“Burnout isn’t sudden – it’s like death by a million cuts”

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Alicia Lutes
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The conversation around burnout may be growing, but that doesn’t mean the problem is going away any time soon. In fact, many of us are still unaware of what the signs of burnout really are – and that it’s not always a sudden manifestation. Here, US writer Alicia Lutes reflects on her personal journey of ‘burnout creep’.

The road to burning yourself out is paved with hard work and accomplishments, aka burnout’s favorite drug. And for as much as a stroll can do wonders for your health, I never want to walk that toxic road again. 

Or, at least, I want to be better prepared to see the burgeoning signs of it in myself. Because burnout isn’t depression or anxiety (though certainly those don’t help matters), it is stress that has become so all-consuming; it leaves you feeling like a hollow robot furiously chasing fumes to keep your head above water in the unrelenting, churning tides of our precariously perched society. 

Everything feels heavy.

Burnout doesn’t happen all at once: it’s a slow creep that doesn’t show its hand until you’re already too far gone. It’s so bad, in fact that the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a medical condition and laid out that it is actively making us worse at our jobs. But burnout creep is a depletion long game — death by million little cuts.

Work burnout: women on phone in distress
Burnout: “Look at this productivity! Is that Queen Adult Succeeding? Yup, that’s me!”

Anne Helen Petersen wrote about the subject brilliantly for BuzzFeed, and it certainly set The Discourse Around Millennials at least a teensy bit aflame (not that it’s hard to do). And while for many people working through the stress and fatigue of burnout is a badge of pride or honor, there are some who simply don’t realize what it actually looks and feels like beyond the sense of exhaustion. 

You may not be able to clock it for what it is while you’re in it, because truly, who isn’t bone-dead exhausted most of the time? Spending the last few months reflecting on my own burnout, recognizing how it feels when you’re in it, is more than half the battle, because if burnout is one thing, it’s a creep unlike any other.

Burnout creep: where it starts

In the beginning, it feels like high-octane adulting, only you don’t realize it’s stealing your life because it’s born from good intentions. Because we young people can do anything, you see! And we’ve got to prove to all the whiny elders that we’re not the lazy, entitled brats they’ve all decided we must be.

All you need is a little perspective to keep you going. And my perspective was a fueling one: I had a history of achieving my goals in spite of many a stumble and hurdle being thrown, so adding another brick or taking something away was just a tiny sacrifice in the grand scheme of things.

In many ways – as Petersen notes – thriving in spite of burnout is sort of encoded in young people’s DNA. Mine was bolstered by a special cocktail of mental illness (chronic hypomania and PTSD, thanks for asking) and that good, ol’ fashioned, unrelenting American optimism. 

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Sure, my skull would get the pricklies as a sort of faint dizziness bubbled in the background of my thoughts as I tried to pinpoint all the ways I could cut corners, hack systems, and generally maximize efficiency to get things done. But isn’t that what success feels like? 

I didn’t like it, but I ignored it and kept pushing. Because you have to, because everyone else is doing it, because we all feel this way so what’s a little bit more of my brain power here, a tiny extra bit more of my time taken there? In the middle of burnout creep, you actually feel fantastic, like an amoebic alien chef, complete with eight octopus legs for arms and four antlers on my bulbous head (all of me is fuschia pink in this scenario, for the record), hurling myself around a kitchen and somehow precariously, miraculously, getting it all done. It’s a bit like a drug where you don’t realize you’re totally strung out.

So when the apathy set in, and the breathing felt more laborious even upon waking, I reminded myself of all the things I’d accomplished prior in the face of hurdles and a desire for life stability, took deeper breaths, and still kept going, the burnout creep working at hyperspeed now behind the scenes.

I looked at people I admired in my life and saw their own lists of accomplishments, knowing their stories, to bolster an engine now running on fumes. And I know I pushed myself harder and sacrificed more life (sleep, relationships, time with friends, books, and my beloved TV) after looking at the happenings of people with whom I am acquainted with to varying degrees across social media, because I’m a human being that’s alive in 20-someteen. Just because it’s normalized doesn’t mean that it’s good.

But it worked, which is also part of the problem of burnout: it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It fuels a really toxic fire. Instead of looking at my choices and trying to take care of myself, though, I wrote the phrase, “you have as many hours as Beyonce” on a piece of paper and tacked it to my desk. Nervous breakdown be damned, the pressure to work even harder doesn’t care about your feelings. Sometimes when you think you’re on fire, it’s actually because you’re a raw nerve.

Burnout: taking steps to prevent burnout is necessary—if sometimes scary and hard and feels weird—in our modern lives.

And my raw nerves were infected by the slow creep of burnout: things that were easy became hard; I wasn’t motivated or interested or excited about majorly cool things, and I hated myself when I wasn’t doing the absolute most at all times. Everything felt meaningless. My previously motivational tactics became my taunters. Still I tried and worked harder to do good work in a tough environment. And I failed.

It took months for me to recover from what burnout had made me: a cypher chasing a smokemonster.

When you weaponize mythology to hack your productivity, you set yourself on fire. Burnout thrives on keeping you dancing in the flames. It is the 1518 dancing plague of mental states. 

When you’re running at top speed on all cylinders, slowly adding more and more to your agenda, sacrificing tiny, seemingly insignificant bits of yourself and your time to the work (or circumstances in your life that are dragging you down with their all-consuming nature), everything seems normal. You only feel productive if you’re stressed. It is greedy. Because everybody’s doing it, and complaining all the while. But the complaining doesn’t stop the problem from continuing or the symptoms, physical or not.

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We all need that paycheck that barely pays the bills (so you have to work more, more, more to stay on top of it all); or if yours does, the draw of winning, achieving, overcoming, gaining, and staying afloat keeps you from spending it (and your time) on things that matter, or actually having a life. But don’t get lost in the sauce: you need a lack of those things in order to be a full person. You need to make mistakes, take things slowly, and give yourself time to be a person, not a hyper-productivity machine, and taking steps to prevent burnout is necessary—if sometimes scary and hard and feels weird—in our modern lives.

Reframing how and why we work the way we do is key to fixing our own burnout, and preventing it from hurting us further (because it does, in so many ways that seem unrelated). What’s the old saying? Work smarter, not harder: burnout often conflates the two. But the first step in overcoming and rebalancing any aspect of your life is clocking it — so rip up that toxic inspirational Beyonce quote and lean out just for a minute to get a new perspective.

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Alicia Lutes

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