The Burnout Society: Are We Slaves to Productivity?

Being productive, self-demanding, and ambitious can make us sick. Discover how living in the burnout society affects us.
The Burnout Society: Are We Slaves to Productivity?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 14 February, 2023

How many times, by the end of the day, do you find yourself feeling like you haven’t had a moment’s rest? The day comes to an end and, despite the fact that you’ve been continually active, you feel like you havn’t done enough or managed to achieve everything you wanted to.

Self-demand is always present in your mind. You think you should do better, try harder, and that you don’t put in enough effort. If this is how you feel, it’s because we’re all living in ‘the burnout society’.

This concept has been proposed by Byung-Chul Han, a South Korean philosopher. He’s an expert in cultural studies. As one of the leading figures in contemporary philosophy, he exposes and criticizes how, in today’s world, we’re slaves to our own egos and victims of self-exploitation. In his book, The Burnout Society, he addresses the cultural factors that give rise to this evil so typical of our era. We’re going to talk about it in this article.

stressed girl
Currently, self-demand prevents us from enjoying ourselves because we’re more focused on producing than resting.

The burnout society

This is the term used to describe the way we live in modern societies. We live in a time when there are no longer external pressures that enslave us and we’re apparently free to achieve self-realization.

Moreover, we’re no longer oppressed by external forces and aren’t limited or exploited at work. There have been great scientific and technical advances and we’ve gained certain rights. However, this supposed freedom is just an illusion and today, we’re the ones who are guilty of setting ourselves unattainable standards. This both frustrates and exhausts us.

Burnout isn’t an individual but a collective phenomenon. In a subtle and barely perceptible way, society, the media, companies, and the way in which the environment and culture are built lead us to demand increasingly more of ourselves. We force ourselves to progress and run tirelessly after the kind of ideals that, although self-imposed, suffocate and deplete our resources.

There are several factors and dynamics that feed the burnout society. They’re as follows:

Toxic positivism

Positivity is in fashion today but it’s not always well understood. Of course, an optimistic attitude promotes good health and well-being. That said, we mustn’t make the mistake of becoming victims of this concept.

For instance, we’re told that everything is possible, that we can control everything, that we’re capable, and that we should always feel good as well as achieving our goals. Unsurprisingly, this can be exhausting.

Comparison with others

We’re also constantly comparing ourselves with others. To a great extent, this activity is fueled by social media. We live our lives watching others instead of looking at our own achievements. Furthermore, frequently, those lives that we take as models are false or only partially shown.

By looking at these others we deem to be perfect in terms of the productivity and success we ask of ourselves but don’t achieve, we feel extremely inferior and frustrated. In effect, we mentally punish ourselves for not living up to these results.

Apparent freedom

The basis of all of the above is the underlying idea that we’re free and that it’s up to us to seek personal fulfillment. After all, we’ve been told that we can be anything we want to be and nothing is beyond our reach. For the same reason, we set unrealistic standards for ourselves and push ourselves to the absolute limits to meet them.

But, if we don’t meet them, since we believe we’re solely responsible for our own well-being, we feel like complete failures. We do this totally independently and there’s no one from outside pressuring us. Indeed, we’re our own toughest judges and managers, punishing ourselves with reproach and self-harm.

Productivity as a synonym of personal value

The burnout society is also fueled and sustained by the belief that ‘doing more’ is always better. For example, most of us keep our schedules packed with activities. We spend every second of every day dedicated to working toward goals, be they work or personal.

Rest, silence, boredom, and reflection have no place in our routines, We even feel guilty if we’re idle for a moment. Somehow, we feel that it’s being productive that makes us valuable. Consequently, we’re unable to stop.


Finally, consumerism is presented to us as the escape route from our exhausting routines and as the prize for our productivity. But it generates a vicious circle. It doesn’t allow us to move forward, since everything generated is wasted and we find ourselves back at the starting point: having to work and produce more to sustain our unhealthy lifestyles.

Woman shopping in an online store
Consumerism has been implemented as the escape route. However, it’s a trap that ties us to the dynamics of productivity.

Rest and escape the burnout society

Although we’ve normalized this way of life, in reality, it’s extremely harmful. Constant stress, nervousness, and hyperactivity are exhausting. Moreover, they generate anxiety and depression and lead us to a lack of motivation and states of burnout.

Our health deteriorates, our moods worsen, and our relationships suffer as well. In fact, we’re so focused on ourselves, on doing, progressing, and competing, that we end up suffering from isolation.

What can we do about it? The key lies in starting to value and prioritize rest and detach ourselves from our self-imposed performance standards.

Some helpful tips

If you’re suffering the effects of the burnout society try the following:

  • Allow yourself to feel the whole wide range of human emotions. Don’t reject or deny those that make you feel uncomfortable. Stop ‘doing to avoid feeling’.
  • Reduce your self-demand and set realistic goals and standards for yourself that aren’t stifling.
  • Compare yourself to your past version and review your own progress instead of comparing yourself to others.
  • Slow down and learn to live in the present. Calmly enjoy each and every activity and every moment with the people around you. Practice mindfulness as a lifestyle.
  • Prioritize silence and rest in your daily routine. Stop perceiving these spaces as something negative, On the contrary, understand that boredom and reflection are necessary for creativity and well-being to flourish.
  • Learn to enjoy the process and not the result. This means being flexible and kind to yourself. Accept setbacks and frustration as a natural part of your journey. Don’t punish yourself or allow yourself to become discouraged by them.

In short, the burnout society that’s been imposed on us exhausts us physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s important that you become aware of this fact and detach yourself from your frenetic pace of life. Your value doesn’t depend on what you produce or how much you yield. You have the right to rest and enjoy yourself and connect with others. Life shouldn’t be a relentless race to success, but a pleasant path that you walk along at your own pace.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.