Burnout: The Topic Everyone Talks About, But Few Actually Address

Dr. Neal Cook, DM, MBA
10 min readMar 18, 2021


Burnout, especially on the employment side of the fence, has been the hot topic among management circles with questions on how to deal with employee burnout. Things are discussed in meetings; consultants may be hired, everyone scratches their head because it is affecting morale and productivity, and generally ends in everyone getting a $15.00 gift card to Starbucks to help improve morale. Meanwhile, the overworked employees are thinking, “Soooooo, instead of an actual raise to at least match inflation rates, they think I can be bought with a couple caramel macchiatos. They do know that any pay raise less than the inflation rate is a pay cut, right?” I really wish I was making this tone-deaf quarter-hearted (not even worth calling it half-hearted) attempt up. The management action ends up just reinforcing how poor and disconnected management’s opinion is of their employees. Far fetched, right? Not so fast, I have personally seen this play out at organizations I have worked for and have heard echoes of similar across the United States.

While the discussion of how to deal with burnout echoes through the halls of businesses across the country with ideas such as team-building events and pizza parties the real issue is being ignored. Pro-tip: if you have to schedule team-building events, then frankly, your organization is not leading like it should, as team building is a constant and iterative process that cannot be relegated to an annual party or event. If I sound harsh regarding this concept, it is because I am. It is ham-fisted attempts at trying to band-aid one symptom of a much more systemic, much larger problem. To put it bluntly, the majority of the United States is overworked, has significantly higher overhead than, and is paid far less than peer nations. When the minimum wage is higher in other developed countries than the average STEM graduate with a Master’s Degree makes for the first five to ten years of school in the United States (noting that cost of living is not much different in most places if not less due to less overhead and even taking higher tax rates into consideration), then there starts to build a sense of hopelessness.

What I find interesting is that regarding the topic of burnout, most articles, books, and dialog point to the individual as the primary cause and responsible party for dealing with their own burnout. While there are a few tricks I have used in the past that I will get into later, I am of the opinion that placing the burden of dealing with burnout on the individual is a dereliction of duty on behalf of organizations and society at large.

Time is shrinking for the majority of the population. There is an argument and frankly detachment from reality that says that everyone has 24 hours in a day. Where this concept falls flat, however, is that it fails to take into account that time is a commodity, and some have significantly more overhead than others. When taking this concept into account, then it becomes fairly obvious that some have more usable time than others — noting that when I say “usable,” I am referring to the time that can be capitalized on. One-hour commute? There goes two hours of that 24. Have to cook and maintain your house? There goes another one to two hours. Kids? Pretty much forget about doing anything outside school hours. With this kind of time footprint, plus the regular 8 to 5 (lunch is not yours, so it shouldn’t be counted in the free 24), reskilling, advancing education, or starting your own business is effectively out of the question unless sleep is sacrificed. Sans the biologically sleepless elite who can run fine on 4.5 to 5 hours of sleep, then dropping below eight and even worse, below seven will be counterproductive. With people who have this amount of time overhead, having self-care and a mindless respite is pretty much the only reasonable level of comfort they can provide themselves. It is important to note that what I am talking about here in regard to a respite is agnostic to economic standing, culture, and so on as I am discussing the psychological requirement of such, whatever it may be.

Among a large portion of the United States, employees are facing stagnant raises, and the minimum wage has decreased by approximately 26% over the past 50 years using a back-of-the-envelope calculation ($1.60 in 1970 would be $10.85 today). So, let’s put that in perspective, if the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, then today’s minimum wage would be around $10.85 an hour. The average household (cannot find data on individual income but note that about 31% of households had both parents working versus about 64% now) made approximately $9,870, which is $66,905 a year with significantly fewer people working. The average full-time worker in the United States is making $32,140 as of 2019. Now some may argue that I am cherry-picking statistics with “Oh, but average household income is right under $70,000.” Why yes, I can do math; let us do math together. What is $70,000 divided by 2? $35,000 with two individuals working. Household is the keyword there. Likewise, due to rising costs, people have to work longer hours, many part-time jobs require completely open availability (translation: sorry, no second job or education for you, gotta be able to come in when we need you). The old mantra of renting is approximately 30% of your wages should be in rent and utilities. But, a recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition pointed out that literally (no qualifiers there and not figuratively, LITERALLY) no one on minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom house. Actually, at minimum wage (accounting for time and half overtime), someone would have to work approximately 70 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom RENTAL in pretty much every state using that 30% figure. Nationally, the average needed is $23.96 (which frankly is more than this multi-degreed, Xennial with so many certifications I require a spreadsheet has ever made working for an organization), which is $49,836.80 per year. So how does that fit into the national average wage? Well, let us scroll up…the national average is $32,140. But wait, that math does not add up…why do they say 30% when the average cost of housing versus average pay is actually almost 47% of earnings going to housing cost?

