The Burnout Generation – from shame to solidarity

The most contentious part of planning this bike journey has been the idea of me writing openly about burnout and my resulting health challenges. Some people have supported the idea, while some others have outright condemned it.

It’s been a really mixed bag, with everyone having the best of intentions. Friends have been generally supportive, with a range of caveats. My parents worry that it might affect my future job prospects. One older friend said outright that people won’t be interested in my health issues, and that I shouldn’t talk about it. Another older friend who works as a psychotherapist finds the topic fascinating and insists that I make it a major focus of my writing. She has children who have dropped out of lucrative professions due to chronic stress-related issues.

Personally, I’ve always felt the idea of me writing a blog to be quite self-indulgent, and the idea of blogging about my health even more so. It’s only the fact that I have benefited enormously from hearing the accounts of others who have been through a similar experience that leads me to write about it now.

The truth is, I get tired of hiding it. I think we’ve come a long way in the last several years, but there still seems to be a large stigma associated with burnout and stress-induced health issues; that it’s somehow shameful and implies weakness. Most of this stigma and shame likely comes from the mental health aspects of it — a perceived weakness of the mind. Or perhaps it’s the fear that it will affect future job prospects — in this era where our value is measured in how productive we are, it’s the implication of burnout that you’ve reached your productive limit.

There also seems to be a low level of knowledge about burnout and chronic stress. It’s generally not explained to you in schools or workplaces, and when you experience it yourself it often takes a particularly wise doctor who will recognise the root cause rather than focus on its myriad of symptoms.

What makes all this so perplexing is that these issues now seem so widespread. It seems like every second or third person I meet is dealing with some kind of stress-related ailment, from sleep problems and anxiety, through to emotional exhaustion, mental health challenges or physical illness.

I happen to be one of those people with the imprudence to share my personal experience openly with near strangers, and it seems to give people a license to open up with their own stories. I know some friends who can’t sleep at night without taking an anti-psychotic, and others who need their nightly sleeping pill washed down with several glasses of red wine. I’ve lost count of the number of highly intelligent, capable and resilient people I’ve met who are on antidepressants. One acquaintance passed out during an interview on national television due to stress and exhaustion.

For many others it seems their chronic stress manifests in physical issues such as hives, skin conditions, chronic fatigue or the ubiquitous gut problems. It’s become a regular occurrence at social gatherings for me to meet yet another person with stress-related gut issues — it often creates an instant bond between us as we share learnings and end up talking for hours on the topic.

Many of these friends end up dropping out of work or switching to an occupation that allows a slower pace of life. Some stay in their professions while their stress-induced health issues fester in the background, making them less productive and less happy. One friend of mine went so far as to make a formal complaint to her managers and threatened to sue unless her work situation and stress levels were rectified. She won against her managers, but left the company soon after due to the antipathy she then felt towards her. Her boldness seems far from the norm.

Anne Helen Petersen, a senior journalist at BuzzFeed, recently released an article labelling Millennials as “The Burnout Generation”. It described the unique and systemic pressures on our generation that make us so prone to burnout, and how we have internalised the idea that we need to be working all the time or engaged in endless self-optimisation. Our lives have become relentless and never-ending ‘to-do’ lists. Petersen states, “It’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are.” The article seemed to hit a nerve, going viral and receiving an outpouring of support.

Burnout is a response to prolonged stress and typically involves emotional exhaustion, cynicism or detachment and feeling ineffective. Different to ‘exhaustion’, which means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years. Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst specializing in burnout, writes. “You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless.”

And this prolonged stress wears down the body too, leading to chronic illness. As my own doctor once put it: “Your body has overdosed on cortisol for too long”, where cortisol is one of our body’s’ main stress hormones. Insomnia is said to be the most common complaint that doctors hear about from patients, with ‘hyperarousal’ from stress and mental overstimulation being one of the most common causes. Apparently around 1 in 5 Australians now experience Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), with stress being pinned as the likely culprit, and a whole industry of gluten- and lactose-free foods has sprung up to cater to this new market.

