The Cult Of Busyness And How We’ve Normalised Burnout


If there were any doubts that we’ve reached peak burnout, the World Health Organisation has just squashed them.

Every year the WHO releases an International Classification of Diseases, and while in previous years burnout has always featured in the handbook, described in general terms as a state of exhaustion, 2019 is the first year in which the WHO have upgraded it from a symptom to an official syndrome. What’s more, they’ve declared burnout to be “an occupational phenomenon” characterised by three dimensions including; feelings of energy depletion, negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. Anyone feeling seen right now? According to one leading researcher in the field of stress-related illnesses, the vagueness of earlier burnout definitions made it really easy to dismiss the problem, but this new definition brings to it a much greater sense of urgency.

None of this is breaking news. We’re all a little stressed, burned out and – I’ll just say it – addicted to being busy. Back in 2016, John Hopkins University announced research around what they describe as “the cult of busyness” and the global epidemic of over-scheduling which is now ruining our health. I mean, it’s an obsessively perfect phrase: The Cult Of Busyness. It’s perfect. Can you image if Wild Wild Country was about a community of people addicted to cramming their calendars instead of engaging in spiritual orgy’s and wearing matching red linen?

I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to being busy, but I would say I thrive in it’s wake. One of my favourite cinematic moments of all time is in Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s New York Minute when Ashley’s over-achieving, type-A character begins her morning routine by whipping out her beige, leather-bound, perfectly highlighted, colour-coded day planner. Chills. I remember thinking: This is life and Ashley is LIVING. There’s a lot of reasons why we’re subconsciously obsessed with being busy, for starters, our generation has come to conflate busyness with abundance. We associate a full schedule with success, smashing goals and winning. We’d rather be in the cult and burned the f*ck out, than not in the cult and paranoid about unemployment. There are even scientifically-proven nootropics like caffeine, Adderall and Ritalin which are designed to extend and indulge our busyness. Then of course there’s the fact that our generation endured our formative years in the tail end of the Global Financial Crisis, where we were raised to believe that job security simply does not exist, and that if you do secure a job you must do everything in your power to keep it. That’s pretty standard advice, but it’s also one that comes loaded with anxiety and the fear that if you’re not working your ass off every single day then your future is in jeopardy. The result? You guessed it.

But despite all of us knowing the negative effects burnout has on our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, it can be hard to pull the breaks on our busyness. And as it currently stands, having a work/life balance is an elusive concept anyway because balance looks different to everybody. How can we control our calendars with grace rather than being a slave to them? How can we create “white space” within our weeks and then occupy those spaces with confidence and ease rather than anxiety and panic? How can we leave the cult of Wild Wild Busyness? I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling that it begins with the desire to try.

A few months ago, singer Maggie Rogers tweeted: “Exhaustion is not a badge of honour.” 

If only we’d known that sooner.

Header image by Holly Burgess for The Twenties Club