Courtesy of CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/14/minimum-wage-workers-cannot-afford-rent-in-any-us-state.html

Also, looking at healthcare, most (of the lucky or unlucky, or whatever; it doesn’t matter, good chance your claim will be denied) who have healthcare cannot afford the rising deductibles, so there is no point going to the doctor (average annual deductible is right over $4,300). But wait, there is CareCredit; I can meet my deductible and slowly pay it back, so maybe I won’t die from these unknown chest pains! And bam, that is the example of the credit trap for many United States citizens. Because of costs (many of which are not measured with inflation), the spending power of the general populous is far less, and that is why according to Forbes in 2019, about 78% of workers are living paycheck to paycheck so if a major one-time cost comes along, then bam, guess I better break out that high-interest credit card (which would put loan sharking from yesteryear to shame), otherwise, I won’t be able to make all my bills. As time progresses, debt piles up from many of the “one-offs” in life, and individuals get to the point that they are just able to maintain their balances. Well, I will just file for bankruptcy…..actually, if you want to apply for many a job, you gotta pass that credit check. Bankruptcy…sorry, no job for you.

“We are sorry, your claim has been denied. No lifesaving procedure for you, we hope your death is a peaceful and quick one. No need to cost more than you must since you are croaking anyway

So as a society, the United States has a large portion of the population disproportionately burdened by non-investment costs (cannot invest in buying a house if you are spending so much that you cannot afford a down payment and your credit utilization and debt overhead are too high). And, if you have a significant amount of student loans, unless you luck up on a job, all I can say is, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” This population lacks the time to improve their respective situations, trying to cover the cost of just staying alive. Likewise, the way the job market is structured, even finding a “better” job would translate to marginal upgrades at best. It is known within HR departments that you do not want to give a person too much of a raise for a promotion even if they jump up several levels. The target is actually around a 10% pay increase tops. In one job I worked as a level three microbiologist and after a couple of years, they wanted to promote me. However, the position would go from hourly to salary, and I would have gotten that 10% raise. BUT, if I quit, then applied for that position and hired on, I would have made 25% more than I was. The kicker was that if I took the 10% and being salary, I would lose my overtime which was pretty regular working as a microbiologist, so I would literally be getting a pay cut if I just took the promotion. As insane as this sounds, this practice is not uncommon, and to the indoctrinated, they would argue that “you have to take a hit sometimes to move forward.” The real question would be, “Why not pay me the value of the work I do?” This is literally why I will outright lie or not apply at all when I see a posting require previous salaries.

Now avoiding getting into the weeds with income and the cost of academia (that is a topic for another day), higher cost for medical and housing, along with a whole host of other possible one-time expenses that are not factored in the aforementioned, is the stage being set for getting into the “why” the United States as a whole is burned out. Remember how I said that time is a commodity? Time has value, and when overhead is computed, then most people do not have 24 hours in a day. When it comes to self-improvement or working to better one’s position, then instead of having 16 usable hours in a day, the average individual may have one or two. The simple reality is, however, that the risk of taking on additional education may be too high due to the costs versus possible gains. In many cases, a degree (even a relevant one in the industry an individual is currently working or wanting to move into) is no guarantee of advancement. So in effect, the majority of the population is working longer hours, doing more highly skilled work for less pay than previous generations, while overall costs have skyrocketed. Academic inflation now requires almost anyone who does not have a full-ride scholarship or parents who pay for it to take out student loans to get a degree for positions where one is not required to perform but demanded as terms of hire. Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, I did not address the vocational education route. I will say this, however, regarding vocational education, the job pool for that will be shrinking over time; if everyone went that route, then there would be a flood of applicants, so pay would go down just as with other industries, and frankly, some people are not physically capable of performing more physically intensive jobs due to disabilities or injury.

With the stage now set, the question should go from “Why is the United States burned out?” to “How is the United States still functioning at all.” Burnout at this point should be expected and not seen as some individual issue. It is people literally being pushed to the point of exhaustion but feel trapped and have no other choice but to keep going. I feel that this is one reason why apocalyptic and zombie movies have become so incredibly popular and social/political movements are desiring for the collapse of society. That the system has become so burdensome and, in many ways, hopeless to the point that people believe at some level that the only solution is a complete collapse. The thought, whether conscious or unconscious, is that a collapsed society may not have the benefits of a functional one, but at least it is honest in where a person stands, unlike the current system in place, which is effectively that there is virtually no safety net and individuals are on their own.

As an individual, what can you do about it? I have a few tricks that have helped me in the past. One of the most effective probably is to not focus exclusively on the present. The current conditions are not going to persist. Everything changes, and everything is dynamic. Believe it or not, the world is significantly better than it has been in the history of humanity. The United States is just getting left behind, and with the availability of borderless information, the gaps are starting to become apparent. Likewise, we are reaching the expected endpoint of this socio-economic model, so even without information and a pandemic to speed up the situation, it would have advanced just the same. I typically try to remind myself to focus on five years out. What can I do to improve my situation five years out? Additionally, do not feel bad about mindless self-indulgence (the activity, not the band unless that is your activity, then that is okay). When reality is harsh, it is healthy to take a break from reality. Do not sacrifice sleep. It will eventually catch up to you. While it will feel like you are accomplishing less by not staying up, you will be better off and more productive overall. Lastly, a really good read that I cannot recommend enough is “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. I really wish I found that book sooner.

Thank you for your time and attention, my friends.