We Don’t Talk about Burnout: How Superheroes Deal with Workplace Stress and Trauma

“Burnout is nature's way of telling you, you've been going through the motions. Your soul has departed; you're a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administering stimulants to an exhausted nervous system.”

Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man

When you last heard from us over a year ago, we were writing with a spirit of optimism as we seemed to be emerging from a pandemic that had stolen a year of our lives. When COVID variants reared their head, we found ourselves riding out another year of uncertainty and isolation. We each battled our own stressors over the year that followed, ranging from work frustrations to deaths in the family to feelings of obligation to care for the people (and animals) around us, and so when we finally got together to start writing some more this spring, a topic that immediately came up was burnout.

Now you might already be thinking a couple of things here: For one thing, we're all pretty damn burned out from talking about the pandemic. In fact, it's almost poetic that the pandemic - in giving us one big thing that the entire world can commiserate about - has caused us to feel burned out by the very act of talking about it. And then, of course, there's the obvious question: If we're already talking about burnout, then why on earth are we saddling ourselves with more work by getting back into writing together?

Well…as Neil Young says, "It's better to burn out than fade away." 

And because this is Superman and God, we will of course be using not regular people like you and me as our case studies, but will instead be highlighting examples of superheroes who experience burnout, compassion fatigue, or moral injury in their capacity as the members of the ultimate “helping profession.” First, though, we will define the three experiences and describe some of the effects and possible responses to each of them.

Burnout

According to the Mayo Clinic website, “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” The site goes on to enumerate several potential causes for job burnout, including four that we think particularly apply to the situations of many superheroes, but especially to some versions of Spiderman: “unclear job expectations,” “extremes of activity,” “lack of social support,” and “work-life imbalance.”

Of the potential consequences of job burnout which are listed, the only ones that seem to be regularly depicted as affecting superheroes, are “excessive stress,” “sadness, anger or irritability,” and, occasionally, “alcohol or substance misuse.” One of the immediate primary effects of burnout is that an individual experiencing it could tend to start dehumanizing others. For instance, a doctor could reduce their patients to diseases or injuries rather than viewing them as people. For superheroes, this dehumanization might manifest itself towards the perpetrators or victims of crime, potentially leading to overreactions by the hero against criminals (like injuring them more than necessary) or feelings of resentment towards the person the hero is trying to help.

It is interesting that even characters like Spiderman, who at times succumb to bouts of uncharacteristic rage, are not often represented as feeling the full impact of burnout as we might expect given such extreme working conditions and ramifications for their personal lives. We surmise that it could have something to do with his age - he’s still young and resilient and hasn’t been on the job for very long. Let’s check in with him again in 20 years and see how he’s coping! 

As subject matter for escapist entertainment, burnout symptoms don’t really make for uplifting content, but it can work for some types of characters. For example, Jessica Jones displays a number of symptoms of burnout: irritability, alcohol abuse, and a general sense of excessive stress. However, in her case, it's really important to distinguish between PTSD and burnout: Jessica isn't burnt out because she was kidnapped, assaulted and made to commit crimes against her will. Her trauma and the emotions surrounding it have just made it harder to deal with the burnout from her private detective job.

The good news for us common folk - as well as for Peter and Jessica - is that if you can recognize that you are becoming burnt out at work, there are measures you can take to prevent or reverse the damage. In brief, as described in an article in Psychology Today: “To counter burnout, having a sense of purpose, having an impact on others, or feeling as if one is making the world a better place are all valuable. Often, meaningfulness can counteract the negative aspects of a job. Other motivators include autonomy as well as a good, hard challenge.” For most, if not all superheroes, these healthy coping strategies are within reach.

Compassion Fatigue

A condition that shares some characteristics with burnout but is nevertheless worth distinguishing, is known as compassion fatigue. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project website defines the experience as follows: a “concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another. It is associated with caregiving where people or animals are experiencing significant emotional or physical pain and suffering.”

Obviously, it is possible for this condition to coexist with burnout, or even for there to be a causal relationship between the two. Indeed, as the article goes on to say, one of the very antidotes for burnout cited above - the sense of improving the world in a meaningful way - can be a contributing factor to the development of compassion fatigue: “Affecting positive change in society, a mission so vital to those passionate about the value of caring for others, is perceived as elusive, if not impossible. This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of the flagrant disregard for the safety and wellbeing of the feeble and frail, takes its toll.... Eventually, distrust and negative attitudes prevail.” 

Psychiatrist Dr. Arpit Aggarwal, quoted on the The American Institute of Stress website, describes the symptoms of compassion fatigue as often “present[ing] similarly to depression or anxiety” and potentially “includ[ing]: irritable mood, changes in your sleep and appetite, lack of empathy, lack of pleasure in doing other stuff.” Although it is worth noting that superheroes are not often depicted as having a well-developed set of hobbies or social lives, their commitment to alleviating the suffering of others is frequently shown to consume most of their time and attention and to put a strain on their relationships.

