Anna Katharina Schaffner reviews several recent books on the phenomenon of burnout in Germany in the Times Literary Supplement:
Articles on burnout in the German supplements in recent years have been legion – in fact, so many have appeared that some observers are already complaining about “burnout burnout”. Academic publications, too, have mushroomed: in addition to the two books reviewed here, there is Stephan Grünewald’s Die erschöpfte Gesellschaft (2013), Patrick Kury’s Der überforderte Mensch (2012) and Byung-Chul Han’s Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (2010; and already in its eighth printing). All this clearly attests to a wider preoccupation with the relationship between individual energy levels and the organization of work in the age of techno-capitalism. Yet many of the strategies used to explain what is represented as an unprecedented epidemic of burnout are in fact very similar to those that were used in pre- and early modern accounts of melancholia and acedia, as well as in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of nervous weakness and neurasthenia.
It is tempting to speculate on why exhaustion has become such a popular topic in Germany at present, and not, for instance, in the UK. Germany’s economy is currently the strongest in Europe, and the country’s income levels and general quality of life are also higher than those of most of its neighbours. According to the statistics, Germans do not work longer hours than the British, or indeed many other nations – a recent OECD survey showed that only the Dutch work fewer hours than the Germans. Why, then, do the Germans feel so exhausted? Might there be some truth to the old cliché of the specifically German Arbeitsethos (work ethic) after all? Do they perhaps invest more (emotionally, physically, existentially) in their work, and are they therefore more prone to burnout? Max Weber certainly thought so. In his theorization of the Protestant work ethic, he presented a range of theological and historical reasons to explain the Berufspflicht that led to the exhaustion of one’s energies in work. Yet Germany is, of course, not the only predominantly Protestant nation in Europe. Moreover, as Martynkewicz and others have shown, Weber’s theses were not only in tune with the exhausted zeitgeist of his age, but might also at least partly have been motivated by personal experience.
Being burned out is a socially “respectable” condition, implying, as it does, that one has simply worked too hard. It carries less stigma than depression. It is a disease of those who have overtaxed themselves in the name of work, and it might therefore be worn almost as a badge of honour. Wolfgang Martynkewicz convincingly demonstrates that a not inconsiderable degree of pride and self-moulding was often involved in the accounts of neurasthenics in the late nineteenth century: neurasthenia signified refinement, sensibility and an artistic streak. Burnout, in contrast, signifies a work ethic carried to the extreme. Seen from that perspective, one can begin to imagine how, paradoxically, it might serve as a means not only to deplore modernity but also to praise it.