I’ve been experiencing burnout for quite some time, and I wanted to address it as it’s an issue that’s close to my heart. It also affects many people, with millennials suffering higher rates of burnout than previous generations. So what is burnout, and what can we do to combat it?
Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, brought on by excessive and prolonged stress.
Stress in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, We all experience periods of stress, and it’s almost impossible to live a completely stress-free life. Small stresses here and there can give us a sense of challenge and purpose in life. However, when stress becomes constant and overwhelming, for a period of months or even years, it can really affect your quality of life. You can get so overwhelmed and stressed that you’re left feeling completely paralysed (known as “errand paralysis“).
How can you tell if you’re experiencing burnout?
As someone who has dealt with burnout a lot over the past few years, and who rarely had to deal with it before that, I feel like I have quite a good grasp of when I am experiencing it and when I’m not. Burnout, for me, manifests itself in the following ways:
- A constant feeling of stress that either appears to be never-ending, or where the “endpoint” keeps moving further and further away as more things are added onto your schedule
- The feeling of having so many things to do all the time that you never have time to yourself
- An intense, constant feeling of being overwhelmed
- Feeling like the enjoyment has been sucked out of everything you’re doing, including things you used to enjoy such as social events or hobbies, because you simply don’t have enough energy to put into these activities any more
- Not feeling like you have time to actually enjoy life; everything feeling like a chore
- Finding new experiences stressful rather than exciting
- A sense of dread when going to check your calendar (in the same way that some people feel a sense of dread when going to check their bank account)
Burnout isn’t a recognised condition, so this isn’t a scientific set of criteria. But in my opinion, “burnout” is simply a word for what happens when your mind and body tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you need to take a break.
Causes of burnout
Burnout comes from pushing yourself to the absolute limit, for long periods of time.
I’ve talked about this a bit in my The Stress of Being Constantly “Switched On” post, but this state of being constantly “reachable” can be a massive contributor to burnout. It means you’re always a bit on edge. Even when you think you’ve finished the tasks you had planned to do, a new email or message could come in with a fresh set of instructions. You’re never quite guaranteed to be “done” for the day, and that’s quite an exhausting place to be.
On top of that, taking on too many responsibilities is one of the biggest contributors to burnout in my experience. It’s really easy for things to pile up, and although it might be possible to maintain a rigorous schedule for short bursts of time, it’s not sustainable.
Is your lifestyle sustainable?
A sustainable lifestyle is one which you can maintain for long periods of time without tiring yourself out. Pulling an all-nighter is unsustainable. It might be doable, but it’s a (quite extreme) example of how the ability to do something once isn’t the same as being able to do it regularly. Working a full week and then working the weekend for multiple weeks in a row is unsustainable, as is regularly getting under 6 hours’ sleep or not taking a holiday for months.
The biggest cause of burnout for me has been taking situations which are clearly unsustainable, due to an overwhelming number of commitments and responsibilities, and constantly stretching them for “just a little bit longer”. It’s “just until Christmas”, and then it’s “just until the end of January”, and then it’s “just until Easter”. For years.
I talk about this in my Road to Self-Care post, but I’ve definitely gotten into the habit of pushing myself further than I should.
The problem is that it’s often hard to stop. Once you know what your limit is, it can be hard to stay away from it. I was once told not to carry large bags around, as no matter what size bag you have, you’re likely to fill it – and it’s true. You can always fill the bag, and carrying too much for long periods of time can ultimately lead to strain on your back and shoulders. Similarly, you can always fill your time. The more free time you feel like you have, the more inclined you will be to fill it. This is why I’ve often seen burnout affect students, freelancers, and self-employed people more than those with regular jobs. When you have a 9-5, your work hours are clearly defined, and any conflict is easily resolved with “I’m sorry, I can’t do that, I have to work”. When you structure your own time, the possibilities for accommodating things into your schedule sometimes seem endless. It can be harder to be firm on what does and what doesn’t work for you, and moreso than that, it can be harder to realise what will and what won’t work in the first place.
What counts as “work”?
One big problem I’ve found with burnout is that I’ll be tricked by things that don’t quite seem like “work”. I often won’t count commitments that aren’t typical “work” commitments. I think this is a huge mistake, and it’s an issue I’m trying my best to tackle at the minute. Appointments are appointments, regardless of their nature, regardless of whether some people would do the same thing “for fun”. As soon as something becomes a commitment, as soon as you don’t have a choice, and cancelling would change your position or influence your job opportunities, then it’s work. End of.
It doesn’t matter if other people think you should or shouldn’t be enjoying said activity. Anything you are essentially forced to do counts as “work”. Now, given this new definition, try to evaluate how much time you spend working every week. Business lunches, networking events, even actual parties and drinks events that you’re only going to because “it’s a good thing to go to”, all count as work.
This can be a difficult thing to accept. Others in your life may not agree that you’re working hard, because the activities that take up your time aren’t the typical activities that people associate with “working” – but that is nonetheless what it is. Don’t let other people tell you otherwise, simply because they’ve chosen a different career path.
I’ve found that this false sense of “oh but it’s not really work” can be incredibly hard to deal with. I take on more and more, but because many of the activities seem fun and colourful from an outsider’s point of view, others often don’t really register how much is on my plate. And so they expect me to be free to help them with their thing.
This is definitely something to be wary of. Regular commitments are regular commitments. For me, posting online 6 times a week takes a huge amount of work. It’s not something I’m currently paid to do, but it’s still work, in the same way as unpaid or low-paid company internships are still work.
So how can we deal with burnout?
The good news is that burnout is directly related to your circumstances, and so it’s really possible for lifestyle changes to make an immediate difference.
The first step is to know your limits, and to be ok with them. Notice what is too much for you without judging (i.e. “I should be able to fit more into my week because this doesn’t seem like very much / because XXX manages to fit more into their week / because I want to achieve YYY and in order to do that I need to do a certain amount on a regular basis). Don’t feel bad for setting boundaries for yourself, whether that means saying no to social events, refusing to take on additional commitments, or even cancelling an ongoing commitment when it becomes too much to handle.
I should be clear here that I’m not advocating flakiness. Ideally, everyone would know in advance what is and isn’t achievable, and wouldn’t sign up for things that cross that line. However, that doesn’t always happen, and we need to acknowledge that we are all human and we all make mistakes. If a commitment really is too much, cut it out.
It can be hard to balance “being firm and having the ability to say no”, and “not being a total asshole”. To deal with this issue, I highly recommend reading the book “The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck“, as it outlines the difference between having boundaries, and just being a bad friend (Vogue has a low-down on the top life lessons in the book, in case, you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing).
We all need breaks sometimes, and figuring out exactly how often you need them and how little you have to be doing for it to count as a real “break” is a huge part of the process. For example, I’ve found that I need both Saturday and Sunday “off” every week. If I have to work through the weekend, I have to make a real effort to make up for it later, and I don’t like booking up my weekends too far in advance for this very reason.
Learning how to deal with burnout is a long process, and will be different for everyone. You’ll learn to recognise when you’re close to reaching your breaking point, and you’ll have to figure out what to do when that happens. You’ll get better at managing your time. Burnout really is something that could affect any one of us, so it’s important to be careful not to put ourselves in constantly stressful situations where we are demanding more and more of ourselves, particularly in this digital age. But ultimately, there’s only one real solution, which is taking some time off. Burnout is the equivalent of “being broke”, to which the only solution is saving some money and getting yourself out of the “minus”. It’s just that instead of money being the problem, it’s time. Time is an incredibly valuable resource, and it’s about time we all learnt to budget it properly.
Let me know if you’ve ever experienced burnout, and if you have any more tips and suggestions for how to deal with it! Xxx