Fatigue, burnout, mental overload, professional exhaustion … These notions marked the beginning of the XXIe century and take on a new dimension with the restrictions linked to the pandemic. Why do we talk so much about fatigue? Does our modern way of life produce exhaustion?
While some see fatigue as symptom of modern individualism, we propose here to examine the expression of fatigue as a legitimate social demand, that of taking into account our vital needs.
In its excellent History of fatigue, Georges Vigarello retraces the changes in the ways in which fatigue has been understood, expressed, represented and studied since the Middle Ages in the West. The story he tells is that of the evolution of the way we look at human bodies, but also that of the evolution of values and socio-cultural structures that influence the relationship to the body, and the evolution of importance. granted to certain individuals, or certain forms of fatigue, at different times. From the fatigue of knights errant or pilgrims in the Middle Ages to that of workers in the 19th centurye century, the history of fatigue is not foreign to the values of the era that represents it. It is the story of those who matter, of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities recognized within society.
We must therefore ask ourselves what is conveyed today by the important discourse on fatigue in our contemporary societies. There is a modern paradox with the emergence of a new vocabulary to talk about fatigue: burn out, professional exhaustion, mental overload … While in concrete terms we live in a time when we have more and more leisure and a protection offered by labor law, fatigue becomes omnipresent in our speeches. Some might argue that this is the invention of new pathologies, or the result of an increased demand for freedom and the rejection of any form of external constraint.
In his work The Fatigue Society, Byung-Chul Han defends in particular the thesis that our modern society is no longer a “disciplinary” (Foucault), but a society of accomplishment, of success, where the subject is free from any external domination. According to Han, the pathologies of the present time (burn out, depression) do not result from constraints or forms of exploitation, but from an excess of positivity or freedom, and from the demand for perfection and performance that each one imposes on himself, a “Voluntary self-exploitation”.
If Han is right to insist on a paradigm shift, an individualist turn in a society which values productivity and condemns time perceived as useless, it is nevertheless far from being demonstrated that the external constraints have disappeared. On the contrary, these values of accomplishment and achievement are also determined by the contexts and institutions which increasingly demand the development of skills, assessment and evaluation. increasingly tightened performance control, but also of the person.
An old problem
New information and communication technologies, the development of social networks and control tools are of course new modern issues from which hardly anyone escapes.
However, fatigue is far from being an issue specific to the XXIe century. Friedrich Nietzsche already underlined in 1878, in Human, too human, the evolution of values that led to the rejection of rest and the race for performance and productivity: “For lack of rest, our civilization runs into a new barbarism. At no time were active people, that is to say people without rest, more esteemed. “ Nietzsche criticized a society that no longer understood the importance of slowness, contemplation and rest, giving credit only to activity and utility.
Before Nietzsche, Karl Marx wrote in The capital (1867) that one of the fundamental injustices of the capitalist system was the fact that it deprived individuals of the necessary time for rest, «vol[ant] the time that should be spent breathing fresh air and enjoying the sunlight ” and requiring maximum effort from everyone, giving only minimal rest “Without which the exhausted organism could no longer function”.
His son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, offered in 1883 (The right to laziness) a radical critique of the society which had made work a supreme value in order to justify the exploitation of workers, making labor value a tool of enslavement apparently less violent than enslavement by force, but just as problematic . And while even then the development of new technologies could have enabled people to work less and have more time for rest and leisure, instead of putting technology at the service of human needs, this one seemed to have put them in competition, forcing them to prove their usefulness and to fight for the right to work more and more.
What has changed
What has changed today? Are we really more tired than before? It is true that fatigue at work is currently reaching worrying magnitudes, with nearly one in five employees at risk of burnout according to a report. 2019 survey, not to mention the effects of the pandemic, particularly in certain sectors, such as in the fields of health and of Higher Education.
It would be impossible to make a historical comparison, or to try to quantify the degree of hardship in different contexts or situations. And all the more so since fatigue is a protean notion, comprising physical, psychic, and emotional dimensions.
What is decidedly contemporary, however, is that fatigue has invaded our speeches and our ways of describing ourselves. We talk about it more readily nowadays, and we are inventing new uses and new expressions to describe this state (burn out, mental overload …). And while previously speaking of fatigue had a negative connotation, today the acceptance of the vulnerability or the fragility caused by the situations undergone is expressed as the claim of our needs (sleep, rest, freedom , meaning).
Saying fatigue: a new social demand
Historically, taking fatigue into account has been a way of making visible the situation of individuals previously deprived of a voice and visibility within society. Expressing fatigue, naming it, researching its causes and mechanisms, representing it, thus go hand in hand with societal consideration of forms of suffering hitherto ignored or despised.
More than the symptom of an individualistic society where everyone aims for personal fulfillment, we would hypothesize that the contemporary discourse on fatigue reveals the inadequacy felt more and more sharply between the economic and social systems within which we live and work, and our needs and aspirations as living humans.
In this context, we should more than ever pay attention to what is meant by the expression of fatigue. And especially to a modification in this speech. During the XXe century, the representation of fatigue has gradually become more and more psychological, interior, in connection with personal or individual experience. Peter Handke, in his Fatigue test (1996), said for example “Separator”, constituting a withdrawal into oneself and a rupture of our links with the world.
Today, however, fatigue is structured around a collective dimension. No longer the state of an “I”, but that of a “we”, for example in this file of Philosophy Magazine of 2019, “Why are we so tired?”, or in the multiple references to fatigue of workers, of caregivers, of French in the media.
This passage from the individual to the collective suggests that fatigue is brought to play a new role in our society: more than the description of a state or a phenomenon affecting the person in their privacy, it becomes (perhaps) a tool. of social claim.
Source: Slate.fr by www.slate.fr.
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