A few years ago, I found myself really burnt out. Well, at the time, I wasn’t actually sure that’s what it was. At first “burnout” seemed like a dramatic way to describe what I was experiencing. But I was really, really tired. I was struggling to motivate myself and looking at my calendar starting filling me with a sort of low-grade dread.
But the confusing part for me was that on the surface there wasn’t any obvious reason why I would be so tired. It didn’t seem warranted. I didn’t deserve to be so tired. Sure, I was busy, but no more busy than anyone else. So what was wrong with me?
But when I couldn’t shake it off after a few weeks and when I ruled out more serious health issues, it became clear that what I was experiencing was, in fact, burnout. And at a certain point it hit me: my burnout wasn’t stemming from my distant past; it had actually been more than a decade in the making. I realized that I’d been resistant to truly relaxing for at least 15 years. Even when I had “time off” I never actually relaxed. I never felt as if I was allowed to relax. And so I didn’t. I never let myself off the hook. Taking downtime made me feel guilty. The guilt was subtle – but incessant. And over time it wore me down, physically and mentally.
What I learned pretty quickly is that our culture doesn’t understand burnout, what it stems from or how common it is. We do not understand that a lot of us can get burnt out on a perfectly “normal” 40-hour work week. That’s partly because that 40-hour work week is a completely arbitrary creation, and ignores data that shows that most people can only give three to four hours of focused attention to their work a day before there are diminishing returns. (I highly recommend the book Laziness Does Not Exist on this.) But the other reason we can get burnt out on a “normal” schedule is that overworking isn’t always the cause.
Job burnout is very real, but it is not the only cause of burnout. We tend to think that taking a rest or a break from work will always reverse our burnout. (And sometimes it will!) But because we can also get burnt out from other, less obvious causes, the cures are often less obvious as well. We can get burnt out from years of stress. We can get burnt out from unresolved emotions or unresolved trauma. And we can get burnt out from simply living the wrong life for us (the wrong job, the wrong career, the wrong relationship, etc).
If your cause of burnout stems from one of those less obvious places, just taking a break from work will not cure your burnout. You are going to have to do a little more digging to figure out the cause of your depletion. The cause may be more emotional and spiritual than merely physical.
Right now, two years into the stress and uncertainty of this pandemic, most of us are experiencing burnout big-time. And while it partly stems from the physical exhaustion of overhauling everything about the way we live, work and parent, it’s also probably stemming from nonstop stress and emotional exhaustion too.
We also don’t have a good understanding of the subtler ways that burnout manifests beyond a general sense of exhaustion. Because of this, lots of people misunderstand what they are experiencing and try to “push through”, leading to even more burnout. Burnout can also manifest as apathy, difficulty focusing, cynicism, pessimism and other symptoms of depression and anxiety. It can manifest as physical symptoms such as chronic fatigue, insomnia and lowered immunity.
How many of us experience those symptoms, with no idea that burnout could be the culprit, and just pound another coffee and keep going? No wonder we are so tired and wired and low-grade miserable. We are living in a culture that doesn’t understand or honor the human need to relax and recuperate. We are expected to operate like machines, with barely any downtime at all.
So – assuming you can’t quit your life and go chill on a beach for a few years – what does healing from burnout look like? The first cure is rest. And I mean true rest, not rest where you feel stressed and guilty for resting. That’s not rest.
It also helps to think through where your particular burnout stems from. Does it stem from overworking? Or from a less obvious place like months of extreme stress or years of emotional exhaustion? Or maybe, like me, you are burnt out from 15 years of low-grade stress and the incessant feeling that you were never doing enough, and constantly forcing yourself into a career that you actually weren’t meant to be in?
After identifying the source of your burnout, then you can get honest with yourself about what you can do to help yourself. If it’s overworking, the obvious cure is a shift in the way you operate and very deliberate rest and downtime. It will depend on what’s feasible for you, but if you find yourself in a job or career that you cannot, practically speaking, quit, the question is how can you create more rest and recuperation time outside work?
If the cause of your burnout is more emotional, mental, or stemming from something more chronic, I recommend – in addition to resting – working with a great therapist to help unpack your emotions and trauma, gain coping mechanisms to heal, and avoid burnout in the future.
Remember: you are not broken for becoming burnt out. It’s our culture that’s broken. Whatever the cause of your burnout, you need and deserve true downtime, and a shift in the way you operate and treat yourself.