No one leads their professional life with the aim of burning out. So how does burnout happen? What motivates us to push beyond our boundaries? Why do we persist with unhealthy behavior and attitudes when we are clearly on a crash course towards burnout?
For most, the answer is because there is a payoff – even if we are exhausted, cynical and increasingly ineffective (which are the three aspects of burnout, according to the WHO), there is some goal that lures us, so strong that we cannot seem to hit the brakes.
For me, burnout arose because I was afraid of confronting the fact that I was unhappy. Working hard and relentlessly – more than I could ultimately physically or psychologically withstand – offered a warm blanket of protection from the misery of confrontation with the emptiness within. As Tim Kreider puts it, “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
As long as I was cranking out endless billable hours, I didn’t have time to reflect on how poorly I thought of myself, and how little I believed I deserved or was intrinsically worth. The pressure of multi-billion-dollar transactions neatly closed access to the void where my self-confidence should reside.
And that suited me fine.
Understanding what brings us to the point of burnout takes reflection and time to tap deeper into our psyche, which when we are burnt out we don’t have the energy for, let alone the space in our schedules. In addition, not everyone has the privilege of experiencing burnout as I did, a middle-class white woman with few responsibilities.
My circumstances meant that I could quit my job with some savings, sans mortgage or student debt, or children to rear. Plus, back in Australia, my parents were alive and solvent and I knew if things ever really hit the fan I could stay with them and rebuild. Which sounded like hell on earth (I didn’t leave at 16 for nothing) but it operated as a kind of safety net that many lack.
This facilitated an enormous sense of freedom as to what I did next, not to mention how, where and why. There are millions of burnt out people who might be understandably jealous of the liberty my privilege affords me. I can imagine why.
For many, burnout results from having been given false information and expectations about the equation of life in modern society. For example, the notion that ‘you can do anything you set your mind to’ prevails. While intended to be empowering, this statement is paralyzing – if we can do anything, how the heck do we decide what to do… let alone do it with full commitment and no regrets or second guessing? This idea that we can do ‘anything’ also suggests that failure arises solely from not trying or working hard enough. As Kathleen Downs observes, the notion “ignores the very real structural and institutional barriers that exist in the world.”
Our society also peddles the idea that the solution to everything is work: work hard at school, work hard at college, get a great job and work hard for a promotion, then another one. And eventually you’ll be able to afford a mortgage, a great car, travel overseas every year, and tick all the boxes that society has set out for us. But in the wake of various financial crises, this is simply no longer the case.
During the early 2000s recession I took a minimum wage job at H&M in Amsterdam. Despite my two college degrees, I remember dancing in the street when I got that job. And for many millennials who graduated around the time of the global financial crisis of 2008, the job market was desolate, and the promise that working hard guaranteed prosperity proved hollow. To this day, job security is low, interning (a glorified term for working for free) has become a way of life as we try to get a foot in the door in an overcrowded market, and the fiercely competitive nature of the gig economy means that many of us live without health or income insurance.
Whatever the causes of our burnout, and whether or not quitting is an option, I believe that burnout can bring helpful lessons and that there is a way forward – a space to thrive – after burnout. Writing my book is showing me that as daunting as the causes of burnout might be, we can survive and thrive, and discover the magic and power in reclaiming ourselves from burnout.