The slow rise of burnout culture

The first article in our "You Drive" series, inspired by a question by Thomas Chaplin on burnout and overworking.

The slow rise of burnout culture

Burnout. I’ve experienced it. I’m sure many of you out there have as well. That state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. The prolonged, incessant stress fuelling that exhaustion.

It’s also on the rise, which should be no shock. A lot of us have been working from home during the pandemic lockdown, blurring the lines between personal and professional time.

Indeed, the job aggregating website, conducted a survey earlier this year where they asked 1,500 US workers about their level of burnout. They found that 52% of respondents were experiencing burnout at the time of the survey - up from 43% seen in the results of the same pre-Covid questions.

Over half of the people are experiencing burnout. That’s an incredible number. 1 in 2 people are suffering from prolonged stress and mental exhaustion as a result of work. That doesn’t even take into account people like students, who are struggling just as much if not more so.

Both US and European academic surveys within higher education institutions show that around 70% of respondents noted that they were stressed in 2020, up from 32% in 2019.

What is going on here? Something clearly isn’t working, and a lot of it comes down to our relationship with work and academia. It’s the inherent rewards system that’s in place in both. The narrow definition of excellence that both tend to employ, and it feels to me like there’s a long way to go before we see real evidence of empathic leadership in either camp.

This means that we can’t rely on our employers or academic institutions to resolve the issue entirely. They’ve got a duty of care to our wellbeing, and I’ve mentioned this before, but we’ve also got to take charge and be responsible for our own wellbeing, and make sure that we put our wellbeing first.

If you are experiencing, or have experienced, burnout, the first piece of advice I’ll give you is not to internalise that burnout as a failure in yourself. It is a result of unrealistic expectations that are placed upon you by your employer or academic institution. It is not because you are not good enough at what you’re doing.

I appreciate that there will be times when we have to push ourselves to get something done, to work a little into the evening to get a project or assignment across the line, for example, but that should not be the norm. If an employer expects you to consistently work longer than your contracted hours each week, then there’s something very wrong with the culture of that employer.

You are not a machine, you are not defined by how well you do in your quarterly performance review, and you are not your job title. You’re a human being, and you are not put on this earth to satisfy the needs of the company that you happen to work for. Make sure you take time for and value your own needs, because if you do nothing for yourself, then your life becomes the work, and all of the stresses and strains that come with that work become you.

That brings me on to my second piece of advice. Make time for you. You’ve got to have ways of detaching from stress, particularly in this time of lockdown and remote working. Our living spaces and work spaces have blended together, making it psychologically trickier to step away from the idea of work. There’s no commute, no office space we’ve been going to. Nothing to mentally separate the two.

So find time for what you enjoy and do it. Get out for a run or down to the gym. Go for a walk in the local park. Cook something extravagant for dinner. Fall into the narrative of a good book. Spend time catching up with friends and family. Whatever it is that enriches you, let it enrich you.

You also need to make sure that you're taking time during the work day. I feel like I've said this a lot before as well, but sitting at your desk for a 5 hour straight run is not conducive to either the quality of your work or your general health. If it helps, set a timer on your phone or computer every hour to get up, have a little walk around, or grab a glass of water.

There's a tool that I've found quite useful in the past called the Pomodoro technique. It essentially breaks your time down into 25 minute blocks, with a 5 minute "rest" break in between. I'm not going to detail it too much here, but if you're interested in finding out more about it, there's a good explanation by it's creator Francesco Cirillo.

Ultimately, we must remember that our time is valuable, and that our wellbeing is the foundation upon which we operate as human beings. Give it the importance that it deserves, and make sure to prioritise your own wellbeing needs.