A few weeks ago, on a very average Tuesday morning, I woke up, stretched next to my still sleeping partner, and immediately started crying. “What’s going on?” he asked me, bleary eyed. “It's work,” I said. "I think I'm burned out." He opened his mouth and then closed it again. I could tell he didn’t know what to say and I didn’t know what to say either.
Obviously, I know about burnout, but I always kind of assumed that it was something that people experienced either because they hated their jobs or had really high pressure jobs. Neither of these is true for me. I love what I do. I love the people I work with. The part of my job that a lot of people assume is stressful is deadlines, but honestly, I live for deadlines. There’s nothing quite as satisfying to me as getting something challenging accomplished that I really didn’t have enough time to do. Usually.
That day, though, the prospect of deadlines seemed unmeetable and my whole job felt stupid and meaningless. I knew what I was feeling because understanding our collective state of mind is basically my job, so I have the three most common signs of burnout memorized: irritability, dread, and that terrible, “I can’t do it,” feeling. I also knew that the worst thing you can do to deal with burnout is ignore it, so I texted my boss and spent the day at the pool. It was a great day.
Taking the day off helped, but it didn’t fix the problem. Honestly hearing how glum I had become was in itself kind of a wakeup call. Sure, I’m pretty emo, but my baseline level of happiness is generally above average.
I spoke to my boss, who workshopped changes in my schedule or assignments that might shake things up — but I wasn't sure that'd change the inherent "stuckness" I was experiencing.
If changing things at work won’t help me feel better about work, I wondered, then what? And then it hit me: I want to feel better, I have to approach my experience from a systemic point of view instead of thinking that simply making changes at work will “fix it.” So, I asked psychologists to help me investigate what burnout encompasses — and how I can address it at my job and beyond.
Technically, burnout is indeed largely about your job. But that's largely because most of us spend the majority of our waking hours working. “According to WHO, burnout is an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition,” says Christina Guthier, an occupational health psychologist in Gutenberg who studies exhaustion. In other words, the term “burnout” is specifically used by experts to describe profession exhaustion. The definition is a little blurry, says Guthier, but she prefers to limit the use of the term “burnout,” to the occupational realm.
Burnout is not evidence that you don’t love something or that you shouldn’t be doing it
But, Guthier explains, one of the primary symptoms of burnout — exhaustion — is often felt in more than one area of your life. Still, Guthier thinks that the central cause of the exhaustion that most of us think of as burnout is generally professional. And, she explains, there’s a reciprocal relationship at play, meaning that stress at work can lead to exhaustion and vice versa. And, Guthier says, that same kind of vicious cycle can play out in other parts of your life. “People can get exhausted —and burned out — from any part of their life," says Guthier.
Amy Nasamran, a psychologist who researches burnout at the University of Michigan, agrees that while the term, “burnout” was coined to describe a career-related experience, it can be useful for understanding other parts of our lives. “Many people reach burnout when the demands or expectations placed on us outweigh the resources we have available to us,” says Nasamran.
And crucially, Nasamran explains, burnout is not evidence that you don’t love something or that you shouldn’t be doing it. “Burnout can happen even with the things we love most, like parenting or our career,” she says.
My feeling of burnout isn’t happening because I don’t love what I do; it’s happening because I do love what I do and I might not have the resources to do my work effectively. So, then, it’s not just my work circumstances that have to change in order for me to feel better or differently. As both Guthier and Nasamran explain, one of the most crucial aspects of recovering from burnout is taking control over the aspects of your life that you have control over.
The reality is that, even though much of my work is largely self-directed, there are some aspects of professional life that none of us can control, like the fact that most work in the U.S. happens between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm and requires a lot of screen time. Many experts will agree that setting up restorative practices during your off-hours can be extremely helpful to your body and mind's "recharging." If you want to feel better at work, you need to spend your free time having fun and doing things that nourish you physically, socially, and emotionally. Consider that your clinically-approved prescription for pleasure.
While on the clock, "start working on the things one can do to decrease the chances of feeling overwhelmingly exhausted,” Nasamran says. But despite the ubiquitous advice to, “take a break” when you’re feeling burnt out, taking a break is no magic pill. “[Taking a break] can look different from person to person, whether it's getting outside for a 15 minute walk, a week off from work, time off from social media, or spending time with family and friends,” she adds.
Dealing with burnout is also not a one-and-done situation. “Engaging in things that make you feel energized can help, and building in time to reset as part of your routine each day is important,” says Nasamran. Back to those restorative practices: As part of my personal burnout reduction plan, I decided to make roller skating a priority. I don’t have time to do it every day, but importantly, I do have time to do it after work.
Knowing that I get to lace up my skates when I finish my last article gives me something to look forward to each day, and because it’s physically challenging, it gives me an energy boost and endorphins. Plus, it’s social, which seems critical for a person who lives and works solo.
Also, do not feel guilty about feeling burned out. There's nothing wrong with you. It can be challenging to accept your low energy levels if your identity is wrapped up in being ambitious or productive (it me), but the truth is that it will be at least a temporary part of most people’s careers. “It's a totally normal part of life that can happen with even the most motivated and driven people," Nasamran says, "especially in today's world where we're facing so many uncertainties and changes. Overcoming burnout is entirely possible.”