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Is Burnout Inevitable?



In the past few days, I’ve read no fewer than three separate articles on the concept of “burnout.” Clearly, in the fatigue of a pandemic-constrained world, people are both feeling exhausted and also questioning the inevitability of that exhaustion. It’s an important question, because it’s hard to be any decent version of yourself, let alone your “best” or fullest self, when you’re emotionally, psychologically, and physically drained.


But is that burned-out feeling inevitable, in today’s fast-moving world? My short answer is: No. Not as a sustained state of being. In fact, if we want to flourish and thrive as human beings, it’s essential that we find ways to avoid or combat the exhaustion of burnout.  It’s just that the cure can be a difficult one for many of us to embrace.


Exhaustion is not a new phenomenon. Humans have experienced physical and psychological exhaustion after intense periods of crisis, or situations requiring extreme effort, since the dawn of time. Battle fatigue has been around as long as there have been battles. And people have been dying of that exhaustion for every bit as long, whether the challenge was trying to survive food-deprived winters, being forced to flee from undefeatable enemies, enduring natural disasters or even the inhuman demands of lifelong enslavement.


But if we’re not in the midst of a battle for survival, and have some level of freedom, shelter, warmth and adequate food, that kind of exhaustion should be something we only experience in times of crisis. A personal or family illness or death. Big life changes. Natural or economic disasters that hit us unexpectedly. In between those events, we should be able to pull back to a more sustainable level of stress and output that restores and rebuilds our energy so we have a reservoir we can draw on to get through the next crisis, whenever it occurs.


If that’s not happening, one of three things is going on: 1)we’re exhausting ourselves by worrying overmuch about each and every thing we’re doing, draining our energy for no good reason (something worth consulting a therapist to correct) … 2) we’re in a psychologically toxic work or living environment that’s so draining we need to either leave or at least reduce or balance the amount of time we spend there, or 3)we’re simply doing too much.


At first glance, #3 (doing too much) may sound like the easiest problem to fix. Just cut stuff out. But that can be surprisingly hard to do, because the pressure for doing too much comes from a lot of different places. Jill Lepore, in a recent essay in The New Yorker, chronicled the evolution of burnout since it was first “named” as a problem in 1973. Part of its spread, she noted, came from changes in the American work environment as “real wages stagnated and union membership declined. Manufacturing jobs disappeared; service jobs grew.” Those changes put more stress on workers, and made work more draining. But, she noted, “all the talk about burnout, beginning in the past few decades … turned responsibility for enormous economic and social upheaval and changes in the labor market back onto the individual worker.”


All of that is true. Workers today are often toiling under ever-increasing (and one could argue unrealistic) productivity expectations, with less structural and systemic support—including inadequate childcare assistance, which has become even more of an issue since white-collar women began entering the workforce in greater numbers. And asking employees to perform at “war emergency power” levels on a sustained basis, or work increasingly crazy hours, doesn’t actually lead to increasing levels of production and excellence. It wears people out.


The good news is, more people are questioning that “more hours and pressure = more productivity” assumption. So perhaps that burden will shift in the future. In the meantime, however, what can we do about that? We can’t necessarily change whatever dysfunctional ideas or expectations are in vogue at corporate management levels. But we can control how much of it we buy into, and what we choose to do in response. And that’s where it gets tricky.


Americans live in an achievement and accumulation culture, where the pressure to have more, buy more, and achieve more, is relentless. It’s what makes us so vulnerable to the pressure to wear ourselves out in pursuit of it. In addition to that, we’re subject to social and cultural pressures about what we have to do in order to be “good” parents, partners, and professionals. If everyone else is running themselves ragged shuttling their kids around to travel sports teams and events, surely we must do that, as well.


But the truth is, all of those things are electives. Choices. And if we’re burned out on a daily basis, the only cure is to start cutting out enough to make our lives sustainable.  One of my recent columns in the Aviation for Women magazine was titled “The 10 Pennies Rule,” and it relates the story of how I learned decision-making amid finite resources. When my siblings and I were growing up, my mother would put a stack of 10 pennies at each of our places at the dinner table. For each infraction of manners or rules, we’d be fined some number of pennies. So you had to think hard about your behavioral choices, because you only got 10 pennies. You couldn’t stretch them into more. No magic tricks or short cuts. If you used up all of them, you couldn’t buy any candy. And if you went into negative numbers, there was a cost. You had to work the debt off—and even one penny’s worth of debt always translated into some undesirable task.


Avoiding or combatting burnout entails the same kind of decision-making. We all have 10 pennies worth of time, energy, life force and focus to spend on our days. That reservoir is not endlessly expandable. There are only so many hours in a day, so much you can push a human brain and body without cost, and so many things you can do well at any given time—no matter how much the productivity self-help gurus promise otherwise. So we all have to think hard about how we allocate those resources.


The tricky part is that those allocation choices often mean choosing an alternative to what’s seen by others as “success” or “acceptable.” That doesn’t mean we have to walk away entirely, or even that we can. Most of us need to work—and if we don’t perform well enough, we can lose those jobs. But we can think about whether that next promotion is really worth it. What will really happen if we draw more boundaries around our availability. Whether the money a high-stress job offers is worth the cost it entails. And if we love a job that entails long hours or involves high levels of stress, we can think about what else we can jettison to give us the energy to do that job well and in a sustainable manner. Thinking we can be helicopter parents and high-level corporate executives, unless we have a partner dedicated to the parenting part, is a combination of fantasy and insanity. We need to look at what we value most, and load-shed or scale back the other items to give us the energy and focus to attend to those priorities successfully.


Looking back on it, I realize that my parents had some very stressful times in their lives. But at the same time, they both say that they never felt burned out. Granted, it was a different time. But they also had two things going for them. First, they both loved what they did, and felt as if the work was meaningful, challenging, and rewarding. Second, they also didn’t aspire to the same level of accumulation or achievement as many professionals do today. My dad was happy as a middle-management engineer. My mom stayed home when we were young, and then worked her way back to meaningful full-time employment as we got older. But what helped make that possible was also the fact that we had only a single black and white TV, one family car, went camping for vacations, and rarely ate out or ordered in. My parents traded money and status for unscheduled and relaxed time with us. That choice would be harder for many people who are now accustomed to highly-scheduled children, gourmet dining, resort vacations, and luxury homes and comforts. But it’s still possible.


A friend of mine, who possessed a marketing degree and tons of smarts and talent, eventually chose to give up her corporate marketing career after she had her second child. She and her husband, who was a firefighter, decided that while the money was nice, their lives were miserable. So they cut back to live on one salary while the kids were young. She then got a master’s degree in teaching and got a job as a teacher when her kids were in school full time. “You know,” she told me, “we actually didn’t miss the money as much as we thought we would. We just had such a saner lifestyle. We had time to go hiking, camping, spend time with the kids, play sports, all that. We were happy,” she concluded. And by the way, she discovered that not only did she really like being a teacher; that lower-paying teaching job also let her retire with a pension, which helped compensate for some of the corporate paychecks she gave up.


The point is not that we all should become teachers. The point is that we have choices. Burnout isn’t something we can fix with an hour at the spa, or a few minutes of mindfulness a day. It’s a chronic over-taxed condition. And the fix entails a life re-set. We have think hard, and honestly, about how much is sane and sustainable to do, and then make some clear (if difficult) prioritization choices about what stays and what has to go to make that budget work.


None of that is easy. But as coaches often say, “I didn’t say it would be easy. I said it would be worth it.”


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