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Depression and burnout: the dark side of productivity

Depression and burnout: the dark side of productivity
#Ideas

It takes little to realize our fragility. A career setback, a breakup, or a health issue can challenge our firm beliefs.

Recently, I was forced to slow down. Nothing serious, but enough to pause the constant flow of emails, meetings, notifications, video calls, editorial planning, training courses, and various commitments.

This article won’t offer typical life-improving tips. So, those expecting immediate, enlightening ideas may stop reading here. My purpose is to share reflections, a form of “weak thought”.

Invisible Problems

You might relate. You meet a friend, have a chat about looking good, new hairstyles, work, starting a master’s program in Milan, and everything being fine at home. But digging deeper, things aren’t as they seem.

Burnout

With panic attack medication in their pocket, overwhelmed by work and unable to continue acting classes, undergoing medical checks for abnormal health values, struggling to find a caregiver for aging parents, always tired yet relying on supplements, and now seeing a recommended specialist.

These invisible struggles are hard to share and explain, needing attention and listening, but we’re always in a hurry. “I’ll call you back later.”

In recent decades, there’s been talk of stress, burnout, fragility, resilience, antifragility, yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques, yet we’re not better off. Research (links at the end of the article) suggests an epidemic of anxiety, with rising use of anxiolytics, sedatives, sleeping pills, and antidepressants in Italy, Europe, and the USA.

Productive Burnout with Technology and Pharmaceuticals

In a technological world where “only an expert can deal with the problem”, every challenge seems to require an engineering solution for efficiency’s sake. This approach is a significant limitation.

Addressing everything as a problem to be solved without context reflection is senseless. What’s the point of discussing well-being without questioning market models, lifestyles, and the underlying causes of discomfort? Few are raising these questions on other levels, and governments seem more concerned with their own welfare than their citizens’, focusing more on economic power than people’s happiness, supported by consumption promotion. Powerful tools are employed daily to keep us productive.

I recall studies based on Jürgen Habermas’s thought, linking horoscopes in newspapers to their role in capitalist society. The bizarre juxtaposition of horoscopes with political and crime news becomes less so when analyzing the messages these star-reading oracles convey, encouraging hard work and perseverance. Now, thanks to tailored algorithms, we can do even more.

Mass Distraction Weapons Evolved

Today’s mass distraction weapons have evolved: radio, TV, video games, series, and especially social networks, all custom-tailored for us. They’re not just selling products but shutting off our minds because tomorrow, regardless of what happens, we need to be smiling and performing.

Where computer engineering fails, social, psychological, and pharmaceutical engineering steps in. Prepackaged entertainment, various drugs, alcohol, tobacco, psychotropics. Even healthy activities like sports are engineered with additives and performance-oriented practices. Whether it’s losing fat or showing off muscles on Onlyfans, enhancing soldiers in battle, or making children more focused in school, the problem must be solved.

The Unconsciousness of Robots and Subjects

Biopolitics increasingly modifies the body with technology. From Giorgio Agamben to Yuval Noah Harari, many authors warn us about Homo Sapiens’s anthropological transformation in an “unconscious” world, driven solely by profit motives.

Molecules and algorithms could turn us into robots, a term derived from the Slavic word “robota”, meaning “slave”. While physical slavery kills, cognitive slavery allows survival but leads to a constant state of competitive performance.

Burnout

Michel Foucault reminds us that the subject is sub-jectus, literally the subdued. In his analysis, the subject internalizes power practices, of an evolved power that de-individualizes by individualizing in flesh-and-blood bodies, in thinking beings, designed to function for maintaining power itself and now more than ever controllable, manipulable, and predictable. This process incurs high costs, like anxiety, depression, and burnout, impacting healthcare spending without considering human aspects. But subjugating billions isn’t always simple.

Signs of rebellion

Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting might not be just post-pandemic transitory phenomena solvable with some smart working and shorter weeks. They could signify the first cracks in an inhumane system, where benzodiazepines, breathing apps, the metaverse, and psychology bonuses might not suffice. Protests are increasing worldwide, often violently. Generation Z refuses to sacrifice their existence for careers, but this applies only to a small part of the world that can afford to choose the present and make long-term plans. I see no large-scale applicable proposals on the horizon.

No matter our future or external conditions, as Franco Battiato reminds us in “Stati di gioia”, “the enemies are surely within us”. We can block out external noise with improbable isolation helmets like Hugo Gernsback’s 1920s invention or modern noise-canceling headphones, but it’s futile if we don’t find internal silence. Our deep beliefs and mental patterns are the biggest obstacles to the myth of happiness and self-fulfillment, and that’s where we must start for change, even without aiming for a final, unchangeable result.

Burnout
The Isolator by Hugo Gernsback

Meditation Against Burnout

In a psychotic society, we can create protected small islands, starting with our work relationships, family, making peace with our minds and bodies. While I don’t believe in standard solutions, I think we need to train our minds with daily practices, slow but clear thought. Returning to reading and studying, and to escape the Age of Distraction, meditation can be a great help. Meditating gives us time and space before things lose meaning, before being compressed between schedules and rhythms that don’t respect our biological, emotional, physical, and relational needs. It’s not about just getting back up, relaxing, and leaving thoughts behind.

In a Buddhist text, “Manuel des héros ordinaires”, Lama Jigmé Rinpoché explains that in meditation, contrary to what we might think, it’s not about slowing things down but clarifying them.

Clean thoughts in an attentive but relaxed mind help us accept our limits, say no, understand where our emotions originate to not be overwhelmed by them. Remembering we’re human and speaking with humans, sincerely asking how someone is, respecting weaknesses and doubts: that’s what can make a difference.

These are qualities no machine has. We can ask Chat GPT for answers, but for new questions, visions, sharing experiences, emotions, let’s take time and quality in relationships that matter.

I’m here for that.

Links for further reading:

Italian Medicines Agency Report on Psychotropic Drug Use in Italy

Infodata Article on Antidepressant Use in Italy in 2021

ANSA Article on Increased Use of Anxiety Medication

Vanilla Magazine on The Isolator by Hugo Gernsback

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