A New Way Of Thinking About Burnout
This article won’t tell you how to fix your burnout.
In fact, I’m not even sure that’s possible.
Sure, the wellness industry continues to offer us a myriad of ways to “manage it” but as a byproduct, whenever we’re not doing all the things: Giving up coffee. Taking cold showers. Breathwork. Mindfulness. Meditation. Supplements. Writing in our fucking gratitude journals. We just end up feeling more stressed and less in control.
So, no. This article won’t tell you how to fix your burnout. But it will offer a new way of thinking about and relating to it, all thanks to an enlightening episode of The Cut Podcast, hosted by Avery Trufelman.
By now, we all understand the concept, but if you’re someone who considers yourself privileged – employed, paid enough to eat and make rent, enjoy the actual work, feel respected by your company, have positive relationships with your colleagues – then you might feel ashamed or confused by your burnout. Especially if you know how lucky you are to even have a job in the current climate. And double especially if you know it’s a privilege to enjoy the thing that pays your bills. But the argument that Trufelman and her guests put forward is that it’s because we are so fulfilled by our work that so many of us are left feeling fried.
Over the last few decades, the workplace has come to produce intense meaning in our lives. We derive so much from our jobs: Community, identity, self-development, growth, connection. Historically, a person may have turned to religion to find a higher purpose or to their village for a sense of belonging, but now we look to our jobs for these things. The way we fulfil our needs isn’t diversified in the way it once was and Esther Perel, the critically acclaimed sex and relationship therapist, believes that if our work was “less essential”, then the concept of burnout would be different.
On this episode of The Cut Podcast, Perel also drew similarities between a person’s job and their romantic relationships, “They share a lot of the same things that humans value: Stability, trust, intimacy. Both are hubs of meanings”. She pointed out that work is no longer “simply a place where you make a living in order to put food on the table. Today we treat work as the place where you develop a sense of identity, the place that will help you become a better version of yourself, the place that gives you purpose.” On the one hand, this is kind of nice, right? Surely it’s a good thing that we can cultivate a strong sense of self while being paid. But the impact of the pandemic in the past eighteen months has meant that while our jobs are still intensely important, we’ve actually lost a lot of what Perel calls, “eros”. For those unaware, eros is a concept in ancient Greek philosophy referring to sensual or passionate love (it’s where the term “erotic” comes from). But Perel doesn’t use “eros” strictly in the sexual sense, instead she uses it to refer to “a feeling of energy, curiosity and exploration.” Perel told Trufelman, “A lot of people feel an erotic connection to their work not because it’s sexy but because their work gives them a sense of vitality and aliveness, and those things live side by side the stability, security and safety their job provides.”
What happened this past year was basically the opposite of friends with benefits: With so much of our time reduced to lockdowns, work became the only thing a lot of us were doing. So not only did the importance of work – for meaning, connection, identity and connection – intensify, but we lost our eros in process. Humans inevitably attach themselves to their job. Even if you hate your job you might love your co-workers, or the product you’re selling, or the company’s mission. Which means that on the week’s where work goes well, you feel amazing, and on the week’s where work is shit, you feel depressed. Our mood is inextricably bound to our work, and our work is inextricably bound to our ability to eat and pay rent.
And when you frame it like that, it makes a lot of sense that the thing we invest in so much will ultimately become the thing that depletes us. I’ve seen this play out in my own life: The work that makes me feel my most fulfilled is also the work that leaves me feeling my most fried.
So…Where to from here?