People all over the world enter the workforce with a glimmer in their eyes and a hope that the actions they take can positively impact those around them — but for so many people, the reality they face is one of despair, depression, and burnout.
The national unemployment rate of the United States has lowered significantly since 2010, and many countries around the world are experiencing a period of remarkable growth. Yet we still hear reports of people suffering from overexertion and exhaustion.
In 2015, Matsuri Takahashi died from suicide at the age of 24, after writing on her social media, “I want to die. I’m physically and mentally shattered.” In the USA, the number of employees working long hours is rising–but few of them receive proper compensation.
Lest you assume the issue is specific to Japan or the United States, 35 employees of France Telecom also died from suicide between 2008 and 2009, citing work stress and management decisions.
What does burnout look like?
Burnout doesn’t always appear as painful desperation. Some signs of burnout include feeling cynical about the way your life is going, the conviction that nothing you do matters, and a pervasive sense of helplessness. You might say:
- “No matter how hard I work, I can’t keep up.”
- “I’m wasting my time here.”
- “I’m exhausted, and I never get enough sleep.”
- “Am I in the right company?”
- “I dread Mondays, and I feel apathetic about living.”
And other signs of burnout include:
- Feeling that every day is a bad day.
- Feeling disinterest or apathy with your work.
- Engaging in escapist behavior, such as drinking or excessive smoking.
- Developing a short temper and constant negative outlook
- Experiencing physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chronic headaches, or sleeplessness.
- Wishing that you could disappear or quit
- Constantly delaying work and procrastinating or self-sabotaging
- Feeling extreme hatred or resentment towards your work colleagues
Burnout often causes you to feel as if the entire world is against you. You might think that your situation is “rigged”, and that you’re being crushed under the massive weight of that horrible thing we call “life”.
Burnout isn’t something you can recover from in three easy-peasy steps.
It can take weeks, months, or even years.
In order to begin the process of healing, you’ll have to recognize the signs your body and mind give you once you’re teetering at the edge.
Remember when you were younger, and the world still seemed like a hopeful place?
Empathy, compassion, and authenticity were once valuable.
But even after years of grinding, you might feel as if you’re still stuck in the same place. Your passion, enthusiasm, and charm get sucked into a black hole, traded for cynicism, pessimism, frustration, and constant, crippling self doubt.
Your story is probably a lot like Mr. Incredible’s–once the hero, your rosy world suddenly got swapped for a colorless cubicle. You’ve woken up from a simple dream, and found yourself working for corporate machines who care about nothing except the best ways to maximize profits. Instead of helping others, your time is spent helping them squelch as much cash as possible out of the little guys.
Burning out isn’t the same as having a horrible day at work. Rather, it’s more like having an unending sequence of horrible days at work.
New York magazine eloquently describes it as “a problem that’s both physical and existential, an untidy agglomeration of external symptoms and private frustrations.” (Basically, you can feel burnout in your body as physical exhaustion, and suffer from the brain fog it causes as well).
What causes burnout?
Two doctors (Michael P. Leitner and Christina Maslach) wrote an entire book about burnout, and they explain that there are six major imbalances that can cause employees to develop burnout. Do any (or all) of these sound familiar?
- Values conflict: What are your own core values? If you’re suffering from a values conflict with your company, cofounder, or employer, then few of those core values are aligned.
- Lack of control: You have little to no autonomy in your job. People don’t care about your input, and even when you try to help out, no one cares. Perhaps your sense of control is constantly undermined or heavily restricted by a nosy micromanager.
- Insufficient reward: You do a lot of work, so why aren’t you compensated fairly? You feel unappreciated. You’ve dedicated your time, money, and effort towards the company you work for, but they always seem to take you for granted.
- Workload: Your workload is just too much to handle. People are shoving their own burdens onto your shoulders, or you have too many unrealistic deadlines to meet. Maybe your work is just too complicated, and it’s impossible to do it alone.
- Unfairness: Your organization treats you unfairly. Your complaints and requests are ignored. Maybe your management has clear favorites. Assignments and promotions might be given to butt-kissers, rather than to people like you who try to be honest and do your best.
- Breakdown of community: You feel unsafe and paranoid in your workplace. You suspect that your colleagues talk about you behind your back, or they act simperingly patronizing in front of you. They might be passive-aggressive. You might feel as if you have no one to talk to about the conflicts and stresses that you’re dealing with.
One of the most sinister things about burnout is that it causes so much shame.
Well-intentioned questions and offers to help just make us feel worse, because logically, we should be grateful for everything we have. Outsiders might feel that we have the perfect life–but we don’t feel happy, we feel tired.
Burnout is isolating, and makes us feel weak. We try to power through and just “work stuff out”, or to “get over it”.
Burnout will never go away on its own. We’re quick to dismiss mental disorders and feelings because they aren’t immediately visible like a broken leg might be–but ignoring them can be just as painful. The more you ignore burnout, the greater the risks in the future. Remember: you don’t have to get better in a day. Healing from burnout requires rehabilitating your soul, whether or not you believe in such a thing–give yourself the time and space you deserve.
