According to the historian Jill Lepore, the term “burnout” did not exist until 1973. That was when Herbert J. Freudenberger used the term to describe the peculiar kind of exhaustion among healthcare workers at the San Francisco free clinic he managed. The syndrome that Freudenberger described seemed to mainly affect workers in the helping professions. His own staff worked long days with people living on the margins. Many of the clinic’s patients were veterans of the war in Vietnam. Some suffered from post-traumatic stress; many had substance use disorders. For the clinic’s workers and for others in jobs like theirs, observing such suffering as they cared for people took a heavy toll. To be burned out as Freudenberger described it was to be depleted to the point of having nothing left to give, to have your energy and passion drained. To be scorched, extinguished.
I begin this Labor Day letter by talking about burnout because it is clear that so many of us are suffering from this occupational condition. Working in a helping profession – or working in support of those who do – can be draining emotionally. We are all well aware of the impact that the COVID pandemic has had over the past 18 or so months. Many Chestnut programs and departments are short-staffed, creating a heavier workload. As the pandemic wears on, more people are suffering the effects – depression, anxiety, PTSD, increased substance use, and more. Which means they need our help, regardless of our staffing levels.
Labor Day has always been a celebration. It has been equally a form of protest. The first Labor Day, celebrated in New York in 1882 was, in truth, a massive general strike. Organized workers had been campaigning for an eight-hour workday and five-day workweek. On September 5, they did not show up for work and gave themselves an unpaid day off. The workers held a parade that both honored workers and showed the world their numbers and power.
For decades, this was the format for Labor Day. By 1889, more than 400 Labor Day observances were taking place across the United States. Eventually, cities and states began to make these commemorations part of their official calendars. The U.S. Congress made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894.
In one sense, we might look at the original Labor Day as a form of “self-care.” Workers took the day off to recharge, to be with family, to be away from work, to connect with the community. In another sense, Labor Day was founded as a radical rejection of that concept. It was at once a celebration and a statement to those in power that caring for workers was a social and organizational duty, not an individual responsibility.
Labor Day honors workers by granting them a day of rest. We need that day of rest. We also need more.
Often as a national holiday approaches, I find myself thinking about the histories and cultures that have gone into making that holiday, especially about those histories that have been overlooked or forgotten. As Labor Day approaches, I am thinking less about the past than I am about the present. I’ve replayed many conversations I’ve had with my coworkers over the past two months. I’ve heard so much about the dedication that goes into working with our clients and patients and providing administrative support to those who do. I’ve heard so much about the toll that work can take on our employees who at times feel used up and expendable themselves.
The most important lesson that Labor Day holds in this current moment, I think, is that we should listen. As Director of Employee Experience, I believe that the most crucial function of my role is to find new ways for employees to speak and to be heard. Listening is how we learn how to better take care of each other. Labor Day reminds us that work is honorable. It also reminds us to honor those who do it.