It's relatively easy to throw out examples of superheroes who seem overwhelmed at times. Juggling an alter ego and sacrificing sleep to guard the streets at night will obviously wear down just about any human hero. To specifically illustrate compassion fatigue in the comic book world, we initially gravitated towards Daredevil. He becomes a superhero because of his strong sense of justice and awareness that the system is failing certain people, but struggles with how his nighttime vigilantism conflicts with both his religious beliefs as well as his law-abiding day job. However, upon closer examination, it became apparent that it is Matt Murdock's life during the day which causes the character to experience compassion fatigue:

The Matt Murdock that we encounter in the Netflix television show as part of the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is overworked, underpaid, constantly nursing injuries from his nighttime vigilante activities, and often feels helpless trying to fight a corrupt system in the courtroom during the day and on the streets at night. As he struggles to set boundaries in his daytime career as an attorney, his financial stability suffers from what might be called an over-abundance of compassion for the downtrodden. When approached by potential clients who are being used and abused by slumlords, gangsters and corrupt officials, he finds it difficult to turn them away whether they can afford to hire him or not. This causes additional conflict with his business partner Foggy Nelson, who frequently questions Matt's insistence on helping even those who can't pay their fee. Because he initially is unaware of Matt's double identity, Foggy is also often unaware of the connection that certain daytime cases may have with Daredevil's vigilante activities, forcing Matt to further deceive him in order to quell suspicion.

Much like with burnout, a healthy, proactive approach to dealing with compassion fatigue involves awareness, boundary setting, and self-care. While Matt does eventually confide in a few trusted individuals and accept their very necessary offers of help, we don’t really see evidence that he is proactively attempting to deal with his compassion fatigue. It will be interesting to see whether, as open depiction of mental health concerns becomes more normalized, superhero characters will begin to serve as positive role models by putting on their own (oxygen) mask first.

Moral Injury

According to a 2022 article in Harvard Business Review: “Moral injury is experienced as a trauma response to witnessing or participating in workplace behaviors that contradict one’s moral beliefs in high-stakes situations and that have the potential of harming others physically, psychologically, socially, or economically.” While many of the effects of this experience overlap with those of burnout and compassion fatigue - and may indeed coexist with one or the other - the primary distinction lies with who is perceived to be at fault.

Whether or not this is a valid perception, with burnout, society often considers it to be the individual's problem. In other words, they should have seen it coming and taken better care of themselves, set better boundaries early, talked with their supervisor about a reduced workload or time off to rest, etc. With moral injury, on the other hand, it's clear that the workplace culture, system, and/or leadership is the problem. As the aforementioned article goes on to stress, many employees are leaving toxic jobs not (or not just) because they are dissatisfied or fatigued, but instead “because their conscience has been wounded and their innate sense of justice violated.” It follows, then, that unlike burnout and compassion fatigue, moral injury cannot be effectively dealt with unless one removes oneself from the environment that caused it.

We do occasionally see examples of superheroes experiencing a crisis of conscience and temporarily walking away from the job, but they rarely quit for good. After all, the world is their workplace! As an example, in Amazing Spider-Man #50, Peter Parker finally becomes so fed up with the constant public criticism by J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle that he decides to stop making personal sacrifices for an ungrateful public, trashes his costume and gives up crime fighting. But before long, upon witnessing a brutal crime, he once again remembers the lesson that his Uncle Ben had taught him - that "with great power comes great responsibility", and returns as Spiderman once again.

If permanently hanging up one’s cape isn’t an option, the hero must find a way to either rationalize their response to the moral injury or counteract it by doing more good than harm. The alternative could be disastrous: In the Injustice story arc, Superman - having lost Lois and their unborn child to a twisted trick played by the Joker - becomes unhinged and takes it upon himself to bring peace to the world by force. What follows is a conflict that tears the Justice League apart as some of the heroes take his side (at first) as he flies around the planet violently enforcing a worldwide ceasefire at every level, whether it is a convenience store robbery or a sanctioned military maneuver.

More often, our heroes deal with the flawed system that inflicts such moral injury by taking on the heroic personas that we know them for. Seeing an imperfect justice system that overlooks the poor and downtrodden, Matt Murdock dons the Daredevil costume and fights crime with his fists at night. We might almost view becoming a superhero as the therapeutic act of taking control of a system that is too broken for their daytime personas to fix.

As we have seen in the above examples, superhero characters are not yet being depicted as dealing healthily with work-related stress and trauma and their consequences. Perhaps this is because traditionally it has been seen as a weakness to acknowledge the psychological, emotional, and physiological distress brought on by stressful circumstances. As our culture and the superhero genre undergo shifts, however, we can look to the real world of scientific research for tools to recognize signs and measure levels of the experiences described above. One such tool is the Maslach Burnout Index, which was developed by Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson to assess, on three scales or categories, the level of burnout an individual is experiencing. Based on further studies, the researchers created field-specific versions of the test, for example for the medical and teaching professions. If you are interested in finding out how burned out your favorite superhero probably is, we here at Superman & God have adapted one of the abbreviated tests to apply to that helping profession. You can take it here.

We started out the post with the concept of burnout and superheroes, but as we searched the canon for examples of stress- and trauma-related experiences brought on by work, we began to notice the trend of normalizing mental illness/mood disorders, at least for white male heroes. We can consider, for example, the stark contrast in the depiction of Batman in the 1960s vs. today. That led us to consider whether the societal expectations of women and BIPOC characters requires them to be above reproach. What do you think?

One Comment

  1. Sylvia says:

    Hilarious and thought-provoking content!

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