The Memo: The ever-evolving conversation about burnout


Burnout is the defining mental-health issue of our era. Nurses and doctors are burning out; so are teachers and office workers and elite athletes and, honestly, probably you and me.

Openly discussing burnout with your boss (as the Harvard Business Review now encourages workers to do) or sharing your experiences with burnout on Twitter or LinkedIn carries a lot less risk and stigma than saying that you’re depressed or anxious or having an existential crisis or experiencing any number of other mental and emotional issues. Maybe that’s because burnout is a problem at once induced and approved by capitalism: You’ve earned this mental-health collapse.

But if burnout has given us a culturally acceptable way to admit that we need help, it’s worth exploring what, and who, gets left out of the burnout discourse.

Many burnout experts today do try to call attention to the ways that people from marginalized identities can be particularly susceptible to the condition as they deal with racism, transphobia, ableism, and other prejudices on top of other workplace stressors. But overall, in popular media, burnout remains a term largely associated with the (largely white) middle- and upper-classes.

Meanwhile, the usual solutions to burnout—more time off, more flexible schedules, more reasonable workloads, better work-life boundaries—depend in large part on the cooperation of a willing employer. Addressing burnout for people across class stratifications would require not just an overhaul of workplace culture but policy interventions and a stronger social safety net, guaranteeing that all people have access to things like paid time off and affordable child care.

None of this is meant to deny the impact of burnout on people’s mental and physical health. Living and working through a global pandemic turns out to be stressful, on top of navigating a society that has long encouraged Americans to measure their self-worth by their productivity. But why do we need to overwork ourselves in order to learn to stop working so much?

An emerging genre of conversations about work, from Reddit’s anti-work forum to China’s “lying flat” and “touching fish” trends, urge people against buying into the cultural values that lead to burnout in the first place. On TikTok, Gen Z users declare proudly that they “don’t dream of labor.”

This more radical line of thinking isn’t about managing burnout, nor do its solutions rely upon employers finding it within their hearts to improve working conditions. It’s about being fed up with the premise that our jobs determine so much of our identity and perceived value, not to mention whether we have access to healthcare and retirement plans, in the first place.—Sarah Todd

Essay adapted from this article in Quartz.

Five things we’re reading

📈  What interest rates look like around the globe and where they’re going. As the US Federal Reserve gets more aggressive with its own hikes, economists expect the rest of the world to follow suit.

😳  Unicode is approving fewer and fewer new emoji. The chair of the standards organization’s emoji subcommittee cites its stricter, more discerning vetting process.

🥽  What the newest high-end AR devices will cost. There are less expensive augmented-reality alternatives for business users, such as Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 and the Vuzix Blade, but those devices don’t offer the visual and tracking features offered by the new Magic Leap and Microsoft devices.

📉  The IMF says it will cut its global growth outlook again. The outlook has “darkened significantly,” says IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva.

✊  Employers are giving workers the WFH days they want. New survey data shows the average number of days US employees are invited to work from home has risen from 1.58 days per week in January 2021 to 2.37 days per week in June 2022.

30-second case study

Wave, the payments and money transfer company launched in 2018, upended west Africa’s finance app market in less than four years. It is now home to half of the mobile money accounts in Senegal and it’s quickly expanding in markets nearby. It achieved this largely by undercutting the incumbents on fees—Wave charges a 1% flat fee for sending funds, and no fees for the settling of utility bills. Rival Orange Money had to lower its fees by 80% just to stay competitive.

But co-founders Drew Durbin and Lincoln Quirk didn’t just have pricing prowess on their side. While other companies have customers dial USSD codes into their mobile phones to transfer and receive funds, Wave instead relies on QR codes—on cards and in app—which are simply scanned by an agent to complete a transaction. The technology was a game-changer in the markets where Wave operates.

“We still have a huge population that cannot read and write,” says Dakar-based restaurateur Aisha Gueye. “Dialing USSD codes and following instructions was difficult for many. My mother, for example, used to send her grandchildren to do her mobile money transfers, but now she takes her plastic card and goes to the agent to carry out her transactions.”

Wave users can simply download a QR code from the company’s app, or they can get a spray-printed bar code card, the same size as a bank card, to create their account. “Even those who can read and write like myself find the QR code effortless and faster to operate than USSD codes,” Gueye notes.

The takeaway: Skeptics still question whether a 1% fee will lead to profitability. (The company says it can get there if it expands into other parts of the economy, including merchant payments, microcredit, and insurance.) But the list of believers in the company’s proposition is growing fast. In September, Wave became French-speaking Africa’s first unicorn, with a $1.7 billion valuation following a Series A funding round that included venture capital from firms including Stripe, Sequoia Heritage, Founders Fund, and Ribbit Capital.

Read more about Wave’s rise in Kingsley Kobo’s report for Quartz Africa.

Tea and sympathy

Nearly 190 Starbucks locations in 30 US states have won their union elections, and 313 stores in 36 states have filed to unionize. Starbucks isn’t happy about it. But perhaps you are? Or maybe you’re just curious if the drive to organize Starbucks employees has come to your backyard. Either way, you can enter your address, zip code, or city on our map to see which unionized Starbucks is closest to you.

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Our best wishes for a productive week. Send any news, comments, WFH days, and Starbucks union election results to This week’s edition of The Memo was brought to you by Heather Landy. Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member.