Updated: Oct 19, 2020
I remember my own burnout experience. I was in my final year of an academic and competitive degree. It didn’t start out badly: in year one, I was thrilled to learn Latin - a language I loved - from some of the world’s experts. What a privilege. And I enjoyed the world of literature, philosophy and history that opened out before me. But I was also a classic over-achiever, and strived to get the top grade.
Fast forward a few years and the demands I was placing on myself as I approached my finals was intense, not helped by a competitive institutional culture and a peer group that was similarly over-achieving - and fried! I worked and worked through the tiredness, developed a worrying coffee habit, and even though I was exhausted, I felt I just had to push on. One morning it all caught up with me, and I remember lying in bed, knowing that I just couldn’t get up. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to; I physically couldn’t, pinned down by a sense of absolute fatigue. I went back to sleep for the day, managed to get up the next morning, and I dragged myself through those exams. I passed, and I knew that I couldn’t do that to myself again.
Burnout is big news. Last year saw the publication of a number of reports and the powerful viral article by Anne Helen Peterson on how Millennials became the burnout generation. In many ways she hit the nail on the head - myself, and many of my friends, could relate to her words. One of Peterson’s key points is the centrality of workplace to the value and meaning that we now attribute to our lives. While this shift has no doubt impacted on older generations, it is we Millennials – the majority without religion, and often delaying establishing homes and families of our own until we are much older – for whom work has become a key marker in our lives. And that is a heavy burden for work to carry.
What is Burnout?
Last year the WHO added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases manual to describe symptoms “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. While losses to the world economy due to depression and anxiety have been quantified at the really quite unimaginable $1 trillion, we are still only just getting our heads around the economic, cultural and individual mental health implications of a society inclined to burning out.
So what does burnout look like? For me, exhaustion was the main sign that things were very wrong. But there were other signs too, perhaps less pressing: a loss of motivation for the subject I loved so much, and a frustrating inability to concentrate. I was sat in the library, putting in the hours, despite feeling I was getting nowhere. But I pushed on, listening only to the voice in my head that said I had to achieve. Perhaps I would have done better to take heed of the very clear signs in my body and my broader sense of self that were screaming at me to stop.
While chronic tiredness is a fundamental aspect of burnout, this is generally accompanied by the onset of cynicism and a loss of motivation, and a drop in cognitive ability and working standards overall. When work is so central to our sense of meaning and self, and where this interacts with an over-achieving or perfectionistic mindset, we have a perfect storm.
Taking a break can certainly help, but for many it is not the sole answer to burnout. This is perhaps a first step in setting clear boundaries between our work and personal lives; so not only leaving the office at a decent time, but also not allowing email-checking to creep into our home time and weekends. It can also be interesting to consider how much we think about work outside of office hours. Can you leave it behind? Is it all-encompassing? This can give an indication of how effective our boundaries are, and how much of our sense of self is invested in work.
It can also be good to see the wood for the trees. In a society that can feel devoid of much meaning beyond consumption – according to our governmental priorities, at least – it’s not surprising that more and more of us are looking to work to fill a void. Sometimes we can find meaningful work that does fit the bill – work with social or a creative purpose. But we can’t always do this, and even when we can, work is never satisfying or fulfilling all of the time.
When our work doesn’t align with our personal value system, we can hit burnout as our sense of self is compromised. It’s what a therapist might think about as a ‘false self’ – and depression and burnout can arise in is this disjunct between who we feel we are at a deep level and the way that we are living our lives.
Unleashing our creativity
Building boundaries is vital if we are to give space to our creative impulses and allow them to flourish. CEO of Lloyds Banking group António Horta-Osorio has spoken eloquently about his own experiences of exhaustion and working himself too hard. He is now a big believer in the importance of taking breaks as a form of self-care – combining peak performance with periods of rest and regeneration.
Building in strong routines and boundaries has a knock-on effect in the quality of work, allowing our creative processes to flow more freely. Research suggests that we are our most creative when we are well-rested and when we can create space in the day for more free thought – allowing the mind to wander a bit, to meander and follow its own paths. Theories around mental health and personal growth describe the process of ‘unfolding’ - allowing new ideas to bubble up alongside periods of rest and other activities, where ideas and concepts can work away in our unconscious – or are given space to emerge.
Purpose and Meaning
While leaving work on time or taking a holiday might well help, thinking about the broader possible causes of a burnout episode is important. As with anxiety or depression, burnout can be seen as a warning from our bodies that the way we are living is just not working.
If you let this message sink in, then the implications can be pretty huge. Perhaps you need to look for a new job, or think about an entire career change? Maybe you want to adjust your work-life balance in your current role, and think about sources of meaning away from the desk – whether that be through friends and family, creative pursuits, or giving back to the community through volunteering or other projects. There is plenty of research about the positive mental health impacts of kindness and building social ties in your community. Where we take the pressure off work, we allow space for these other sources of meaning in life to emerge.
Burnout can be a powerful message, a clarion call for change in how we live our lives. That change could be relatively simple – building better boundaries, allowing for self-care – but it can also be transformative, resulting in a change of career or a search for new meaning. Opening up to what we need involves first listening to and acknowledging those bodily symptoms telling us that all is not well.