What is burnout?
The WHO defines burn-out syndrome specifically in a work context with the following three characteristics:
- feeling depleted or exhausted
- mentally distancing, or feeling negative and cynical about your work
- reduced professional efficacy.
In my case I learned about burnout while going through it. My experience of burnout was influenced by factors like gender, my profession and relatively young age, cushioned by class and my support circle.
I want to help women prevent and recover from the signs of burnout – we’re at a higher risk across professions. I can only speak to my experience as a creative and knowledge worker – a relatively privileged place to speak from.
Why do people burnout?
Speaking through my own lens: I’m 24. I worked full-time in product marketing and run a print & digital design practice on the side. In my pre-COVID free time? I DJ’d. I produced music commercially and for myself. I devoted my time to mentoring junior colleagues out of hours and helped friends with anything from their personal sites to semi-commercial ventures.
Here’s the problem: I can guarantee at least one person is reading this thinking “Coool. Juggle it all hun. American Dream”. That’s the attitude that left me emotionally depleted, cynical about my day job and unable to produce anything creatively in my passion projects.
Here’s how I went from faux cool “sorry I’m just too busy!!!” texts to having regularly scheduled 15-minute sob sessions at work:
I missed every opportunity to take holidays. I rolled over two years’ worth simply because I was too young and inexperienced to realize I didn’t need to be on every single new, exciting project at work to be successful
I monetized every single one of my hobbies. Having a side hustle is great. But creative work is ultimately work: it’s demanding and challenging. When I wasn’t at my 9-5, I was producing websites or making music. As a result, when I tried to enjoy making music or illustrating – I couldn’t. It felt reductive when I wasn’t being paid for it. This toxic attitude left me unable to undertake the exploratory ‘unproductive’ experimental work that is so crucial to creativity. I lost the ability to use my creative work as solace because I added the unnecessary pressure of making things “commercially viable” in an already competitive landscape.
I didn’t advocate for myself. I set unreasonable expectations in a bid to challenge myself. If I could produce a project in a day, I’d try to do it in half a day next time. I accepted more freelance projects than any reasonable one-woman setup could handle. If I could manage 4 people, I’d try to be responsible for 6. If I could go from working til 7PM to working a set til 2AM, I’d do it again. But my fuel tank ran empty eventually.
In short – you burnout when you regularly push yourself beyond a sustainable level of effort or stress.
When you do not balance rest, postpone fun and take on more than you can manage, you become depleted. When we read our maximum capacity for work as an inherent weakness, and try to bulldoze past it, we end up overloading ourselves. Incidentally, we also become completely unpleasant to be around.
How do you prevent burnout?
Balance. While working in a toxic culture or environment wasn’t a great starting point, I could’ve changed my approach.
I should have:
- Taken regular breaks, even in the form of single days off
- Taken at least one extended holiday a year
- Fully switched off from work at some point in the day
- Been mindful in accepting a sustainable workload
- Been careful about monetizing my passions
- Acted my age!
That last point is interesting. By this, I mean I should’ve realized that our twenties are when we can afford to spend time figuring out what we enjoy. By pressuring myself to “Be PuT tOgEtHeR” by the arbitrary deadline of 25, I set up a destructive environment where nothing felt fun unless it was advancing me in some capitalist, quantifiable way.
Finally…realise if you’re a young woman in rooms full of men, you’re expending a great deal of energy fighting to be taken seriously whilst not being ‘too assertive’. This is draining. Find allies. Delegate and share this burden.
Well, thanks but I’m already burnt out. How do you recover?
Recovery is harder than not being burnt out in the first place. While what you actually do is going to vary, you’ll need to introduce balance and restful activities into your life.
If you’re a fan of extremes…
I quit my job and factored in two weeks of free time before starting another. I spent these two weeks accepting zero freelance projects, making absolutely no music and producing nothing of value. I went to a lot of museums, slept and actually spoke to my cat instead of treating him as furniture. I had my husband cook me fresh, delicious meals and spent time with him. I drank my tea while it was still f*cking hot. In short, I healed by quitting cold turkey. I took this newly-gained habit of slowing down into my next job, so I was able to avoid full-blown burnout next time.
If you’re mellower…
Introduce boundaries and acceptance into what you do. At risk of sounding fluffy – really do one restful, peaceful thing a day. Gradually accept the idea of time off as a necessity instead of an option. Learn when to stop working against yourself. Give yourself control. If it feels like you’re forcing yourself to do something, question the necessity of the task instead of yourself. If you’re balancing heavy personal circumstances with a demanding job, prioritise your energy. Take back your hobbies. You don’t need to start an Etsy for your embroidery – you can just enjoy it.
The luxury of burnout
I know, oxymoron. But it’s easy to read points of view like mine and think they’re the only lived experience of burnout.
Being able to identify and plan recovery from burnout is a luxury in itself. Simply by being in the UK, having internet access, three meals to eat a day and a roof over our heads: we have an immense degree of control in determining how our narratives go. It isn’t quite as simple with factors like poverty or immigration status at play. Being able to think about a work-life balance is a luxury.
Some professions demand a high degree of emotional labour and place us at higher risk of burnout: healthcare and service work included. The language and tools available to us in combatting burnout are a luxury. We should respect this.
If you’re a healthcare worker, we’re working on a piece specific to you soon.
– xoxo aimen 👽