I recently did an interview about the World Health Organization’s new claim that burnout is now an official workplace syndrome. They define it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterized by symptoms such as feeling depleted or exhausted, experiencing mental distance from or negative feelings about one’s job and/or decreased professional efficacy. As I’ve heard this topic discussed, I’ve heard a lot of chatter about whether or not this is truly legitimate or if it’s a ploy on the part of millennials to validate laziness and poor work ethic. While I do think the millennial generation is struggling a bit with issues around entitlement, structure and hierarchy, I also think their refusal to just fit in to the workforce status quo is forcing us to step back and think about our relationship with work, productivity and how we define success.
Burnout might be a word that is tad overused, but stress is a very real thing. Statistically, more people die from a heart attack at 9 am on a Monday morning than at any other time. One could hypothesize that this is directly correlated to our relationship with work and the subsequent stress it can cause. We are also living in a culture that has become increasingly obsessed with the idea of success and productivity. As I’ve previously written about, we use busyness as a status symbol and wear our to-do lists like a badge of honor. And now we are starting to see the fallout. Sheer and utter exhauastion, inability to perfom at work (and most likely at home as well), and diminished joy or pleasure in activities. These are all repercussions of a packed schedule that doesn’t include down time or even sleep. And why are we keeping these schedules so packed? I believe it’s because we have subscribed to a more is more philosophy all the while scrutinizing ourselves and everyone else on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Companies are not immune to this. In our age of social media and influencers, there is increased pressure not just on individuals but on companies and organizations as well to keep up appearances and constantly compare and contrast with competitors. We don’t have to wait months or years to find out what everyone else is up to. We see it in real time. This puts everyone in hyper speed trying to stay ahead or at least stay even. And when an organization is in the throes of a hyper speed, “we are better than you” competition, there is of course a trickle down effect to its employees. Deadlines get tighter, expectations get higher, the number or projects happening simultaneously expands. We no longer have work hours. We no longer clock out at 5 pm. We churn and burn 24 hours a day. Our email is on our phone, our messages are on our email and everyone has our phone number. There is no separation between work and home. Work is everywhere, and the hours are constant. All this access is supposed to increase efficiency, right!?
While this perceived productivity and efficiency is taking place, our culture has been promoting this idea of work/life balance. We are supposed to be enjoying our lives more, being more present, making our houses in to homes. Of course, there are messages about exactly how this should look as well. So we frantically chug our third cups of coffee as we power thru never-ending to-do lists then race to our kid’s soccer games then throw a semi-home cooked meal together (because we will judge ourselves if we don’t) while answering work emails as we stir the boiling pot of noodles. After we rush thru bath time and bed time with the kids while juggling work calls and troubleshooting issues with a project, we fall in to the couch and pull out our laptops to finish answering emails and put the finishing touches on a presentation. Then we remember we have to do a load of laundry because it’s some sort of spirit day at school tomorrow and our kids just have to have the right shirt to wear. Back to the computer, then back to chores, back to computer. Fade to black as we fall asleep on the couch. Yep, we are living the American dream. Except this version is more of a nightmare of our own making. We are doing a million and one things in an effort to achieve work/life balance all the wall feeling like we might fall off the tightrope at any given moment.
No wonder burnout is a thing. There’s no way around it when we’ve burned the candle at both ends. The good news is that we have some say in how we live our lives. I believe it’s about V-B-S - values, boundaries, self-care and support. I think we have to look at it in that order. First, we have to establish what our value system is and do a real assessment of ourselves and whether or not we are living in congruence with that value system. Then, when we are very clear on our values, we have to set up our lives to reflect these values. This is where boundaries come in. We have to establish distinct and appropriate boundaries that keep us and others in line with those values. Then with our heads and hearts clear about our values and the necessary boundaries, we can develop and commit to specific acts of self-care. Self-care is not a one and done kind of thing. It’s a continuous commitment and daily effort. It’s not about finding the simple and accessible ways you can metaphorically put the oxygen mask on yourself. The last part is maybe the most important part. As humans, we are social beings. This means we are not meant to go it alone. We need connection and support. Often when life feels overwhelming, it’s because we are trying to shoulder all of the burden ourselves. You can’t minimize the impact that reaching out, sharing with someone else and then receiving their support in return can have. Sometimes just knowing that we are not alone makes it a little easier to keep going.
If you’ve ever used the term burnt out or stressed to describe your relationship with work or just your overall feelings in general, it’s probably time to take an inventory of the things above. V-B-S. Get clear and intentional. And don’t forget to get support. We all need it.