Burnout. It’s a term we are all somewhat familiar with. It could describe that foggy feeling after a long day at work in front of a computer screen or when working on a project that doesn’t seem to end. It’s icky but manageable and with time goes away. For many though, it’s a lingering aftertaste that goes beyond just one project and can go so far as to encompass almost every moment at work. This form of burnout, a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, has also been one of the major contributors to the “Great Resignation” when millions, particularly during Covid-19, decided to get up and quit their jobs. Nowadays, despite the recovery from the pandemic and the harsh instability of the current job market, many of us are still struggling at work and hoping to find the energy to just get through the week.
But what is burnout. And why now?
So let’s first start by dismissing some of its assumptions.
- Burnout does not primarily occur in low-paying jobs but seems to span across many professions and industries.
- Legitimate feelings of burnout should not be perceived as just a phase or something to “plow through”. Neglecting burnout, if anything, can ultimately lead to even more problematic mental health conditions, such as anxiety and chronic fatigue.
- Burnout is on the rise, even after the pandemic, with 42% or desk-based workers reporting they are feeling burnout. Gen-Z’s and women are at higher risk.
Living in an age where career opportunities have been more promising than ever and with much more autonomy, one would think that we have reached a Golden Age where we are progressing to even greater work-life balance. Instead, the statistics are telling us we are ultimately far more miserable than ever.
A Little History
Work, up until the 1950s was primarily industrial. The hours could be long and demanding, but the job was different in two very fundamental ways. First, when you were done for the day, you clocked out. That meant that you had completed a day’s work and no one expected you to be available until the next workday. Nowadays, when your worth is not necessarily the ability to operate a machine or produce widgets, but more often based on knowledge and creativity, then one can potentially work no matter where you are or at what hour. Even in ideal scenarios when a manager or boss honestly respects your free time, it still can take a lot of self-discipline for some of us to refrain from doing just one last little task when our smartphone or laptop is always at arm’s length.
Another difference is what the job meant back then. For many employees, they weren’t on the brink of some major breakthrough or testing their own creativity to new heights. They also knew the job they were doing would probably be the same type of job for years with little room for growth. They did seem however to be part of a communal experience. The skills they brought weren’t particularly unique in any way but were part of a well-oiled machine that each member made their contribution. The worker would feel as if he or she was essentially a part of the company more than the other way around.
Nowadays, it is really hard to see our jobs as a cog or a nut, because first off, we want to believe we bring unique value to our role and second, because our expectations in a job often is to develop and grow, as part of our individualistic journey ( in which by the end, we all become are own CEO’s, of course).
There are obviously flaws in both systems laid out here, but there is something definitely weird about our current model. People regardless of the time period got a paycheck. That, in the end, is the most basic foundation of why we work.
The workers in the older model really seemed to understand that. Obviously, some chose to work in different factories vs. others, but they didn’t expect their job to also provide a sense of grand uniqueness. Perhaps just a little dignity. Nowadays, on the other hand, we don’t just want a paycheck. We want an identity. Recent Gallup studies have shown that to be the case for every 7 out of 10 workers with a college degree. True, there is something very empowering about that. But this can come at a cost, especially if we spend a good part of our life striving for a dream job, and end up feeling we’re crappy at it. Or that we can’t take any downtime since that would mean we’re not that passionate about what we do. Or we find we’re not appreciated enough. The list goes on.
“Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s the mantra most of us have grown up with. And indeed, feeling engaged in the work that we do and believing we are making a difference are all important factors to job satisfaction. But is it possible we are taking ourselves a little too seriously? And is it possible that by taking a step back and on occasion, trying to see ourselves as more than our careers, we could not only be doing a favor to our mental health, but also make us better at our jobs?
It turns out, it can. Moderate levels in which we are able to detach from our jobs, or focus on other things in our lives during off-time hours, not only improves overall well-being but also in job engagement. Being present with family and friends on the weekends, committing to a weekly hobby or simply getting good sleep are just some of the ways for us we can practice letting go of our jobs with the expectation that when we return to work, we will actually be more productive.
Surprisingly, we are also finding that in many cases, we may not need to be working as hard as we imagine. 4-day workweeks have become the new hype and for good reason. Studies have already suggested that this model in which employees in certain sectors work one day less a week but receive the same salary, results in decreased levels of burnout, stress, sick days, and even an slight increase in production.
A Message From Hospital Custodians
It also turns out that really no matter what we do for a living, we can find ways to attach meaning and satisfaction to what we do. Take one study by James Button and Amy Wrzesniewsky. They were interested in seeing how hospital custodians, not necessarily the most respected profession, viewed their jobs. There were many who reported the job as low-skilled and not very important, yet others seemed to see themselves as essential workers, partaking equally in the mission of healing alongside the doctors and nurses. These exceptional workers were found to go out of their way to consider the patient, be it by asking which floor cleaner perfume the patient disliked or by coming back to mop at a later hour, knowing the patient tended to walk around the hospital room during that earlier hour and didn’t want to risk the patient slipping on the floor. What’s so fascinating about all this, is that these employees were actually told specifically in their job description NOT to interact with the patients. They weren’t following instructions! They were being disobedient! And yet, in this process coined “job crafting” they were doing a better job than what was expected and enjoying their position far more.
No magic potion is going to all of a sudden turn our workplace into the Garden of Eden.. Quitting our job, on the other hand, often does not lead to much more appealing circumstances. In fact, “the Great Resignation” has more recently become more known as “the Great Regret” for many who have adhered to these callings. What could be helpful is being much more mindful as to how we view our jobs and how dependent we consider our jobs to make up who we are. Taking a step back and realizing that we can also achieve success beyond what we do between 9-5 (or whatever hours we decide to work), already can help pave the way for a little more balance in our life and a little less burnout.