Take a break.
Many companies are required to give you a certain number of workdays off. Instead of stashing them away for the break you never give yourself, use them.
Constantly piling more and more stress on top of your plate causes dangerous imbalances. A vacation won’t clear away the problems you have to face, but it’s important to really give yourself a break.
Stop checking those e-mails. Turn off your phone. Do something that you haven’t allowed yourself to enjoy for years.
Redefine your own values and goals.
- What do you value in life?
- How much are you willing to give up in order to nab that high salary?
- Is it truly worth it to you, or is that what everyone else is telling you is worth it?
- Sometimes, your job just doesn’t align with your long term goals. It can be painful to admit that.
Identify your values.
- Do you value profit?
- Do you value security?
- Do you value time with your family?
Then, think about what sort of work is most gratifying for you. You might have a comfy spot as a senior project manager, but if you long to work in the creative field, then that burnout will be difficult to shake.
Martin Seligman’s PERMA model (he’s a psychologist) explains that people require five essential elements in order to feel happy.
These are positive emotions, engagement, relationships (positive ones), meaning, and achievement. After you figure out what your values, think about how you can apply them to your job and career.
It could require a long and honest talk with your boss. It might mean quitting entirely and seeking greener pastures elsewhere. And it might be as simple as reflecting positively about the job you have now, to see if there are benefits that you’ve overlooked.
- What do you want out of your life?
- What do you want out of your job?
One of the rare benefits of burnout (the silver lining, you could say) is that it offers you a chance to honestly reflect on the life you’ve lived so far. It can function as a powerfully positive force for good, both for yourself and the people you care for.
Focus on the basics.
There’s quote that gets bandied around often on the Internet. It goes something along the lines of, “It’s okay if all you did today was survive.”
When you’re burnt out or depressed, even tiny molehill tasks can seem like mountains.
It’s okay if all you did today was survive. What are the hard things you need to do today to keep yourself healthy? Eat regularly: don’t just graze on cheap chips or junk food.
If you can’t bring yourself to eat a full, proper meal, then at the very least, grab some healthy snacks like fruits.
Sometimes, we have to be brave enough to parent ourselves.
Are you getting enough sleep?
Disconnect from the Internet for a while and do something boring, like slogging through an obscure textbook. Rather than staying in bed all day on the weekends, try some exercise.
You could walk to the local library to read a few books, or enjoy the quiet of a museum.
- What makes you happy?
- A walk at the park with your family?
- A quick jog in the morning?
- A five-minute Youtube fitness video?
You might be annoyed because I’m repeating this so often, but:
It’s okay if all you did today was survive.
There’s a difference between truly having no choice and simply feeling like you have no choice. We defeat ourselves all the time.
Instead of asking that cute person out on a date, we convince themselves that they would never like us, and continue with our lives, oblivious to their feelings.
Instead of asking our boss for more time off, we simply assume that they’d never grant it to us, and develop major burnout.
We trap ourselves into cycles fueled by our own cynicism, paranoia, and fear–without bothering to check what the situation is truly like.
You shouldn’t test your limits by forcing more burdens onto yourself. Rather, you should test your leeway at work. Start small, and ask to leave on time for a chance. Or you could designate one day each week where you won’t take any work home at all.
Perhaps you could implement a small personal rule, where you disconnect from your devices after you leave the office.
If you suffer from pushy bosses or lazy colleagues, then practice saying “no”. Setting strong boundaries is a crucial part of living a healthy, whole life.
People who really love and care about you won’t take advantage of your kindness. You might have been fooled into thinking that you have to be useful in order for people to like you.
But that’s not true. People who truly like you and desire your friendship will like you even if you have nothing to offer.
Speaking of friends–I guarantee that the people around you (friends, family, colleagues) have dealt with feelings of shame and hopelessness before.
Feeling weak and incapable doesn’t make you a loser; it makes you human. It can seem like you’re facing all your problems by yourself, but that’s really your negative self-talk shining through.
Somewhere, someone who has lived on this planet (be it yesterday or 500 years ago) has struggled with the same problems that are plaguing you now. That’s one of the weird, heartwarming things about being human: you’re never as alone as you think you are.
If you’re struggling from a heavy workload, then try delegating some of the tasks. They may not do it exactly like you, but there can be a unique beauty in that.
Micromanaging a team will only exacerbate your burnout.
The path that burnout takes you on isn’t necessarily easy. Talk about it with your family and your friends. Or, go to a counselor.
Admit to yourself that there’s a problem so that you can create habits which can address it. And don’t blame yourself if the issue doesn’t instantly go away.
I’ve struggled from burnout. My mom has. My brother has. My boss has. All of my friends have, too.
And I can promise you that most of the people you admire for being so strong–they’ve had their own lapses and moments of weaknesses. You can do it, and when you can’t, we’re here for you.
PS: If you feel in crisis, check out these resources.