“Am I burnt out or is this feeling just symptomatic of modern life?”
Stylist’s social media director Chloe Laws reflects on the narrative around burnout and why it feels out of date in 2022.
Last week I told my boyfriend I was feeling burnt out.
Three weeks ago, I said the same to my therapist.
Two months ago, I told a colleague that I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t feel this way.
Six months ago, I asked a doctor if they could help (they said no).
Two years ago I shrugged it off to my mum: “I’m just a little bit burnt out!”
Five years ago I told a former boss, citing it as the reason I was leaving my job.
As I heard myself say that word yet again, I had an epiphany: I’m not burnt out. This is simply my life now. A new normal. Didn’t a famous philosopher once say: “Where do I begin and where does the burnout end?” (they didn’t, but I did).
Mental Health UK lists the symptoms of burnout as feeling tired or drained most of the time, feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated, feeling detached/alone in the world, having a cynical/negative outlook, self-doubt, procrastinating, taking longer to get things done and feeling overwhelmed.
I read this list out to a group of friends and they all laughed as we made quips like ‘mood’. The sad reality is this list doesn’t raise red flags in me, it just makes me think: ‘Yeah, sounds about right’.
Why? Because life is unaffordable. The future is uncertain in a ‘we’re living in a climate crisis and there might not be a future’ way. Late-stage capitalism has taken choice off the table for so many that working-to-live is just a reality.
I have multiple streams of income and side hustles – not in an early 2000s Girl Boss way, but in an ‘I need to pay my bills’ way. I feel like I’m drowning in a sandpit most of the time. But, it’s kinda chill? It’s not ideal but it also… just is.
My burnout feels different from depression. It is largely due to external factors, but it doesn’t mean I have autonomy over it. A functioning government, a not-burning world and a lottery win would probably solve it. Even the thought of doing a digital detox in the countryside for a couple of weeks might sound like a fix, who can actually afford that? And even if you can, I’m not even sure that will cut it any more.
Studies have found that women are more likely than men to suffer from burnout, with 42% of women said they were consistently burned out at work. Millennials (59%), Gen Z (58%) and Gen X (54%) shared similar burnout rates, whereas baby boomers (31%) had significantly lower rates. And a huge 69% of remote employees are experiencing burnout.
I, therefore, fall in all the most susceptible categories. This is not surprising. The majority of the UK is struggling with a cost of living crisis and our country’s belief in meritocracy has therefore taken a hit. Boomers believed social mobility was possible (especially if you were white and male) and you could make a comfortable living out of hard work and ambition. Now, for the first time in over a decade, that doesn’t feel possible. Millennials and Gen Zs are looking at their future and feeling despondent – UK inflation has hit a new 40-year high of 10.1% as food and energy price surges continue. All while UK wages in June fell at the fastest rate for 20 years. It feels like unless you inherited a lot of wealth, the odds are stacked against you. Throw in being a woman – which means we typically carry the burden of emotional labour in society and still do the lion’s share of housework and childcare – is it any surprise we’re feeling a lack of motivation and a sense of helplessness?
Speaking with Ceri Gillett, business consultant, coach and founder of business support community Mubo, she told Stylist: “Statistics show that women are more likely to experience burnout than men. Look at the lives of women, particularly right now. Women in the workplace are achieving more than ever; many of us have had to adopt our working styles or even our personalities to achieve the careers we desire, and for years there were very few women talking about it.
Women are more likely to take on more of the care responsibilities for children or family members, and with women having children later in life, this sometimes means increased responsibilities for both our children and our older loved ones.
And then there is the time in which we live. In a digital age, many of us feel less of a tangible connection to the communities around us – communities that we very much need to lean on if we want to steer clear of burnout. We’ve just lived through two years of extreme change and uncertainty, and people are exhausted.
I think burnout is common – more common than we realise – and it is often hidden because of the shame we feel about our inability to ‘do it all’.
The popular narrative around burnout feels out of date; we’re being peddled a myth that if you simply have a break or reprioritise your life that you’ll come out the other side, but this cycle of recovery and returning to normal no longer feels in my grasp. I’ve done everything recommended to me over the years: changing careers, changing my living environment, changing my therapist, changing my wellness routine. Even being able to even make these changes is such a privilege that many are not afforded, yet still, they don’t necessarily work.
What can we do about constant burnout?
Jessica Brewer, founder of Emiz HR & Coaching, believes understanding your triggers is the first step to getting out of this way of living: “What is happening to make you feel anxious. Is it work? Is it the news media? Is it a never-ending to-do list? It can be helpful to keep a note of these triggers so you can spot patterns.
“Once you understand what is triggering you, it’s time to start creating some boundaries to proactively prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. This can be the hard part as enforcing boundaries can sometimes feel uncomfortable. We might enjoy feeling informed and pleasing those around us. We might see being busy as a status symbol and feel that if we’re not productive we’re being lazy. It means saying no to things and other people, and that is hard.”
This might sound like I’m having an existential crisis. And, sure, maybe that is the case. But aren’t we all? Not one person in my life feels secure, content or full of energy right now. We’re stuck in Groundhog Day, in an endless loop of burnout, respite, burnout, respite – and that’s because it’s not our problem alone to fix. Life will continue to exhaust us and feel unmanageable so long as costs rise, the climate crisis worsens, inequality persists and our leaders do little-to-nothing about it.
But there is hope. Since I had this personal revelation, a weight has lifted. I cannot change what is out of my control, and instead of focusing so much on what I’m doing wrong (not resting enough, too much screen time, working long hours), I am cutting myself some serious slack. Surviving not thriving is my reality right now, and changing that isn’t going to happen by taking a few more lunchtime walks or sound baths – all we can do is hold those in power to account and demand a life more liveable.
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