The Burnout Project: Why we need to talk about this global epidemic
We live in a fast-paced, digital-first, hyper-connected world.
We are glued to our screens and participate in the whirlwind of always-on social media. Comparisons are too convenient to make. Work follows us home. Every task on our to-do list must be optimized for efficiency. Busyness is worn as a badge of honour. It’s hard to get a break.
Constantly anxious, we are so in it that we’ve become oblivious to all of it. As a result, we are “on” all the time. We fall into helpless patterns that alleviate just enough stress to get us through the day, week, or month. (Cue Netflix, face masks, bubble baths, that #treatyourself donut, or other non-budgeted purchases.)
Over time, our energy gives diminishing returns and eventually leads to our burnout: a state of mental or physical collapse caused by overwork or stress (Oxford Dictionaries, 2019). Often we still function, half awake, through cycles of burnout. For those of us who identify as changemakers, so much of our work also relies on our passion and dedication to the issues at hand. If we’re not careful though, our relentless drive can lead to our own demise.
These cycles are not sustainable.
We’ve started this journey because one of the greatest enduring challenges of our lives has been managing our energy. Leah has experienced multiple cycles of burnout, which involved anxiety, insomnia, and physical and emotional exhaustion. Zoya grew up navigating complex health challenges and still pushed herself to the point of burnout numerous times, risking her wellbeing.
Over the past year, both of us have been digging into what previous habits, actions, and tendencies drove us to the point of burnout, both on individual and systemic levels. Most notably, we’ve learned that our default condition does not have to be intense stress or teetering on the edge of burnout. We have instead explored how to set healthy boundaries in our work, show up presently in our relationships, and take care of ourselves from a place of self-compassion and care. We are finally at a place in our journeys where we can perform highly while retaining optimal energy.
We know that we’re not alone in these struggles.
We want to open up this dialogue to our communities to change the conversation on burnout together. When we approached our world-changing, overcommitted friends about whether they had experienced burnout, we were met with a resounding yes. We were all constantly weighing conflicting emotions.
We felt overwhelmed with tasks, yet underwhelmed with the impact of our work.
We were trying to move forward professionally, yet continuously bumped into a dissatisfying stagnance. We felt compelled to take action on the growing number of social issues and injustices surrounding us, yet we desperately needed a break to recover from the intensity, hurriedness, and minutiae of daily life. We all felt an ingrained urgency that had been nestled somewhere in our minds for as long as we could recount — an urgency not just to do more, but to be more.
There is always something more to do. There is always someone more to be. Our burnout symptoms, in some ways, masked a deeper, unsettling realization: our fear of not being enough.
It was around this time that we co-hosted two pilot workshops about burnout and mental health for ambitious young changemakers. A total of 30 participants joined us to openly discuss their experiences. As co-facilitators, we showed up eagerly with questions and also participated, revealing our own challenges.
As we talked, key themes emerged:
- Burnout is complex. While it is often experienced as deeply personal and isolating, zooming out to examine the bigger societal picture showed us that burnout is much more common than we think. However, the lack of dialogue and awareness on burnout leads most people to believe it’s rare.
- When we are stressed, we ironically compromise the integral and restorative parts our lives that allow our bodies to be nourished: sleep, nutritious meals, exercise, social activities, time in nature, and time alone. While this neglect of self-care and self-love looks unique for everyone, many of us have a list of healthy habits that fall by the wayside.
- We have a complicated relationship with technology. While in many ways we need to stay connected, there is no “off” button when it comes to digital communications or screen time. Many of us wake up and fall asleep to our screens. Social media in particular has us comparing the behind-the-scenes, mundane, unglamorous parts of our lives to others’ curated highlight reels.
- There is certainly a role for grief literacy, coping with loss and change within these types of dialogues. The changemakers who participated in our dialogues especially noted the prevalence of ecological grief: the emotional quandaries “felt in relation to either experienced or anticipated ecological loss, whether it’s due to acute environmental issues or long, chronic, creeping changes” resulting from climate change (McCue, CBC Radio, 2018). Additionally, life transitions such as graduating from school, beginning or ending a job, moving across the country or the world, navigating new relationships or recent break-ups — all of this change can be destabilizing and overwhelming.
- We live, study, and work in a culture that rewards people who “optimize” for productivity and efficiency, grind through projects, thrive under pressure, earn achievements, and enjoy the “hustle”. Along the way, the role of presence and mindfulness has been left behind. Instead of appreciating where we are and celebrating the everyday wins in our personal and professional lives, one glimpse at our full calendars reminds us that the work is never done. Driven by high expectations, we often become disconnected from our own needs and instead seek to maximize our chances of “success”.
It turned out that we could not talk about about burnout without talking about the systems that contribute to it. We could not talk about burnout without discussing privilege, power, cultural contexts, “achievement addiction” (a term shared by a previous participant), grief, precarious work, and broader patterns in our education, healthcare, and economic systems.
So, let’s talk.
The Burnout Project’s initial dialogues illuminated that social connection and safe community spaces could serve as an antidote to the burnout epidemic. Voicing our anxieties, insecurities, and doubts takes away some of the power and immensity from this topic. Listening to relatable, validating stories from others and exploring pathways forward has also ignited a profound sense of hope and empowerment.
Our next event is on Saturday April 6th from 10am-3pm in Vancouver, Canada.
Here, we will continue to unpack some of the questions and themes mentioned in this post. In collaboration with our guest facilitator, Cole Nakatani, we will also learn practical tools and strategies to more mindfully manage our energy. Want to join us? Learn more and sign up through our Eventbrite page.
Learn more about The Burnout Project and how to get involved here.