Ella Dawson

There Is No Cure For Burnout

In September, I quit my job.

There are many reasons why someone decides to leave a job they love, and I am no exception. I’d been there five years, I wanted to focus on my writing, my beloved mentor left for another company, blah blah. But my primary motivation—the one that finally overrode my aversion to risk and pushed me to give notice before I could line up another job—was the deep, undeniable truth that I was burned out.

Nothing puts your mental health in context quite like crying on your boyfriend’s bathroom floor on Sunday night for the third weekend in a row.

Burnout is a weird amalgam of feelings and forces. The word has become a catchall for anxiety, exhaustion, and the inability to focus or feel enthusiastic at work. It is putting off high-energy but low-reward tasks because the sheer concept of them is too overwhelming to imagine. It’s constantly “hustling” on social media to communicate your brand as employment shifts from full-time positions to unstable gig work. More than that, burnout is the daily dread of a generation saddled with student debt, rising healthcare costs, an increasingly piecemeal job market and the constant assault of social media on our ability to be alone with our thoughts.

When you’re burned out, it can be impossible to think beyond the shit next up on your to-do list. There is just so much to do, and doing those things is hard, and wanting to write the next great American novel or dig yourself out of debt or start a new business seems almost absurd.

Anne Helen Peterson’s article about millennials and burnout set the Internet—and my team’s slack channel—on fire for weeks. While I rushed to share burnout-related content on the company’s Facebook and Twitter channels to capitalize on the conversation, my own burnout continued to simmer and smart.

For me, burnout looked exactly as Peterson described: while I received promotion after promotion at work, I struggled to respond to personal emails for weeks and even months at a time. I burst into tears at jury duty. I didn’t do my laundry for four months and I ordered Wendy’s delivery twice a week for most of winter because I was psychologically unable to pick up groceries.

Meanwhile, I read everything I could about preventing burnout. I set boundaries about when I answered work emails and tried to read books before bed instead of staring at my cellphone. I underlined most of Cal Newport’s book The Digital Detox and downloaded apps to regulate my screen time. While I’ve never been able to meditate, I tagged along to my boyfriend’s church. I tried all the self-care shit that Brooklynites evangelize: face masks, SAD lamps, succulents, a Gravity Blanket, exercise, more time away from the city. I even bought a cheap record player to try to detach myself from Spotify.

And yet…

I lost my sense of humor. I stopped doing the creative hobbies that defined me, instead playing hours and hours of Rollercoaster Tycoon. I couldn’t go to the professional events that my boyfriend needed me to attend with him. I canceled plans I’d looked forward to for months. My only relief came when it was time to fall asleep, and even then I was plagued with stress nightmares about tweets.

For me, burnout also looked like rage. It looked like a boiling resentment of everything that asked for my energy: my job, my friends, my relationship, even my own body. My constant emotional state was annoyance, and my ability to compartmentalize that annoyance eroded until it seeped into my personality at work. I had no patience for anyone, becoming furious over the smallest slights and misunderstandings. While I’m no doubt being hard on myself, I know that it didn’t make me a perfect leader or manager.

It also made me a risk to myself. Burnout exacerbated my anxiety and depression, rendering it impossible to be optimistic or excited about pretty much anything, especially at work. When asked what my five-year plan was, I fought the urge to say that simply still being alive would be nice. Burnout traps you in the present, treading water as you just try to get the bare minimum done. It is impossible to future-plan when every day feels like you are pushing your way into a packed subway car during rush hour and no one is letting you through. As someone already predisposed to suicidal ideation, it wasn’t long before those old thoughts returned.

On a vacation day in late August, I sat at the end of a family friend’s dock, my feet skimming the smooth surface of his pond. I didn’t want to go back to work the next week. I not only didn’t want to go back to work—I couldn’t. I realized if I did, I might die. It was the kind of irrational but perfectly clear thought that arrives from somewhere outside of yourself, like divine intervention or the tough love of a best friend. I couldn’t work, and I was lucky enough to not have to push through that din of exhaustion and pain if I didn’t want to. Quitting a job with no plan wasn’t a responsible decision, and I knew I might regret it for the rest of my life. But I didn’t have much of a life beyond wondering what would happen if I just didn’t get off at my subway stop for work every morning.

I went over my finances with my parents and got their advice on how long I could go without working before I’d have to move back home. I looked at my savings and checking accounts, my 401k and the money my grandparents gave me when I graduated college. I had a solid nest egg of money and no loan payments to worry about, a rare level of financial security for my generation. I reread my lease agreement and researched healthcare options. I weighed the risk of a medical emergency for myself or a loved one and how it would eat through my savings. I contrasted that financial risk with the toll it would take on my health to stay in my job and power through my declining sanity.

