Burning Out

Is it just me or is it getting harder to think? And I don’t mean real head scratchers like, “Why is America so bipartisan?” I mean thinking as in, “It’s 1:43 p.m. in the middle of the workday and I can’t decide if I want to shower.”

That’s not a random example by the way. It was literally something I mulled over for 15 minutes last week, and for what it’s worth, I could have lathered up three times over in the time it took for me to make my decision; I didn’t end up showering.

Since taking on my new role at the top of the year, I’ve regularly been clocking in extra time at the office (my bedroom). Averaging an extra two hours a day—the equivalent of an extra work week per month—joining a new company as a fully remote employee has come with an elevated sense of pressure. For the record, it’s largely self imposed pressure and my manager has vehemently told me to be more protective of my time.

I probably should have listened because the constant overtime and hustle with no time off has me feeling completely burnt out.   

Getting Torched

As it turns out, I’m not alone. In a recent CBC Cost of Living podcast, host Paul Haavardsrud cites that on average, Canadians are working an extra two and a half hours a day. While a 25% increase in daily workload might not have an immediate negative impact on our health, when sustained without a rest period, it stifles our overall creativity, happiness, and productivity. It’s no surprise that burnout rates are on the rise. In fact, an Indeed.com study found that 52% of workers are experiencing burnout, up 10% from last year.

Originally, the term “burnout” was coined as a medical condition back in 1974 by a psychologist who noticed individuals lost the ability to experience joy after extended periods of working long hours. In the present day, the World Health Organization refers to Burnout as, “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, energy depletion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.”

So in a nutshell, grinding in the office to the point where you lose your mojo, hate your vocation, and become unproductive.

It’s important to note that Burnout is different from exhaustion or depression. In her debut book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (great book by the way), author Helen Anne Petersen draws a clear distinction, referring to exhaustion as the act of pushing yourself to the point where you can’t go any further. Burnout takes it a step further where you reach that point but continue to push yourself for days, weeks, or years.

Adopting a glass half full mentality, dreading the act of signing on in the morning, and a marked decline in productivity all seem to be common manifestations of Burnout. Personally, I’ve been struggling to tap into my flow state and achieve any meaningful form of clarity when grafting through problems. It’s as if I’m dealing with perpetual brain fog, slowing me down, hampering my ability to perform. The smallest of actions seem to require heaps of activation energy which fizzles out just as quickly as it came.

The tragedy is that there is a vicious cycle at play: a desire to produce more value, followed by languishing at a task, resulting in personal frustration, which ultimately leads me to double down on the task by pouring more hours into it. 

Militaristic Misconceptions

Interestingly, our “tough it out” mentality when it comes to work is a behaviour seeded at a very early age. Growing up, we were always told to “work hard” and that if we did, success would follow. Think about how often you would receive praise from your parents when you studied an extra few hours a night. Or how your jam packed after school schedule was, in the eyes of your parents, a gift to unlock your potential when secretly inside you felt stress at the age of 15—true story of a family friend.

It’s no surprise this approach to work finds its way into our post secondary lives also via the infamous all nighter. They’ve become so common that about a fifth of students report pulling at least one all nighter every month and thirty five percent of students stay up past three in the morning once or more weekly according to a Medical News Today finding.

In the long term, prolonged over work can result in Burnout as mentioned above. However, in the short term there are consequences to grinding to the point where sleep is lost. In her book, The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington notes annually, companies lose eleven days of productivity per worker by sacrificing sleep in the name of productivity.

Supercompensation

In exercise physiology, the concept of Supercompensation refers to the body’s ability to recover beyond a baseline level of fitness in anticipation of future exercise; it’s the reason why you can lift more weight, perform more reps, or run for longer periods of time. In order for your body to adapt to elevated levels of stress, or supercompensate, two criteria must be met. The first is to introduce a stressor slightly above your current capacity to challenge your body beyond its normal limits—adding a few extra pounds onto the barbell or performing a few extra reps ticks this box. The second and often overlooked ingredient is providing your body with an adequate rest period to recover from the stress. The break allows your body to stitch together new muscle fibres to establish a new level of homeostasis so you can continue to get better, faster, and stronger with movements. In the absence of a rest period, you actually become weaker and can injure yourself.

Whether we’re talking about muscle tissue or our mental drive, the very lack of a recovery period is what holds us back from performing at our best. In his HBR article titled Resilience is About how you Recharge not how you Endure, Positive Psychologist Shawn Anchor, calls out how it’s increasingly difficult to unplug from the office. Exacerbated by the blending of our personal and professional lives, work doesn’t stop at 5pm—it tends to pop up in conversations over dinner, while we’re in the shower, or while we’re trying to make some Z’s.

Rest is hard and stopping from work doesn’t necessarily translate into recovery. Anchor suggests we need to strategically start stopping to actually recharge our batteries. For me, I’ve started to book off 15 minute slots in my calendar throughout the day so I can take a stroll around the block. Additionally, I don’t respond to workplace communications after 5pm anymore—no babies will die if I don’t respond so why bother. And importantly, I’m pre-booking week-long vacations throughout the year to completely unplug. Seriously, I’m currently writing this post amidst a week-long holiday at an Airbnb with a hot tub—it’s nice. And in case you need any more motivation to take care of yourself and ditch the hustle porn mindset, when it comes to work, Anchor also found that individuals who take time off are more likely to get raises and promotions at work.

***

Work is like a marathon of sprints. The goal is to maintain a level of continuity in your performance month over month, year over year. Take on a project and sprint for a short period of time. Challenge yourself beyond your current faculties to learn new skills but don’t skimp out on the rest period. Recover, relax, and unplug so that you can come back to your next sprint even stronger. If you don’t, the tough it out mentality will eventually yield diminishing returns and you’ll get caught in a vicious cycle. Be kind to yourself and recharge.

Key Takeaway: Working extended hours in the long term can lead to burnout. Nip it in the bud by proactively setting aside time to unplug—actually.

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