How we can beat the burnout society | Ernst-Jan Pfauth | TEDxMaastricht

How we can beat the burnout society | Ernst-Jan Pfauth | TEDxMaastricht

Translator: René Clerc
Reviewer: Cristina Bufi-Pöcksteiner Who, in the past year, felt
like they worked too hard? Please raise your hand. Wow, take a look around. That’s a lot of hands. And statistically speaking,
we could have expected that. Take a look at these numbers. This is the percentage
of the labor force in each country that feels close to overworked. And these numbers add up
to millions of people around the globe, who are close to burning out. So, it’s fair to say
that we live in a burnout society. And it used to be that our car
was a status symbol. Just take a look at this guy,
how proud he is. These days though,
in the burnout society, it’s being busy. Whenever someone asks us
how we are doing, we almost instinctively answer, “Oh, so busy.” Just imagine answering, “Well, I’m pretty relaxed, actually.” You’d look so unimportant. (Laughter) Right? And because we’re always so busy
with creating the best résumé, or building the best body,
or getting the most likes, or taking the most original vacations, we work ourselves to the bone,
from dawn to dusk. And every day, we end up
on the couch, exhausted, and the next day,
it starts all over again with an overflowing inbox. And I fell prey to this myself. I was completely immersed in the rat race
to endless self-improvement. You could say I was
practically addicted to it. And that’s because,
ten years ago, I had a problem. Whenever I had to give a toast
at an intimate family dinner, Christmas for example, the wine would fly out of my glass, because I was terrified,
terrified of public speaking. Whenever I had to say
something to a group of people, my hands would start
to shake uncontrollably. And OK, this was
a bit awkward for the family, but other than that it wasn’t really
a problem, until I got my first job. I was 20 years old, and this job
required me to give talks. And at one of these presentations,
my boss was in the back of the room, slightly smaller than this one,
and he said nothing. But a couple of days later,
he walked past my desk and dropped something on my desk. It was a book, I picked it up: a self-help book on public speaking. Very subtle. (Laughter) So, I read the book
– he was my boss – I read it twice, and I practiced it
over and over, and over, and slowly, but surely,
my hands started to shake less. And then I thought, “What else can I improve about myself?” So, I started reading self-help books
on organizing, negotiating, working more efficiently, earning money,
spending money, saving money, working out, writing checklists, doing nothing,
sleeping, etc., etc. I started improving myself
just for the sake of it. And all around me, I saw people
suffering from the same fate. Just like me, they could process
emails at the speed of light, but with a really angry face
and tense shoulders. And I was always thinking about work,
and on an aspirin diet. But as I said, I saw my colleagues
and friends suffering from the same fate. Whenever I went to a party, I heard about someone else
who had burned out. As I said: a true epidemic. So, I wanted to know the cause, and I turned to self-help, again, and I dived into the world
of positive psychology. And I learned roughly two things. The first thing is
that in the burnout society we view life as a competition. All the goals we are told
are worth reaching, from money to popularity, they are always measured
relative to other people. So, we have to have more than others. Second thing I learned: it’s a pretty bad idea
to view life as a competition because it’s a competition we can’t win. No matter how successful we are, there is always someone else
who seems to be doing better. Take a professional
soccer player, for example. He’s living the life
millions of kids dream about. But, he’s probably pretty jealous,
because Lionel Messi exists, and he’s the best player in the world. What about Messi? Probably, also pretty jealous, because Cristiano Ronaldo,
his biggest rival, wins all the awards. What about Ronaldo? I think he is also pretty dissatisfied, because, well, they always say
Messi has got more talent. So, no matter how successful you are,
even if you’re at the top, always someone else
seems to be doing a better job. And, if we know that cause, if we add
the exhaustion of working really hard, as most of you do, to the empty promise of success, you’ve got a recipe
for burnouts left and right. So we know this now. What’s the cure? And the crazy thing is: we already know the answer. All the research I’ve read on happiness
seems to confirm the obvious. We know what makes us happy. It’s things like helping other people, or spending time
with the people we care about, or getting into a state of flow – that’s when you completely lose yourself
in an activity and forget about time – or learning new skills and enjoying that, instead of focusing on what other people
might think about your achievements. And, one more, gratitude. Countless studies have shown that people who value
what they have, right now, are often happier people. So, when I read about this
in all the self-help books I started nodding wildly
and I said to myself, “Yes! I am going to change my ways.
I am going to do it all differently. There’s this list,
and I am just going to do them all. And then, two weeks later,
I had forgotten all about it. So, instead of building
LEGO castles with my son, I still worried about, well,
working through the evenings. And instead of spending
time with my wife, I still checked my e-mails
every two minutes. And instead of enjoying the work itself, I was still thinking about what
other people might think about my work. So, I knew exactly how to become happy,
but I failed to live by these insights. And, I think that’s because everyone else, the media, ads, the race to get likes, they tell us to pursue other goals. Goals like money, or popularity, or power. And these goals are precisely
the things that don’t make us happy. So, even though we know
what makes us happy, we forget about it. And then, one day,
after a lot of self-help books, I thought I figured it out. I think we need daily rituals
to remind us of what truly makes us happy. Just like we brush our teeth,
or take a shower for our physical hygiene, we need rituals for our mental hygiene, so these insights about happiness become
as natural to us as brushing our teeth. Here is a ritual that works for me. Every day, I write down three things
that I am grateful for, and why. And it has become
my deliberate, daily reminder of what really matters in life. For example, here is
what I wrote last week: “I am grateful for reading
stories with my son, because I enjoyed focusing
completely on him.” And that’s almost always
what it’s about for me, about the times that I am fully there
with the people I care about. And this ritual has helped me to see that. I encourage you – Of course I have off days now and then,
but it made me happier. So, I encourage you
to find your own daily ritual. It could be practicing
gratitude, like I do. It could also be something
else, like meditation. And then, when you do,
I think we need to go one step further. Because even if you and I manage
to escape the burnout society, that still leaves millions of people
suffering from the constant pressure to perform. Imagine you and I are colleagues,
and we’ve managed our work load, then we still have colleagues
suffering from the threat to become overworked. And that’s because personal burnout
also has societal roots. It’s not just the person’s fault. It could also be something
like an unhealthy work environment. So, we can only effectively
fight back together. So, the question is: do we want to live in a society
that works towards a place where most people
feel overworked and worn out, in which creativity is crushed, and in which we no longer
have the time and energy to have great conversations with friends? Do we? No! Of course not! So, let’s fight back together, let’s say, “We are ‘not’ available in the evenings.” Because that’s when we spend time
with our family and friends. Let’s turn off
our notifications, at dinner, so we can focus fully
on the people we’re with. And once we have figured
that out for ourselves, let’s help our friends, family
and colleagues to do the same. Let’s beat the burnout society, together. Thank you very much. (Applause)


  1. Post
    Dennis Haughton

    I’m currently burnt out for sure. Everyday is hard. Can’t wait to ditch this frame of mind smh

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    The Leadership Kit

    Burnout is a "bad word" to a lot of leaders. It's sad that people feel unable to even talk about it sometimes. It ends up perpetuating the problem.

    Burnout isn't doing too much. It's doing too much of the wrong things.

  4. Post
    Natasha Sallès

    He mentions the author Byung Chul Han and his book “The Burnout Society”, but apparently he hasn’t read it. The book speaks about the excess of positivity, our problem with dealing with the “otherness” and its consequences. And it is with this same superficial positivity that this gentleman speaks, sounding like yet another self help book. If you’re looking for the subject “burnout society”, I recommend you go directly to the source: the German-Korean philosopher.

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