Then I quit. I wore a bright yellow blazer and walked into that 10:30am meeting with the weird calm of someone about to willingly blow up her life. Once I made the decision to give notice and left that fateful meeting with my manager, I felt elated, almost manic. I spent a week in a fog of giddy delight, combative and hyper and utterly out of fucks. I brought McDonald’s to a meeting. I gloated. I made plans. My therapist warned me that I’d probably experience a rollercoaster of different emotions in the weeks and months to come, and I laughed like a deranged super villain. No shit!!

With impeccable and characteristically inconsiderate timing, my grandfather passed away during the final week of my notice period. I drove up to Vermont with my mother to say goodbye and my frenzied bliss swung into gallows humor and annoyance. How fucking dare people continue to send me slack messages while I was on bereavement leave? How much more would they ask of me? I considered just not going back to the office and staying in Vermont to heal—after all, what else was there for me to do? Burnout and grief made a rude, apathetic cocktail.

But I did go back. My team ordered donuts and hosted a party. I shook a lot of hands and talked about the memoir I was leaving to write, at least in theory. I didn’t know how to tell people I’m leaving because I’m tired and I hate my life, and if I don’t have to come to work in the morning, I might have time to fix it. It didn’t seem appropriate to say I like and respect all of you, but if I stay here any longer, I will become a massive bitch. People signed a card for me. I packed up my desk and I went home.

That sweet relief of quitting ended abruptly the next week. I was walking down Fifth Avenue after a job interview and I started hyperventilating. My mind swirled with the catastrophizing thoughts any anxious depressive knows well: what have I done, who the fuck did I think I was to walk away from stability, what if I’m not good at anything, what am I going to do with my life. The panic attack morphed into a breakdown. I became self-destructive and selfish, and I fell apart for a while.

It’s been roughly two months since my last day at my old company, and I’ll be blunt: I am just as burned out today as I was in September. I’m back on my feet and working as a freelance writer and digital strategist, and I’ve read roughly two dozen regency-era romance novels from Brooklyn Library. On a whim, I started writing my own romance novel and I’m roughly two thirds through my first draft. I am sleeping a lot.

But I have petrifying nightmares about going back to the office during my notice period and discovering that my desk has already been reassigned. I fantasize about screaming at old office rivals. I am still burned out, angry, and overwhelmed by researching healthcare options and taxes and social commitments. I try to just focus on today: eat waffles, walk to the library to return books, get groceries at the hellish Stop & Shop in Atlantic Terminal, call my mom, read the news, answer text messages within a reasonable amount of time. I’m not able to do more than a few days of full-time work without crashing afterward and spiraling out, so I avoid over-committing.

All the same, I feel the pressure to post on social media and brag at parties about how well I’m doing now that I’ve quit my job. The same expectation to always be hustlin’ and perfect my brand hasn’t gone away—if anything that’s intensified now that I’m freelancing. I feel like I have to justify walking away from what many would consider a dream job by documenting all of my adventures and sharing my bylines (of which there are few, because again, burnout). Thus the burnout cycle continues, only now I have more free time that I could use to optimize myself and how my life appears.

I feel like a spoiled, lazy brat for not writing more, working more, publishing more. I feel like a privileged asshole complaining about her life being so hard, and then I try to pry apart this logical recognition of my privilege from the self-flagellation of depression.

I’m afraid that there is no cure for burnout. After all, you can’t untoast toast.

I love toast. As die-hard readers of my blog will know, toaster waffles make up a solid third of my nutritional intake. I speak as an EGGOs loyalist and not a scientist when I say that bread changes on a molecular level when it’s been introduced to intense heat. That isn’t necessarily bad: after all, toast is delicious. But there isn’t any going back to the plain, soft bread it was before—much like how trauma changes you into a slightly different version of yourself, forever.

This is only the beginning of month three of burnout recovery for me, but I’ve already decided not to make “healing” from burnout my goal. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that burnout is, unfortunately, unavoidable for anyone who isn’t super rich. Sometimes when I tell people I quit my job because of burnout, my conversational partner will radiate smug serenity as they tell me about the time they took off work to heal: they traveled the world, or they cut off all digital contact for six months to read Eastern philosophy books. They cured their burnout. These people mean well, but they are inevitably childless, former c-suite employees, or lucky enough to have intergenerational wealth. They are often white men with the breezy confidence of Beto O’Rourke. I’m glad they had the time to opt out of capitalism and find themselves, but I resent their lack of self-awareness almost as much as I resent the seemingly “woke” companies they work for.

The hard truth is that burnout is part and parcel of an economy that tries to extract as much labor from an employee as it can without taking responsibility for that person’s humanity. The only way to cure burnout is to not get burned out in the first place, and if you have bills to pay, a career path to wrangle, and a family to support in an economic system that wasn’t built with you in mind, that’s just not possible. The people most at risk of burnout are the people who cannot just opt-out.

