Burning Up With Burnout
Burnout has been a burning topic for the last few years, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and adjusting to the “new normal.” Part of the problem with this “new normal” was that it was pretty much just like our old one–despite the global health crisis and shut-down of so many social resources that we relied on to show up to our work as our best selves, including day-care, accessible healthcare, and opportunities for exercise and recreation.
Parents who were already bending over backwards trying to coordinate shuttling their children between school, daycare, after school activities, babysitters, and friend’s houses in order to perform at their workplace were now left trying to juggle kids either running rampant around the house while they worked or trying to get them to engage in online school while doing their own work or participating in meetings, partially taking on the role of teacher or tutor alongside their usual gig.
And if you or anyone in your household got sick, you had to weigh your choices of going to the E.R. and risking worse exposure or simply hunkering down and dealing with it all on your own. Anything that you may have already relied on to deal with a high-pressure job or parenting duties, from getting a babysitter for the night or going out to eat was taken off the table. We were told that everyone was suffering right now and to just sit tight and pull through it–often with absolutely no adjustments to work responsibilities or expectations, hours and schedules, or a sustainability plan.
But the pandemic is over now, right? So we can all just pretend it never happened and return to life just as it was before. Well, this is a clue as to why we feel burnt out.
We’re all sitting with so much unacknowledged exhaustion, resentfulness, and uncertainty–all of the ingredients to make up lasting burnout–and expected to go on despite it.
How do you know if you have burnout?
Burnout is described by Psychology Today as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” Sounds a lot like the conditions created by the pandemic, right? Another key aspect is that it centers on a lack of control or a conflict with our sense of self.
These conditions were already being spurred by our capitalist, consumerist society that encourages us to do and produce rather than just be, which is human nature–but over time this has turned into not just a moral preference of our society but a need for survival. It’s consistent and enduring–and regardless of whether it’s what you want to be doing or whether you see any sense of purpose in your work, you have to do it anyway in order to have any moments to just exist.
The following are symptoms of burnout:
- Difficulty Focussing
- Easily frustrated/sad (suddenly bursting into tears)
- Feelings of dread about certain tasks
- Compassion fatigue
- Feeling hopeless, helpless, or a lack of control
These symptoms are pretty consistent with depression, among other things–because burnout is a form of depression that comes from a lack of control and an enduring state of stress. Depression is also often contextul. The difference with burnout is that it’s typically tied to occupational stress, but it can also be tied to social roles such as being a parent or a caregiver.
So if you are burnt out (and I’d venture that almost all of us are!) What can you do about it?
Don’t blame yourself for burnout.
Putting a narrative of self-blame or shame on top of burnout will only exacerbate it. And besides, these narratives are part of what drove us to this point to begin with. The TikTok trend of “quiet quitting”, which really just meant being ok with doing the bare minimum required at your job, received such intense backlash because of the Western “hustle culture” that judges us so harshly for not going above and beyond all of the time–which is just not sustainable.
Burnout is a contextual problem–a societal, structural issue. While there are individual changes you can make to recover from burnout, you’re not at fault for experiencing it any more than you’re at fault for coming down with the flu.
And guilt and self-blame are actually quite often a symptom of burnout itself–as if it’s only our own laziness in having human needs stopping us from doing what’s humanly impossible. And if you don’t have burnout or aren’t working yourself to full capacity, then you’re seen as simply not doing enough. Having burnout has become sort of a badge of honor for doing everything that you can to produce and contribute, even disowning your own needs–so the more you blame yourself, the more you’re feeding into the societal problem of glamorizing and normalizing overworking.
Focus on what you can control.
Just like with the flu, there are no certain steps that you can take to ensure that you won’t come down with it. What you can do is to keep yourself as healthy as possible which will help to stave it off, and do what you can to take care of yourself to help you heal from it as soon as possible.
But if your only goal is to heal from burnout as quickly as possible so you can get right back to doing as much as you were before without altering anything at all–you’re missing the point. Burnout comes from working at an unsustainable pace or in an unsustainable way, or in activities that directly or indirectly are in opposition to your core values. The antidote is going to involve adjusting your lifestyle in the ways that you can to make your work more sustainable and better in line with the things that are truly most important to you..
For example, setting boundaries between work and home, or what you’re able to do at work vs. what you’re not. You may think that you can do it all, and maybe for a while you can, but this isn’t creating sustainable conditions for yourself. The New Yorker refers to this as no longer “what happened to you when you had nothing, bent low, on skid row; it was what happened to you when you wanted everything.”
Do what you can to ensure that you’re taking care of your body and your mind with nutrition, proper sleep, and exercise. Don’t let work encroach on these, no matter how important that work might seem, it’s not more important than your basic needs.
And your basic needs do actually include time with family, friends, and things that make you feel personally enriched and add meaning to your life. This is not a luxury, it’s a crucial ingredient to giving us energy and making life worth living.
Consider what your body and mind are telling you.
Burnout is an expected, natural, human response to unnatural, unsustainable working conditions. Rather than pathologizing this response and working to get rid of it or continue on despite it–shift the focus to the conditions that may need to be changed to make them more sustainable for you.
Whether it’s shorter shifts, more vacations, a lower workload, more resources or support, or even a change in careers altogether, something has to got to give–otherwise the thing that is going to give will be your health. There is no cheat-code to get out of burnout, and the more you fight it the worse it gets.
Accept that your body and mind are trying to give you an important message about your needs–and that message may be that you need to slow down, shift directions, or re-evaluate what’s really most important to you in life.
Work to live, don’t live to work
Healthcare & helping professionals are those that are most susceptible to burnout, including:
- Physician Assistants
- Social Workers
- Veterinary Technicians (Vet techs)
Although they often have a real passion for their work that brought them to the field, they may experience compassion fatigue and burnout when they aren’t able to get their own needs met due to long hours, unfair working conditions, stagnant wages and understaffing.
Creatives such as actors, artists, performers, and musicians can also be primed for burnout because these roles put an expectation for financial gain, rapid production, and ongoing performance that may not be attainable on something that isn’t always consistent by nature.
High-achieving and high performing workers like lawyers, CEOs and managers, and researchers are also susceptible to burnout when there is constant pressure and unrelenting stress in their everyday routines.
If you’re struggling with burnout, consider talking to a mental health professional about how to get your work life more in line with your values and to follow a lifestyle that’s actually sustainable.
I offer individual online therapy for anxiety disorders, panic attacks, insomnia, burnout, and other career and lifestyle issues and am trained as a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher. Mindfulness techniques can help you learn how to manage anxiety and stress through creating more of an understanding of the emotions within the body and can help you get more in touch with your values and needs.
I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who enjoys working with anxiety, college students, expats, women’s issues, and insomnia through a CBT-I lens. I work with clients in the United Kingdom, United States, or elsewhere in the world. So, if you’re looking for a counselor in Chicago (or almost anywhere in the United States or the world) and are interested in learning more about how I could help you, please don’t hesitate to contact me.