B is for Burnout

The burnout has become a mass phenomenon. A category of complaint that feels utterly contemporary, and deeply correlated and illustrative of our current economic, ecological, political and social states of varying crises. The ‘malaise of our times’– so to say. If it was not a pandemic itself before, the circumstances of COVID-19 have enhanced its spread, intensity, and rate of occurrences.


Despite becoming common phrase and common experience, still limited understanding exists as to what the burnout is. Together we ask, what is the burnout and what meaning does its en-masse frequency hold? How does it differ from historical forms of extreme tiredness, and what are its particular manifestations?


In the dead of the night I have these dreams
What’ll happen to me? Will I burn out?
– Kid Cudi, Sad People


Since first documentation of the burnout condition in the 1970’s, with the 1980’s cementing its classification as ‘occupational syndrome,’ a questionable absence of development has been made in understanding its expansion beyond the realm of waged work and the typical office job. In a time of record unemployment and blurring boundaries between work/non-work, a contemporary understanding is necessary of what happens during burnout, how it is experienced, and what it is telling us about the state of our lives and all their surrounding relations today.

The burnout intersects at a point sociology has largely abandoned; that of the studies of both mental illness and embodied experiences, both of which are under urgent need of contemplation. This urgency calls for a commoning; including calls for personal accounts, as well as dedicated attempts at presenting new directions for analyses of suffering. This project seeks to develop a greater understanding of the burnout, picking up on the loose threads and unanswered questions that the fields of formal, natural, and, to a large extent, social sciences, have until now left uninterrogated or ignored. The burnout is symptom (of what, we will investigate) that in turn, has symptoms. As a symptom, it also does something. It has a feedback to it – to that which it produces – which also calls for investigation.

Through addressing areas such as personal narratives of illness, poetics and politics of the body and ‘disorders of the mind,’ and multi-dimensional understandings of the ‘work’ within our lives, the research project A Theory of the Burnout seeks to employ socially relevant and new ways of examining this pervasive phenomenon.


‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’
– Neil Young, Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)


This lab explores, and argues for, new approaches and practices that are both compassionate and critical ¬– placing emphasis on examining causality, experience, and insights, that provide new readings and meanings, rather than remedies. We want to find the details that have not been accounted for. We want to develop experimental theory and transdisciplinary research strategies. Taking the burnout as a very contemporary event, our proposition of fostering a theory understands itself as exploring subjective and embodied modes of discourses, undertaking a multi-voice, multi-perspective, transdisciplinary address towards its own potent analysis. One open and expandable, transgressing conventions and disciplinary boundaries, closer to a gathering a quarry rather than a building a cathedral.

Jess Henderson is a transdisciplinary writer, researcher, and artist from New Zealand. She is the author of Offline Matters (Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2020) and founder of No Fun Magazine. Her work explores the social effects of technology, illness narratives, and experimental forms of publishing.


Jess Henderson