Most people who burn out are intelligent and successful high achievers. So why do we let this happen? The answer is that as horrible as burnout might seem, there is a payoff – some goal that lures us so strongly that we cannot seem to hit the brakes.
Especially for small business owners and those working in the gig economy, the challenge of earning sufficient to be comfortable today while also saving for retirement makes it difficult to strike the balance required to avoid burning out. If there’s work to be done, we do it while we can – because who knows what tomorrow holds?
Crash and burn
My 2010 burnout as a corporate lawyer arose because I was afraid of confronting the fact that I was unhappy. Working hard and relentlessly – more than I could ultimately physically or psychologically withstand – offered a warm blanket of protection from my own misery. As Tim Kreider puts it, “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.” As long as I was cranking out endless billable hours, I didn’t have time to reflect on how poorly I thought of myself. The pressure of billion-dollar transactions shut down my self-awareness. And that suited me fine.
The pressure from outside
One of the reasons burnout prevails is the false expectations about the equation of life in modern society. For example, we’re told “you can do anything you set your mind to”. While intended to be empowering, this statement can be paralysing: if we can do anything, how the heck do we decide what to do, let alone do it with full commitment, without ever having or second thoughts? This idea that we can achieve anything suggests that we only fail if we don’t try or work hard enough – when in fact there are plenty more factors involved, most of them beyond our control.
We are also given the idea that the solution to everything is work: work hard at school, work hard at university, get a great job and work hard for a promotion, then another one. Eventually you’ll be able to afford a beautiful house, a great car, travel overseas every year, and tick all the boxes that society has set out. Historically this has to some extent been true. But in the wake of various financial crises, including the one we are currently experiencing with COVID, this is simply no longer the case. Particularly for those of us who run our own businesses, the unpredictability – frantic one month, a tumbleweed rolls down the corridor the next – takes its toll. The fiercely competitive nature of the gig economy means that many lack adequate health or income insurance, and ensuring we have enough superannuation to live a comfortable retirement literally keeps us awake at night.
Where does work end and life begin?
I recently wrote a piece on my distaste for the phrase ‘work-life balance’, because to me work is an important part of life, not separate to it. But work permeates our lives in a way it never has before. Technology plays a huge role: our laptops are always with us, our smart phones ping with every new email, we are – even when we are on holiday – always reachable. This comes at a cost.
Freelancers and small business owners are prime candidates for burnout because of the nature of our work, but with an extra challenge – there is no manager or company doctor to reach out to. If the buck stops with us, we feel like we can’t burnout. Which is why it’s extra important for those in this position to be attentive to the symptoms of burnout, which include physical and emotional exhaustion, changes in appetite, feeling emotionally detached or cynical, poor sleep, mood swings, as well as compromised concentration or memory and performance.
Am I burning out?
If you’re wondering whether you’re starting to head towards a burnout, the first and arguable most important step is to reach out for help. Understanding what brings us to the point of burnout takes reflection and time so we can get clear on our beliefs and motivations. Even (especially) if you think you don’t have the time for it – taking some time now can save you years in the long run. Speak to your GP, as well as a psychologist or coach to start taking control over the situation.
I’m in the process of writing a book about burnout and one of the surprising things I’ve discovered is that going through (or even narrowly avoiding) burnout can bring helpful lessons that actually make life better. Burnout forces us to take stock, get perspective and take care of ourselves first. With the right support, we get clear on what really matters to us, and how to start living in alignment with our values and priorities.