On Burnout in the 21st Century

It’s the first full week in January, a time when theoretically, we’re supposed to feel recharged after a nice holiday break spent with loved ones, refreshed and ready to get back to work. But for many of us, particularly those who work in higher ed, the holiday break is not as restful as it’s cracked up to be. Things that got pushed to the side throughout the semester demand our attention, and we scramble to finish research and other academic work before the students come back for the spring semester.

Plus, there’s the oft-talked about issue that email, slack and other digital means of work communication rarely get turned off. As a freelancer, I find that even if I know I’m not expected to respond to an email sent say, the evening of Sunday, December 23rd, my knee-jerk reaction is just to respond, to get it off my plate, to do the mental work of tackling whatever issue it is now so I don’t have to do it later. But the problem with this kind of mentality, with the way academics and freelancers work, is that it brings stress into your life at unexpected moments; you’re always in “office” mode. This leads to burnout – such an expected side effect of this kind of work that we may not even notice it. It’s just our usual state of being.

Anne Helen Petersen’s excellent new piece for Buzzfeed explores the phenomenon of burnout, framed within the context of the millennial generation, of which I am a member. She discusses (at length, in much more nuanced ways than is possible to summarize here) how millennials were raised to be a more efficient and productive generation with the goal of having better lives than their parents – more financial security with more leisure time. But economic realities (and political policy that has kept wages stagnant and promoted a reverse Robin Hood-style of wealth distribution) have meant that though we retain this mentality that we simply need to work harder and be better, it is often not possible for us to improve our situations, to make more money, to have more job security. Thus, we resort to working in a different, less healthy way than our parents had to. She writes,

This is why the fundamental criticism of millennials — that we’re lazy and entitled — is so frustrating: We hustle so hard that we’ve figured out how to avoid wasting time eating meals and are called entitled for asking for fair compensation and benefits like working remotely (so we can live in affordable cities), adequate health care, or 401(k)s (so we can theoretically stop working at some point before the day we die). We’re called whiny for talking frankly about just how much we do work, or how exhausted we are by it. But because overworking for less money isn’t always visible — because job hunting now means trawling LinkedIn, because “overtime” now means replying to emails in bed — the extent of our labor is often ignored, or degraded.

But the way Petersen describes burnout and its accompanying issues, like “errand paralysis,” (the inability or unwillingness to complete mundane tasks that offer no significant reward) will resonate with people of all generations, particularly in academia. (Petersen herself is a former media studies professor and discusses her graduate school burnout in the piece.) She writes, “Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” Petersen explores how burnout affects women disproportionately, as they often take on the “mental load” of organizing a household and raising children, even if they have a supportive partner. And when she quoted a psychoanalyst name Josh Cohen, who specializes in burnout, I immediately recognized the symptoms as those I tend to feel when I’m at my busiest as a freelancer:

The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced. . . . You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.

Unfortunately, Petersen cannot offer a solution to burnout, and no amount of meditation, yoga, healthy eating or self-help books can conquer this problem. But she does suggest that learning to recognize this issue and understand that it stems from the structure of our society in the 21st century can definitely give us perspective and help us feel less alienated. I highly recommend putting aside your to-do list, jumping off the hamster wheel and reading Petersen’s insightful analysis. It actually made me feel less personally stressed, though even more frustrated about our current social and economic climate in the United States.