This week, the dating app Bumble hit headlines after giving its employees a week off to recover from ‘burn-out’ at work. The decision to give 700 staff members ‘a paid, fully offline one-week vacation’ was announced via Twitter back in April, linked to a New York Times article arguing ‘The Case for a National One-Week Vacation’. But the move was back in the news yesterday when Bumble’s Head of Editorial Content, Clare O’Connor, praised founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd in a now-deleted tweet for having ‘correctly intuited our collective burnout’. It’s an enviable move. But before we all fire off a CV to Bumble (they’re OOO anyway), there are some questions to consider. Firstly, what actually is burnout? How do we spot the early signs and stop it escalating? Is it a lazy catch-all for a systemic wrong, or a genuinely useful term? Are we all burnt-out?
Burnout feels like a modern affliction, but traces of it have been found as far back as the Old Testament (in 2013, a Swiss psychotherapist argued that Moses was burnt-out). Though, the term was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who used it to describe the severe stress that arises in ‘helping’ vocations, such as medicine, social work, or teaching.
But over the decades, burnout spread like wildfire, crossing professional industries and levels, permeating through the fashion intern to the tech CEO. In a society that glamourises overwork and digital devotion, everyone is burnt-out; the cause is not just infinite to-do lists, but a sense that the only cure is the cause – more work. ‘Burnout is when you hit the wall – but instead of collapsing, or taking a rest, you scale the wall, and just keep going,’ wrote Anne Helen Petersen in her 2020 book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. ‘Burnout arrives when every corner of our lives feels unstable, and we convince ourselves that working all the time is what will fix it,’ she writes.
The economic and societal instability of the pandemic have made Petersen’s words more relevant than ever. With the world in flux, work has provided a constant that is, paradoxically, in peril, leaving us clinging to structure and meaning from a source that could very well disappear. And investing too much of ourselves in a job is a surefire route to burnout. In The Cut’s podcast, psychotherapist Esther Perel discussed this issue, explaining: ‘When work is the place where you outdo yourself, where you search for self-worth, it becomes unrelenting. If work structures your life to that extent, then the inability to meet the demands will translate into burnout.’
Arianna Huffington wrote that because of burnout, she ‘collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, broke my cheekbone and woke up in a pool of blood’. But the symptoms can often be more subtle and difficult to spot, especially if you spend all day sitting alone bathed in the omnipotent glow of a laptop.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised burn-out as an occupational phenomenon (rather than a medical condition) and outlined its symptoms: depleted energy or exhaustion; cynicism or negativity towards a job; mental detachment from work; and reduced professional efficacy. It’s a list that sounds all too familiar, and one that taps into the cruel contradiction at the heart of diagnosing burnout – you’re working more, but you’re getting less done.
According to the internet, there are a million ways to deal with it, ranging from the practical (take a break, go on holiday) to the all-too abstract ‘find harmony’ and ‘fill your day with joy’. Breathe in, drink water, go outside, do some exercise and breathe out also all figure. Sorted? Wellness-focused burnout busters are all well and good, but can feel like yet more tasks to add to the agenda. Regrettably, there is no sure-fire cure to suit all, but here are some achievable steps to consider:
Confronted with the labour of key workers, WFH woes can feel minor or self-aggrandising, but your stress is no less valid if you work away from the frontline.
It can feel hard to believe this when you live in a society that asks ‘what do you do?’ before anything else. The answer is to do something else, sometimes. If you have an interest you’ve been neglecting, give some time to that. If the word ‘hobby’ turns you off, connect to something bigger than yourself. See some art, walk, invest in a friendship or romance.
If you’re experiencing burnout, the likelihood is that your colleagues are too. The very recognition of this can be reassuring, and together you might well be able to come up with some practical solutions.
It’s hard to switch off when you live in your office, or carry it with you constantly by way of smartphone, so set a shut-the-laptop, switch-off-email-notifications hour in the day. If you’re struggling to stop, try sticking to it two or three days a week at first.