In a culture that rewards busyness and work stress, women are experiencing a rise in burnout.
By Regine Malibiran
In today’s fast-paced and interconnected world, work can be anywhere —and everywhere. Email notifications, web conferences, phone calls: The list goes on and on. Clocking out doesn’t always mean the work stops anymore, not when emails can be answered from bed.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon and diagnosable syndrome that stems from unmanaged chronic work stress. When diagnosing burnout, the WHO and medical professionals look for three key symptoms: fatigue and loss of energy, mental disconnection from work (often compounded by an unchallenged negative outlook) and a decrease in productivity and effectiveness.
Stress in the workplace isn’t new or unique to millennials, but addressing its impact on people’s lives is.
“People have historically been burnt out,” asserts Catherine Bitney, a licensed psychologist. “But now it’s allowed to be acknowledged. In the past, people would have said, ‘We’re all burnt out. So what?’ ”
Acknowledging burnout is the first step to overcoming it, but in order to effectively treat it, one needs to be aware of the root cause. Millennials often place a sense of worthiness on their work productivity and wear exhaustion like a badge of honor, bragging about how little sleep they had the night before or how many cups of coffee they need to function during the workday. And while millennials might be more likely to face burnout, thanks to their seemingly around-the-clock drive to focus on work, the condition isn’t limited to that generation. In fact, burnout is so widespread that a recent Gallup study found 2/3 of full-time employees experience burnout on the job.
“We are very much a society that does not know how to rest,” contends Danielle Locklear, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate. “Resting is not modeled for us. What’s modeled for us is totally burning yourself out then binge-watching TV for three days and shutting yourself off to the world.”
Sometimes it’s not pride that keeps people from resting, but guilt. For women and people of color especially, it’s hard to ask, “Why not work?” when your parents rely on you financially or when rent is due in a week.
“For people of color, it gets more complex because having burnout is really a luxury,” Bitney says. “People of color are more often poor and are so overworked and underpaid. They don’t have the luxury to sit and think about who they want to be and what they should do with their life.”
Unfortunately, there’s no way to get a smartphone-type notification in the brain that says, “You’re approaching burnout. Slow down!” However, with intentional self- reflection and the right tools, it’s possible to take heed of the signs early and take effective action.
“If you’re not present for what’s going on in life and you don’t feel the elation of a success,” you’re close to burnout, Locklear advises. “You’re just moving through the uncomfortable feelings of hardship without processing them or integrating them.”
Burnout can also manifest physically: When the psychological signs are ignored, symptoms like insomnia, fatigue and chest pain can arise.
Sometimes uncontrollable factors like the environment and cultural background influence a person’s tendency for burnout. And inevitably, there are times when our focus must be fully dedicated to work. Fortunately, there are ways to be mindful of our limits and bandwidth. It just takes some practice.
“It takes a great deal of integrity to say, ‘It’s not what I want to do, but it’s what my body needs,’ ” notes Natalia Amari, a licensed clinical social worker.
A key piece of battling burnout involves being mentally in alignment with the body and honoring and respecting it.
“Keep an eye on your ‘shoulds,’ ” Locklear advises. “Oftentimes, if you’re saying, ‘I really should do this,’ it is shame-based motivation. It’s a good opportunity to say, ‘Is this actually something that’s for me or is this something I’ve been told that I should be doing?’ ”
When her clients slow down, are more mindful and rest, Locklear witnesses a shift in their mental and physical health.
“Nothing about their job, responsibilities or home life has changed, but their entire well-being has completely transformed,” Locklear says, “because they know when to say no to things and they are actively cultivating daily practices.”
Ultimately, burnout can’t be cured by a single bubble bath. The work will always be there. So, do as the experts suggest: Take a step back and carve out time to rest so you can be there too—on healthy terms.