Wilmar Schaufeli (Social and Behavioural Sciences, Utrecht) made the case for differentiating between exhaustion and ‘burnout’ (the latter a term coined by Harold Bradley in 1969 and popularized by psychologists in the 1970s), arguing that burnout is in some sense a strategy of protective withdrawal for over-extended employees. He also noted that the language of burnout seems to be altogether more prominent in Germany and the U.S. than in the U.K. Addressing similar themes, Greta Wagner (Sociology, Frankfurt) discussed burnout in the context of ‘post-Fordist corporate strategy’, arguing that the pressure to perform, the acceleration of working life and the shortening of intervals between which the individual worker is exposed to competition add up to a perfect recipe for burnout. In Germany, the average number of burnout-related sick days has increased roughly eighteen-fold over the last ten years.
In a discussion of two models of perfectionist behaviour, Julian Childs (Anna Freud Centre, University College London) spoke of the exhausting and/or demoralizing consequences of expectations of perfection in the workplace, especially when unattainably high, all-or-nothing standards of achievement are externally imposed rather than self-imposed. In what might be described as an anti-perfectionist model of creativity, Chris Dooks (University of the West of Scotland) reflected on the methodologies – or ‘M.E.thodologies’ – of fragmented film-making that he has developed as a chronically ill practitioner. Rather than envisioning exhaustion as an obstacle to creativity, Dooks maintains that the ‘predicament itself co-authors the work’.
Examining three recent scholarly works on depression by Alain Ehrenberg, Junko Kitanaka and Anne Cvetkovich, Angela Woods (Medical Humanities, Durham) offered a cross-cultural comparison of understandings of the condition in France, Japan and the U.S. Citing Ehrenberg’s startling claim that depression is ‘the perfect disorder of the democratic human being’, she showed how a case can be made, via Cvetkovich, for thinking of the condition as a political and spiritual resource.
What is the opposite of ‘exhaustion’? One answer to this question might be rest, or restedness. But Felicity Callard (Medical Humanities, Durham) showed how the model of the ‘resting’ or ‘inactive’ – ie non-task-oriented – brain has been demolished by recent work in neuroimaging, leading to a new appreciation of ‘resting’ activities, including mind-wandering and daydreaming, as elements of the productive and generative activity of the brain rather than as pleasant downtime for the grey matter.
How does exhaustion narrate or represent itself? Jenny Laws (Medical Humanities, Durham) raised this question in a talk that probed the rhetorics of energy and desire associated with the ‘active patient’ agenda. Whatever the merits of this agenda, the expectation, or demand, that patients must actively want to get better is a tricky one for those who feel exhausted, and Laws displayed some very striking images in which her interviewees envisaged their own fluctuating energy levels. The aesthetics of exhaustion were also the focus of a talk by Michael Greaney (English and Creative Writing, Lancaster), which explored literary narratives in which the pose of fatigue serves as a refuge from the inexhaustible demands of modernity.
The event closed with a roundtable discussion that re-stated some key questions: Is exhaustion an ever-present in human experience? Or does it have a history? Does it manifest itself in different ways in different eras or in different geographical regions? If gruelling over-work has been the lot of most people for most of human history, then why does exhaustion seem to come into its own as a vogue illness in what is, for many, an age of labour-saving devices and relative affluence? Given the liveliness of these final exchanges, it seems fair to say that these questions are not going to be exhausted anytime soon.