If burnout is so widespread and systemic in our modern lives and work culture, then the shame and silence of burnout is preventing us from confronting and dealing with this problem as a society. The stigma around burnout is perverse in that it prevents individuals from understanding what they’re going through and learning from others. How can people prevent something that they don’t know about until it’s too late? And even then, how can they deal with the root cause of their burnout — rather than just medicating the individual symptoms — if they don’t understand it? Just as importantly, how can they get the support they need from friends and family if they’re too ashamed to talk about it?

I really like the label “The Burnout Generation” because of the sense of solidarity it creates. This label tells us “this is widespread and we need to do something about it”, but it also says, “you’re not alone, we’re in this together.” I believe we need both these messages.

When I was in hospital, after my own gut issues had gone from bad to worse, the dietitian there told me that the people she most commonly sees with my condition tend to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and high-flying executives. What she was trying to tell me was that I’m not a failed human; that this happens to highly capable and resilient people.

Learning about famous people from history who have struggled with the same difficulties has also been helpful in normalising my experience. Such as William Wilberforce, a key leader of the British anti-slavery movement, who was afflicted by regular bouts of stress-induced gastrointestinal illness. U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s medical records revealed that he had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, often painful and debilitating, which he hid from the public.

I confess to feeling a slight sense of relief every time I hear another story of a friend or acquaintance struggling with burnout. I feel great sympathy too, but there’s a feeling of reassurance and affirmation in knowing that I’m not alone; that I’m normal; that my situation is a completely natural human response to a traumatic experience.

An extreme case of this happened when I was at a restaurant for a friend’s birthday gathering. The guy sitting opposite me asked why I had brought my own food instead of eating something from the menu. When I told him I had IBS and asked if he knew what that was, he replied that his uncle had committed suicide due to IBS. It’s hard to know how to react to a statement like that. I was horrified, and my heart went out to him. But I was also strangely comforted. Clearly this guy’s uncle had reached a more desperate situation than my own, but nonetheless I felt strangely vindicated. It’s like this guy was saying “I understand that it can be really hard.”

My own experience with burnout started when I was working as an engineer in a consulting firm. Staring at a computer screen all day everyday, while having to account for the productivity of every hour, I would finish each week mentally strung out.

Internally, I was dealing with a growing moral conflict as I became aware of how I was mostly just helping rich corporations get richer while perpetuating the problems of the world. I found an outlet for this inner unrest by getting involved as a volunteer in the community sector on the side, and I soon found I was working full-time as an engineer by day, and full-time managing community events by night and on weekends. I’d been led to believe that my productivity was only limited by the hours of the day, and if I wasn’t sleeping then I should be doing something useful.

My burnout started with sleep difficulties and fatigue. And not just tiredness, but a deep weariness that no amount of sleep seemed to slake. It became a struggle to focus during meetings and my mind was often a thick fog, which was particularly awkward during conversations with my managers. I became emotionally numb and detached. What kept me working was a sense of pride and obligation; I had responsibilities and a reputation, and I didn’t want to let people down or be seen to fail.

I say that I was experiencing ‘burnout’, but I hadn’t heard of burnout back then. It all crept up on me slowly, so whilst I knew something was very wrong, I didn’t know what. In a thirty minute consultation, a workplace psychologist had me complete a questionnaire, then decided I had depression and recommended I take antidepressants. I was shocked and immediately refused — I didn’t feel sadness like I associated with depression. A doctor suggested it might be the stress from my existential crisis, and that I needed to make a decision about my life direction. So I finally took two months leave to work things out. When I returned, I had decided. I submitted my resignation letter, and threw myself into full-time volunteering.

I teamed up with a friend to start up a Perth branch of a national youth organisation, recruiting teams of volunteers and launching ambitious local projects and campaigns. But my burnout symptoms started to return. I had entered a precarious existence, living on my savings, driven by my passion and ideals, and no longer limited to a 9 to 5 working week. What followed was a repeating cycle of burnouts, each time followed by partial recovery when I had some time off.

My burnouts and resulting emotional detachment affected my relationships with my colleagues. I became very task-focused and would push my volunteer team-mates hard, often losing perspective and neglecting their well-being. I remember when a volunteer in a key role came to tell me that she had developed depression and needed to step down. My immediate reaction was one of anger and bitterness — I was struggling to keep my head above water myself, and I knew her workload would now fall onto my already overloaded shoulders. I would have cried in desperation if I wasn’t already so emotionally numb. But I couldn’t stop doing the work. The organisation, the role and the cause had become part of my identity.

