The Biggest Falsehood About Burnout
This episode is sponsored by our friends at Workr Beeing.
Trigger Warning: Today’s post refers to mental health struggles up to and including depression, addiction, and suicide.
About two weeks back, a viral Buzzfeed article about “Millennial Burnout” was making the rounds, and causing a bit of controversy along the way. This is one of those pieces with a catchy title that I’m positive most people shared without reading – and I totally understand why. Clocking in at nearly 16,000 words, it’s a beast. And reading it made me feel like I was having a panic attack. It was an intense run-down of all the reasons our generation is set up to burn out. From our student debt, to hyperconnected office culture, to the proliferation of fast casual dining. I mean, the list felt endless.
I get it. This is same soapbox I’ve been shouting from for the past 6 years since starting Bossed Up. But there were a lot of shortcomings in this piece, which I feel compelled to speak to. First, it was rightfully critiqued for not including the unique stressors faced by black and brown people, which Tiana Clark expounded upon in her excellent follow-up piece on black burnout in America.
But what I’d like to focus on today is how the author spreads the false claim that finding a solution to this problem is hopeless. It’s not.
Towards the end of her piece, after extolling all the ways in which she and fellow millennials are so burnt out that we can’t even to get to the post office, register to vote, or essentially take care of our basic needs, she writes this:
The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there’s no solution to it. You can’t optimize it to make it end faster. You can’t see it coming like a cold and start taking the burnout-prevention version of Airborne.
This line of thinking is not only patently wrong, it’s dangerous. But I sympathize with the author, who was clearly writing this piece from a place of burnout herself. Because the idea that there is no solution to burnout sounds a lot like burnout talking.
To be clear, burnout is a clinically diagnosable mental health disorder according to the WHO. And it’s defined as a state of chronic stress characterized by its symptoms, most notably, a lack of agency. When you’re burnt out, you often no longer see yourself as an agent of change in your own life. It feels like all your efforts and your choices, no longer impact your outcomes. In a word, it’s the feeling of hopelessness. Like you really can’t change the state you’re in.
So when the author says there’s no solution to this all-consuming cultural crisis – until for a brief moment when she suddenly tosses out the idea a socialist revolution and the fall of capitalism entirely – is peddling in hopelessness. And hopelessness is an irresponsible belief to endorse, most especially for those suffering with mental health disorders who are likely to click on a headline like this.
I didn’t think this would come up when I originally sat down to write this episode, but I think part of why I’m so angered by this is because I recently lost a friend due his own mental health struggles. He’s a college buddy, someone my whole group of freshman hall mates were close with over the past 15 years. He’d struggled for a long time, but was doing all the supposedly “right” things, like going to therapy, getting sober, and seeking out support. And we still lost him. It’s left me feeling dumbfounded in grief, looking for signs we may have missed, and so angry about the lack of resources available today to save the lives of people like my friend.
When you’re struggling with maintaining your mental health, the chorus of hopelessness in your own head can be hard enough to overcome. So for a viral piece like this to peddle the same lie – it hurts my heart and my head.
The truth is, there absolutely are steps you can take as an individual to regain your power over your day-to-day life, to grow your sense of agency, and to heal from burnout. I know because I’ve done it myself. And while burnout can certainly be a gateway to more lasting mental health disorders like depression or anxiety, burnout is actual easier to recover from than either of those.
But changing our own behaviors isn’t enough. I agree with the author that systemic solutions are absolutely necessary. But if we’re too burnt out to even register to vote, those system changes aren’t coming anytime soon.
What I’m most sick of is the false binary that we often hear about: that it’s either all about policy solutions or it’s an individual battle against burnout in our own minds. That oversimplifies how we absolutely can find our way out of our burnout work culture.
I actually close the first chapter of my forthcoming book with this very point, which I’ll share an excerpt from:
“It’s not a binary choice. We need to make big changes on the systemic level through Congress and among the leadership ranks of organizations and businesses, and we can make small changes right now in our own lives that start with us…
I believe in playing the cards we’ve been dealt, while changing the game. We can make immediate progress in taking the reins in our career and life to ensure we’re living up to our own deeply-held values while we lobby for change on the systemic level, too. We can advocate for what we need to be successful in our own careers while pushing for the social safety nets that would level the playing field for all Americans to do so, too.
So my focus is on how YOU, starting right this very moment, can take control of your own life, despite the unjust stage upon which this is all playing out. Acknowledging that our culture can constrain our options, I’m focused on how you can make mindful – maybe even radical – choices about how you live and work that starts to change our burnout work culture from the inside out.
Furthermore, I would argue that all of us – each and every person looking to grow their power and advance their personal and professional lives through reading this book – will be in a better position to advocate for the sweeping reform we all need from a place of personal sustainability. Grow your power, and you’ll be better able to grow the power of others. Put your oxygen mask on first, so you’ll be able to assist those around you. Lift as you climb. It’s what Bossed Up women do.”
We’ve certainly arrived at place in history where far too many of identify with burnout, but the path ahead is not hopeless. It’s going take assertive action to take care of ourselves and one another. I hope you’ll join me in pushing back on this narrative of hopelessness and do what I wish I’d done more of in the past: be proactive in not only your self-care, but in reaching out to the people in your world who you worry might be struggling in the same ways.
This world isn’t hopeless unless we give up hope.