If both your first and last task of the day is to check your emails, you’re not alone. Contemporary work culture, spurred on by advances in technology, has meant that we are expected to always be “on”. Gone are the days of the 9-5. Many of us work at all hours, possibly even holding down side gigs, and that’s before we take into account the labour we perform in other areas of our lives.
You may then have felt some sense of vindication, when earlier this year, the World Health Organisation listed burnout as an “occupational syndrome” on its revised International Classification of Diseases. Burnout is not a new phenomenon, but it has become increasingly pervasive in the last 20 years. A hallmark, or a symptom of modern life.
The WHO classifies burnout as “chronic workplace stress” that “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”.i This is a useful description, for burnout forms and ferments in contemporary workplaces. But as anyone who’s suffered from it can tell you, its impact can be felt in all areas of your life.
There has been much media noise about burnout being a millennial problem. Critics have derided the term as another talking point of a lazy, entitled generation, while those in the throes of it, see it as the consequence of working more unstable hours, and earning lower wages than their parents.
A battle of the generations helps no one however. Burnout can just as easily be felt by a student working two bar jobs, a single mother nursing ad-hoc agency shifts, and an older business owner, trying to sure up their nest egg. Workplace stress can affect people at any age and in any profession.
Burnout looks different in everybody. It might be that feeling of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, or the inability to complete simple tasks, a phenomenon journalist Anne Helen Petersen calls ‘errand paralysis’. Bills go unpaid, important emails unanswered – while the endless charade of busyness continues. For others it’s harder to identify. The sensation of constantly running on empty, a feeling of unshakeable fogginess or an irrational and unceasing cynicism. Burnout is at once amorphous and yet universally relatable. A catch-all for our workplace exhaustion and ennui.
As individuals, there are many tools we can use to avoid burnout and make your workplace duties more manageable. Taking a frank look at your schedule; delegating certain tasks and deleting anything that is not essential is a good place to start.
You might also need a little ‘me time’ to break up the daily grind. Give yourself permission to do the small things that help you to unwind. This might mean a walk out in nature, a catch up with friends or even a quiet day at home with the family.
The other important thing to remember is that workplace stress can be compounded when it intersects with other stressors in your life. You might usually be able to handle your busy work life but combined with additional family responsibilities or financial pressures, the finely balanced juggle can become too much to bear.
In these situations, it pays to be honest. The most radical act of self-care is admitting to a colleague or supervisor that you’re struggling. Only then can you work together to find a solution.
Christina Maslach, an academic in the field, lists breakdown of community as one of the main causes of burnout. A problem we can’t combat alone. Perhaps then, one of the simplest ways to address it, is to make our own small contribution towards fostering compassionate workplaces. Everyone’s capacity is different. So, check in on your colleagues. Ask if they’re ok. Offer them a hand if they’re feeling overwhelmed and dish out praise generously when they’ve achieved a goal. People need to feel valued, and when you approach your work in this spirit, it will come back at you tenfold.
We don’t need to wear exhaustion as a badge of honour. If you’re feeling like you’re running on empty, be kind to yourself. And if you can, open up about how you’re feeling. By working together we can all help minimise the impact of burnout.