees who went out of their way to try and please their superiors were also more prone to burnout. Vanheule argued that in the first group, the employees were refusing to recognise their superiors as ‘masters’ and effectively ‘burnt themselves out’ trying to perpetuate this refusal and engaging in rather futile battles with their superiors. In the second case, the employees all too readily accepted their superiors as ‘masters’ and spent all their time trying to satisfy them – and in the process also ‘burnt themselves out’.

However, there was also a third group in the research who scored much lower on burnout, and the key characteristic of these employees was that they did not appear to let questions of power and authority bother them too much. Rather, they adopted a more creative position in relation to their work in order to find ways to develop their own potential and, in essence, to make their work ‘work’ for them. In other words, whilst they might ‘formally’ recognise their subordinate position, in practice they did not let this worry them and were more focused on negotiating their way through any problems that might arise in their relationships with others.

I think this research, and the ideas that stand behind it, raises a number of interesting questions regarding stress and burnout. In particular, I think it means we need to move away from a purely cognitive behavioural approach to stress and burnout, where the emphasis tends to be on trying to encourage the stressed employee to ‘adjust’ to their situation. Rather, there needs to be a recognition that stress and burnout is always situated in an intersubjective or interpersonal relationship.

However, I think there is also a wider question at stake here, which relates to the structure of modern work relations. One of the difficulties I have with Vanheule’s approach is that it implies that all one has to do is to not to worry so much about one’s position in the work place and focus more on getting what one can out of one’s role and, in the process, perhaps, become a ‘master’ oneself, for example by seeking promotion. Of course, this is what a lot of employees do: they learn to ‘play the game’ and make their work ‘work’ for them. But there is no guarantee that this will actually lead to less stress and possible burnout (it could simply make things worse), and what does ‘playing the game’ actually do to someone’s subjectivity and sense of identity?

On the other hand, I think this approach is helpful in highlighting what is often hidden in modern day work relations: the fact that behind the facade of ‘collegial’ relationships (is the CEO really your ‘colleague’?) and ‘humanistic’ organisational cultures, there lies a very old, primordial type of human relationship……..

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  1. quoted in: Vanheule, S. (2003) ‘Powerlessness in Care-Giving Professions: A Qualitative Study from a Lacanian Perspective.’ Boston, International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations. []
  2. Vanheule, S., Lievrouw, A. & Verhaeghe, P., 2003. ‘Burnout and Intersubjectivity: A Psychoanalytical Study from a Lacanian Perspective’. Human Relations, 56(3), pp.321–338. []