In frustrating Peak Capitalism irony, it’s become fashionable for companies to brag about their culture of work-life balance and offer gym membership reimbursement programs. Those same companies usually talk about how they’re a family while not offering parental leave policies and retaliating against workers who aren’t good at hiding their disabilities or mental health challenges. Despite the new pastel gloss of corporate America, the office succulents and the standing desks and the unlimited vacation time policies, we have a long way to go before everyone has access to workplaces truly structured with their wellbeing in mind.

Wellbeing looks like healthcare that isn’t tied to your employment. It looks like sick days and leave policies that cover mental health. It looks like a revolution in how we approach management and support at the office.

Like I said: we’re kind of fucked. The cure for burnout is dismantling our work lives and starting over from scratch. It’s structural, not individual.

I need to recognize that my mental health issues aside, I have more privilege than almost anyone as an upper-middle class white woman with no siblings and a solid safety net. And yet I still had to choose my mental health over my job. I was able to make that choice because of my privilege, and I know plenty of similarly drowning workers who don’t have that financial freedom. When a self-employed family member became ill during my first month not working, I came face to face with the financial risk I’d taken leaving my job when it came time to pay the hospital bill.

My burnout made me desperately angry and resentful. But I’ve come to see that burnout should make us angry. It’s a side effect of an economy that is rigged from the start, where work no longer ends at the end of the workday and our agony is used to sell us bath bombs and expensive yoga retreats that we can’t afford.

The World Health Organization considers burnout an “occupational phenomenon,” not a medical condition. They describe it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Its symptoms are exhaustion, “increased mental distance from one’s job,” negative feelings and cynicism related to work; and “reduced professional efficacy.” In other words: burnout makes us shitty employees, unproductive and threatening to office culture. We are the ones who didn’t manage our stress. We are the ones who don’t care enough about work, when work has never cared about us.

If there is a cure for burnout, it’s voting, and unionizing, and redistributing wealth. It’s holding managers responsible for the wellbeing of their employees, not just their KPIs. It’s recognizing that burnout isn’t just a millennial problem, it’s a class problem. Divorcing burnout from the economic forces that cause it only perpetuates it. Self-help books and products that capitalize on mental health issues without addressing what causes them are a well-meaning but dangerous cash grab that put “managing” burnout back on the powerless individual.

Don’t talk to me about burnout without addressing universal healthcare and worker’s rights. I just don’t want to hear it (or read it, or listen to it, or buy it, or watch it).

If you’re burned out, please believe me when I say that you’re not lazy or crazy or difficult or selfish or weak. Don’t turn that exhaustion inward and blame yourself for not being strong enough—this isn’t your fault. I don’t care how much time you spend on Instagram or what loans you took out when you were too young to understand the consequences. You aren’t one vacation away from feeling better. You aren’t one new hire away from being able to handle your workload. You aren’t one promotion away from true financial stability. This system is broken. It was intentionally broken by people who profit off of how you’re feeling right now.

There is no cure for burnout. But there is a way to prevent it for others, and that responsibility falls to those of us who have the energy and the privilege to fight for it. It starts in our offices, in our ballot boxes, in our schools and in our homes. I’m not an economist, or a politician, or even a psychologist, so I won’t pretend to have all the answers. What I am is a millennial loudmouth with a liberal arts education who knows that a revolution often starts with asking the right questions. Questions like: Why doesn’t this company offer paid parental leave? What about paid medical leave that includes mental health disorders? Or paid overtime? Or salary transparency? Why don’t we offer flexible hours and remote working policies? At the bare minimum, what about shifts that are clearly communicated ahead of time and a livable minimum wage? How about collective bargaining, and benefits for part-time employees and contractors, and the elimination of forced arbitration?

I’m glad that I am still alive, and I am anxious but hydrated. To borrow a line from a woman I admire, it’s time for big structural change. So here’s your homework: Donate to a progressive candidate. Pay a visit to your HR representative. Share your salary with your coworkers. Meet with a union representative and see if your company can organize. Start an uncomfortable conversation about unfairness in your office, whatever form it may take.

And if you couldn’t relate to a single thing in this essay, you lucky rich fool, that means it’s your turn to listen and step up. Here’s your opportunity to align your progressive values with your behavior at work. Leverage your security for good by asking the dangerous questions that not everyone can afford to ask.

Let’s get to work unfucking our economy before we all go up in flames.

P.S. If I were less burned out, I might have pitched this essay to a publication, worked on it for a week with an editor, and then gotten paid a few hundred bucks for it. I’m not doing that because my burnout cannot handle that pitching process, and also because I wanted to navel-gaze as much as this topic deserves.

As a result, I’m going to ask you to consider leaving me a tip if you can afford it. Thank you for your attention and your support.

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Recommended reading:

How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation

This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like

Here’s What “Millennial Burnout” Is Like For 16 Different People

Emotions on Strike

(Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash)