Is Constantly Talking About Burnout Making Us Burned Out?

Is Constantly Talking About Burnout Making Us Burned Out?

Send help—I’m having a meltdown. As I write this, it’s Sunday evening and I am smack in the middle of experiencing the existential crisis the Internet likes to call ‘the Sunday scaries’. I, for one, hate that such a cutesy name has been given to the process of all of my weekend’s positivity devolving into bleak dread, but any name I would give it would likely be too nihilistic to trend on the socials, so Sunday Scaries it is. My former, more productive self used to use Sundays to get a head start on the week: meal prep, hot yoga, maybe make a reservation somewhere interesting. But lately, I feel paralyzed by my own disdain for the work week ahead. I find myself checking my emails on Saturday afternoons, not to show more initiative or finish a report, but to mentally prepare myself for the barrage of tasks and PowerPoints that will all blur together in due time. Twitter tells me that I am likely experiencing burnout, and from the looks of it, Twitter might be right.

Given my diagnosis, I did a little research on what burnout actually is. Of course, I know the concept of feeling exhausted and stressed by a job, but because of how much we tend to use ‘burnout’ as an explanation for making sweeping life changes or going off the grid, I wanted to know if it truly captures how I’ve been feeling. Merriam-Webster has three entries for burnout, the first of which is “the cessation of operation usually of a jet or rocket engine”. CAMH, similar to Merriam-Webster’s second entry, describes burnout as:

“a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. [In] the course of employment {it} can make one feel emotionally drained and unable to function… {it} can reduce productivity and can lower your motivation and cause you to feel helpless, hopeless and resentful.”

Welp, nailed it. I am indeed burned out. But, now what? How does renaming my neurosis help cure me? I noticed that when going down the rabbit hole of ‘tips to help burnout’, the advice falls somewhere in between “quit your job” or “drink more water”. Thanks, Google. Unrealistic on one end, and tone deaf on the other. Article upon article, in the last two years in particular, to remind you that you’re working too hard for too little money and you shouldn't be happy about it, with no real solution to the problem other than to find a new way to work smarter. Sigh. I’m burned out from burnout.

I’ve come to the realization that the concept of burnout, is in part, a fallacy. That’s not to say that people aren’t actually exhausted or stressed or overwhelmed by their jobs (it goes without saying that this is a very real experience), but central to the idea of burnout, as we all know it, is the false idea that work, itself, is supposed to be intrinsically enjoyable. Feeling burned out is framed as the result of being in a workplace that doesn’t make you “happy” enough, yet we don’t seem to consider the idea that work being our source of happiness is impractical for most and unsustainable for all. And now that we have a sexy name for our discontent, we’ve created a new avenue for our workplaces to assuage us with wellness packages and on-site RMTs in an effort to keep us ‘happier’, hopeful and less resentful for longer. Sure, your workplace doesn’t want you to burn out, but it’s mostly because they want you to keep working.

It’s not a coincidence that we use the same word for the failure of a rocketship to describe career exhaustion. Many of us have spent our lives being conditioned to ‘shoot for the stars’ professionally, but no one talks about what happens if we can’t (or don’t want to) make it there. The reality is, burnout is a product of the hustle culture Kim Kardashian thinks we simply don’t understand. It’s about working until our wheels fall off, and priding ourselves on sleeping 2.5 hours a night to fit in more productive, lucrative activities. If you get tired, that’s fine, kind of! Just get up and try again…and again, and again. Capitalism needs profit, competition and labor to survive, and if you fall behind on any of those three, rumor has it that you’ll never make enough money to be happy. We’ve been made to believe that it’s always the job of the moment that burns us out, rather than culture that forces us to be there. But the system isn’t broken—it was built this way.

As I write this, I am still knee-deep in my Sunday scaries. It’s nearly 11pm, and I’ve checked my email three times in the last two hours for no reason other than senseless torture. On a positive note, however, in my time thinking about my own burnout, I have developed a finely-tuned spidey sense for burnout BS. I’m hyper aware of when a corporation offers on-site wellness services at all hours of the night to distract you from questioning why you’re still at head office at 1 a.m. in the first place. Or when any CEO uses its attention to burned out employees as a means of virtue signalling, but ignores the policies that got them there in the first place. And beyond the office, I am hyper hyper aware of consuming content that disguises an unhealthy hustle culture with superficial tips to avoid the burnout that keeps that same culture alive.

I’m trying to imagine what a burnout panacea might be, and though my creative juices aren’t ideal at this hour, I think I see a glimmer of hope. For example, the four day work week, popularized by our happy Scandinavian friends, might actually be the baby step (emphasis on the word baby) we need. It won’t work if we simply cram 5 days of work into 4, but if we use it to reframe our lives so that we’re at the centre (instead of our jobs), we might stand a chance. Yes, the big North American corps will likely co-opt it to seduce us into working longer, but at least the extra non-work day might get us closer to the elusive work-life balance we keep hearing about.

Or perhaps the real answer is to just lean in and wait—those that live the ‘FIRE’ way of life (financial independence, retire early) spend their 20s and 30s working as much as possible, save 50-70% of their income, retire in their 40s with savings and investment interest, and are never obligated to work again. Burnout then becomes a frame of mind, because there’s a timeline and end goal that is tangible and in the foreseeable future. Is it realistic for all of us? Maybe not. But, if burnout is inevitable, it’s not a bad way to beat the system. Neither of these are perfect solutions, but they are still options, and at least knowing that they exist presents the escape button we so desperately need.