Outside of work I became reclusive and avoided social events and other commitments. I’ve heard this is something that people with depression do, and the recommendation is that they go out and socialise more. But for me it was a way of reducing stress, by separating myself from those who expected things from me. It was also because I was tired. Friends would organise fun outings and activities for me on my birthdays, which I would have no choice but to attend, but I was typically so tired I would spend the time wishing I was at home alone. Feeling emotionally empty, I struggled to connect with others properly, and trying to maintain a facade of normalcy was exhausting.

My romantic relationships inevitably suffered too. I would meet someone special, at a time when I was feeling better, and we’d end up dating seriously. But then the burnout symptoms would return as my work intensified. I’d become emotionally drained again, and would start to neglect my girlfriend. My libido would drop off, leaving her feeling undesired, and my sleep troubles made me dread sharing a bed at night. She’d be left confused — where was the passionate man she had fallen for? She’d then be lumped with the unpleasant task of breaking up with me. I would desperately try to explain my own behaviour, but could never do it adequately because I didn’t fully understand it myself. Either way, it was clear we couldn’t go on.

I started learning about burnout, and my symptoms began to make a bit more sense over time. It turns out that community sector workers are particularly prone to burnout, and a flyer about it was passed around the organisation. It provided a list of ways to manage your workload better, strive for more balance, and relax more. I moved towards more work-life balance. I took up meditation, exercised daily, and began enforcing strict ‘sleep hygiene’ practices.

A problem was that burnout had become my new normal. I lamented the loss of “the old me” — the earlier version of myself who was outgoing with vitality and enthusiasm — but had come to accept the way things now were.

I took up a project director role in the organisation’s national office in Melbourne. For nine months I was living in a friend’s garage, being paid for four days per week, but generally working six, and with long hours, surrounded by other passionate young people who were working just as hard. I had my worst burnout yet, and spent several exhausting months working robotically like an emotionless zombie. I knew things needed to change.

But by this stage the long-term damage had already been done. After a few months off I took up a more stable, long-term role in another organisation in Sydney, working as a campaigner and community organiser, but I soon became sick with debilitating gut problems. What followed was several years of seeing numerous doctors and specialists, being treated with many courses of antibiotics, and slowly getting sicker and sicker.

I’ve come a long way and have a much better understanding of burnout these days. I realise now, in hindsight, that what I really needed was a lot more time off, much earlier on, and a different approach to the way I work and live. Meditation retreats and mindfulness have helped me see when I’m becoming compulsive in my approach to work, and helped me to let go of any fixations on imaginary goals that often aren’t that important. I’m more conscious of the addictiveness of mental stimulation and the heightened alertness that comes with stress. I’m more aware of the effect that computers and electronic devices have on me, drawing me into an intense way of working, and leaving me feeling stretched and highly strung. I’ve become more attuned to my body and have learnt to spot early warning signs of chronic stress, such as an elevated heart rate, sleep problems, and nervous habits like nail biting.

My own experiences aside, I feel sad seeing so many of my friends becoming worn out and unwell. We seem to have accepted chronic stress and burnout as part of modern life, but it’s not sustainable and I think it’s something we can change. As with many social issues it will likely need a mixture of education, advocacy, innovation and government legislation, but we need to start by having the conversation about it.

And we need each other. We need to share our stories, to normalise what is normal, and help each other understand chronic stress. We need to back each other when we push for a more balanced work culture or stand up against toxic stress in the workplace. We need to support each other when we opt to slow down our lives, perhaps taking a pay cut in the process.

In a recent job interview I chose to be upfront about my past challenges with burnout, saying that I wanted to work for someone who I could be open and honest with about these things, and who would support me in seeking a healthy balance. It turned out they had gone through burnout themself, and saw it as a positive addition to my CV. I was offered the job.

We may be the burnout generation, but I hope that together, in solidarity, we can change burnout from being systemic and a source of shame, to infrequent and one of mutual support.

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https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-23/millennial-burn-out/10737016

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs

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