“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
But I don’t think Neil Young had the kind of burning in mind our modern work culture has succumbed to. Why do we, with all our modern day luxuries and opportunities, continue to fall prey to a rising rate of burnout?
In a study from 2015, the Belgian human resource service Securex wrote that 2 out of 3 employees suffers from stress at work, an 18,5% rise from 2010. The study goes on to mention that not only has the pressure to perform and the workload grown, but the commute to work and back has become increasingly taxing. Spending more time at the office, as well as more time in traffic means we have less time for day to day errands, social activities, as well as quality time with friends and family. Which in turn places another kind of stress on us, the possible anxiety that we might be underperforming as a human being in our own life.
Burnout is a slow process; it doesn’t flow along the same eroded path for all of us. It’s also not something where you can point towards a single cause. Burnout is a culmination of contributing factors: Our relationships; our social obligations; discrimination; isolation; existential moments of crisis; toxic work culture; social shame; chronic and acute health issues; parenthood; instability; bad communication; acute loss such as the death of a loved one, divorce, the end of a long relationship; existing mental illness. The list goes on, and you might relate to some of these and not at all to others, someone’s path to burnout is their own, but there will always be aspects that overlap. A few of which I’d like to unpack.
Burnout is a slow process; it doesn’t flow along the same eroded path for all of us.
A LACK OF BOUNDARIES
Many of life’s struggles come from not setting clear boundaries towards yourself and towards others. You say yes when you want to say no; you get stuck in conversations that you’re too polite to get yourself out of; you still agree to favours even when you have a pile of your own stuff you need to get through. Hell, the entirety of your studies and job might be the result of letting yourself be pushed into a choice.
People don’t easily notice stress and mental exhaustion in others, and even when they can, that’s still not a guarantee that your need for space and rest will be respected, after all, it’s not a bleeding, open wound you’re ignoring. It’s this mostly invisible thing, and because we still don’t take things we can’t see all that seriously, it’s easy to dismiss the signs and eventual fall out of mental exhaustion, both in yourself and others.
Why don’t we draw up a comparison: Say you have Type 1 Diabetes, meaning your body produces little to no insulin. That means—unless you’d like to slip into organ failure, a coma, and eventual death—you have to check your blood glucose multiple times a day and inject yourself with insulin if your blood sugar level is off. Now replace Diabetes with burnout or the beginning stages of burnout, imagine how much differently you’d approach exhaustion and stress if the effects of not treating or preventing it were as visible as depriving a body of insulin.
How often a day, a week, a month do you check in with yourself? How often do you monitor the effects your work, your relationships, and your habits have on your wellbeing? Set boundaries and respect the boundaries of others.
DISCRIMINATION, EXCLUSION, AND ISOLATION
Sadly, in 2017, people still experience discrimination* at work over race, gender, religion, disability, sexuality, age. People can also experience exclusion because of their personality, set of values, or interests. As well as isolation over mental and physical health issues, job hours, life challenges, and existential moments of doubt around life choices.
Isolation, though some people and groups are more vulnerable, can happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, education, and income. More pointedly, feelings of isolation don’t require physical isolation—though those who work night shifts or work mostly on their own are more at risk—it can happen in a building full of people. A recent article on the Huffington Post outlines the isolation that American, female physicians went through after becoming a parent. Feelings of inadequacy both as a parent and a physician, afraid that sleep deprivation would cause them to make a mistake,
“The depressing irony of leaving my febrile child to go to a shift at the hospital, where I cared for someone else’s child with a fever. The daunting task of facing the accumulated email, the research project I’d let languish, the demands of a career I suddenly felt utterly unequipped for.”
And in turn not knowing who to talk to in fear of showing vulnerability in a demanding field.
The divide that discrimination, exclusion, and isolation creates only grows larger the longer we stay quiet. There is a fear of reaching out and asking for help while doing so most often creates the tentative first steps towards bridging the chasm. It is through building communities, collaborating, and sharing our experiences that we grow towards a stronger whole.
YOU’RE SIMPLY WORKING TOO MUCH
You almost never take a true break in which you can properly recharge. There is a reason we have weekends and vacation time, and it’s not to pour even more time and energy into work. Many of us still believe that the more time we spend on something the better the result will be, except mentally intensive work doesn’t respond to the same formula that more labour intensive work does. Our work output doesn’t double because we invest the double amount of time into it or as Mark Manson, the author of ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck’ puts it:
“…not all work is created equal. Most of us, for most of our lives, conceptualize work as a linear function. What I mean by “linear” is that the amount of productive output you create is directly proportional to a number of hours you input…The only work that is linear is really basic, repetitive stuff. Like hauling bales of hay. Or packing boxes. Or really obnoxious data entry on gigantic spreadsheets. Or operating the fryer at McDonalds…the truth is that most types of work do not produce linear returns, it produces diminishing returns.”
Wait, what? You mean sacrificing all that energy and quality time with my loved ones isn’t actually paying off? Unless you work in sales at a department store or any other kind of store; the food service industry; a factory; or almost any kind of physical labour, then the answer will be a resounding and loud NO.
If you’re exercising your brain by doing any sort of problem-solving, or important decision-making, then you’re limited in how much you can effectively accomplish in a day…worst case scenarios, people would start producing bad work or make bad decisions because they were so tired. And when you accumulate enough bad work and bad decisions, you actually unintentionally create more work for yourself. So you go from working for diminishing returns to working for negative returns.
Which pretty much boils down to doing both your work quality and yourself a disservice. Mark Manson’s article is quite the insightful, curse-filled gem so do yourself a service and read the whole thing.
Think of all the things you could’ve been; you could have done. You could have set up your life in a way that allowed you to live on a beach for half of the year; you could’ve climbed mountains; you could’ve started your own business; you could’ve travelled; you could’ve had children already. You could’ve, could’ve, could’ve ad nauseam. Don’t fear missing out on things. You cannot have it all. There are only 24 hours in a day and some of those you do need to be asleep for. Be at ease with not doing and having all the things. Pick a few things and truly do them well.
At some point you’re going to have to turn your analysing inward and ask some tough questions, like: Do I love what I do? Do I like my job? Do I even like the sector of work I am in? Do I like the people I surround myself with? If your answer to any one of these is NO, then change something. You can change jobs, hell, you can even go back to school or take online courses to grow towards a profession you might like a great deal more.
Don’t be a slave to ego and overestimate your abilities or yourself. Have a clear understanding of what you’re good at and keep nourishing those skills, don’t be afraid to try new things or collaborations, you might find something you have a real knack for.
THE SMALL ANNOYANCES
Marcus Aurelius—one of the greatest emperors Rome would ever know—wrote in Meditations: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength”. It is within your reaction to outside events that you show the kind of person you strive to be. Yes, your clients might cause you to brim with the need to chuck your computer out of the window and never take another design job ever again; yes, it sucks when a colleague gives you a disparaging comment about an idea you proposed; yes, your boss might be the biggest asswipe on this plane. But, as Marcus Aurelius says it is within your power to choose how you respond. You might feel under-appreciated, undervalued, and each and every slight chips away at your identity, but you can choose not to be angry, not to be sad, and not to feel sorry for yourself. It might sound entirely absurd, but it is also one of the most radical things you can do. Each time you succeed in not letting outside events run havoc on your emotions, you become better equipped to deal with the next challenge.
“You have power over your mind — not outside events.
Realise this, and you will find strength”
—Marcus Aurelius (121-180), from 'Meditations', his daily notes to himself on how to be a better man.
So take a closer look at your life and ask what the costs are for the kind of work you do and if those costs are worth it. Know yourself, your pitfalls, your fears, and your strengths and how to work with them. Don’t see it as a cure for burnout, but as a vaccination.
—written by Julie Smits
for Fosbury & Sons
* Discrimination is against the law (antidiscriminatiewet) and the Belgian government offers a wide range of services to get in touch with if you feel you’re being discriminated against:
- Your union.
- Unia (Interfederaal Gelijkekansencentrum): Every single person that feels discriminated against within Belgium can count on the support and services of Unia. Unia is an independent service with inter-federal jurisdiction (they can act on a federal, regional, and communal level). They can inform you of your rights and options when you're discriminated against.