February 16, 2024

The “Burnout” Dilemma: Nurturing Well-Being in a Culture of Overwork.

You earn a living to Live Well, not to kill yourself with stress.” ~ Sadhguru


With stress culture gaining popularity over the last two decades and more, we seem to have lost sight of the significance of taking a moment to breathe and relax.

Our society has fashioned a reality that glorifies ceaseless hustle, measuring our worth by our constant “busyness.” This mindset has transformed moments of indulgence and care into sources of guilt. The pervasive nature of this culture has reached a point where, even during periods of apparent ease, we find ways to keep our hands full.

Burnout is not merely a fleeting feeling of exhaustion, but a complex state of chronic physical and emotional fatigue. In order to understand burnout, we need to trace its evolution and acknowledge that the burnout of today differs significantly from historical instances, even during tumultuous periods like world wars.

While the term “burnout” was officially coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the early 1970s, the unique set of factors contributing to today’s widespread burnout appears to have intensified in the late 20th century and into the 21st century. Historically, burnout as we know it now didn’t exist.

And the regrettable truth is that our present reality celebrates the culture of overworking. It is a world where, if we have time to rest, we aren’t putting in enough effort. Individuals receive accolades for pulling all-nighters, competing over who has had the least time to rest. A world that confuses constant hustle for actual progress. In the face of these dynamics, it remains perplexing why we often find ourselves drained despite the minimal actual forward movement.

Unfortunately, we are part of a society that has conditioned us through generations to work relentlessly in order to succeed in life. A place where success is synonymous with the capacity to afford luxury, and in turn, luxury is tied to happiness.

In a culture that places a premium on work rather than rest, productivity instead of harmony, and output over happiness, burnout is now perceived as a symbol of achievement―and unfortunately people are rewarded for this achievement. Personally, I can’t remember the first time I wore the badge of exhaustion with pride; perhaps it began at school when I stayed up all night studying to get good grades or perhaps in my first job when whoever took extra work home was the model employee. I may not remember when it started, but it began to really hurt years later.

We make numerous errors in how we approach our workload. Similar to many, I operated under the assumption that the only effective approach to managing work as I rose up the ladder was to invest more hours. The predicament, however, lay in the fact that the day comprises only 24 hours, regardless of whether we lead a team of three or 25,000 employees.

As a driven individual in my early 30s, I failed to grasp this logic. There was a point where, in the pursuit of personal standards of perfection, I wore my work ethic as a badge of honour. Underneath that, was there an element of pride? Certainly. But there was also an unhealthy and unsustainable aspect to it.

This worked out until, inevitably, it didn’t.

New age stress stimuli

Modern day burnout is further fuelled by the unnatural stimuli prevalent in our daily lives. The constant exposure to artificial light and screens play a pivotal role. These devices, while providing convenience, contribute to overstimulation and disrupt our natural circadian rhythms. Moreover, automation brings its own set of challenges, with fatigue stemming from the expectation of perpetual efficiency.

With technology and constant connectivity, we have created an “always-on” culture―the boundary between our work and personal life has blurred, leading to a continuous cycle of productivity that knows no bounds. The unrealistic expectation to be available at all times has intensified stress levels and contributed to burnout.

In the other spectrum, social media has also amplified the culture of comparison, fostering a fear of missing out syndrome. Constant exposure to curated success stories and lifestyles on platforms like Instagram fuels a sense of inadequacy, further intensifying the pressure to achieve and succeed.

Stop wearing burnout as a badge of honour

Every day, we see managers, including our peers, arriving early at work and being the last to leave for the day. Initially, I thought that these individuals lacked a life beyond work, a factor motivating their extended hours. However, I later came to the realization that this choice may not be born out of necessity; instead, it is a conscious decision to distance themselves from a social life in order to fully embrace the hustle culture. In other words, if managers stay late at work, we may mirror that behaviour to impress them or be noticed as a “hard-worker.” The consequence is a situation where they genuinely don’t have a life outside of work. Ironically, these individuals are often rewarded for their dedication, creating an environment that encourages others to adopt a similar lifestyle.

While it’s essential to work hard and set ambitious goals, it’s equally important to recognize the negative impact of overworking. For the longest time, I took pride in the fact that I delivered best when I was under pressure. Obviously, I feel stupid when I think of it now! Nevertheless, constant stress takes a toll on physical health, leading to issues such as cardiovascular problems and an increased susceptibility to mental health disorders. What is even more concerning is the onset of burnout, which sneaks up on us stealthily, often catching us off guard. Most of us don’t realise what we are going through until it paralyses us―a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by feelings of cynicism; detachment from work and society; emotional distress; increased irritability; loss of enthusiasm and a general sense of existentialist angst.

The belief that our value, efficiency, and worthiness as successful individuals increase when we are exhausted is beyond acceptable. Similarly, the notion that we become more valuable and productive at work when we are burnt out is not just figuratively damaging but has fatal consequences.

What doesn’t and shouldn’t work for us

Working ridiculous hours without time for ourselves: One day we will inevitably find ourselves with insufficient amount of time to address all the demands that are placed upon us. The reality is that the demands on our time will consistently surpass the available hours.

Getting no rest: We need to rest, period. A rested brain works better while an exhausted one reacts in fight-and-flight mode, without generating new ideas. A rested us is more productive, always. However, many of us don’t know how to rest and confuse sleeping with rest! It could mean different things for different people, like for some music could be relaxing but may not for musicians. We have to find that one thing that works for us.

Sacrificing vacation time: There has been so much said about balanced living already. In this stress culture we forget to look at the larger picture, our life―wherein work is just a part of it and not the soul. Everything else needs to be accommodated in our life and not the other way round. Not utilising our vacation time at the expense of a “crisis situation” or “that important meeting” means sacrificing our own and our family’s well-being.

Thriving on being busy: Feels good to be perpetually busy? That is great. Ask managers how they have been doing; the response will be “busy.” Busy in meetings, rushing around, managing teams, and so on. Again, not a badge of honour. At the end of life, I would like to claim that “I lived” rather than “Oh, well, at least I was busy.”

How do we break the cycle?

Self-awareness and acceptance: The first step toward breaking free from this mindset is cultivating self-awareness. Acknowledging the signs of stress and exhaustion in our life without judgment helps. It is okay to feel overwhelmed, and acceptance is the first step to initiating change.

Redefining success: Challenge the conventional definition of success. Success should not be measured solely by professional achievements or the number of hours worked. Can we not incorporate personal well-being, relationships, and happiness into our definition and measure of success?

Setting realistic goals: Establishing realistic and achievable goals is crucial in preventing burnout. Breaking down larger objectives into smaller, manageable tasks is key. This not only makes the workload more digestible but also allows for a sense of accomplishment along the way.

Learning to say no: It’s okay to decline additional responsibilities when our plate is full. Learning to say no is a powerful skill that allows us to set boundaries and protect our well-being. Understand that saying no is not a sign of weakness but a demonstration of respecting ourselves. Taking care of ourselves is not a luxury but a necessity.

But we need more

Living optimally means prioritizing self-care and a sustainable lifestyle whether it is dedicating time for meditation, exercise, resting, self-reflection, or hobbies.

However, beyond bubble baths and scented candles, self-care is not the answer to burnout.

We need to care for each other too―as managers, friends, parents, children, and be the cheerleaders for the community. We need policies that promote well-being and not the stress culture. And we don’t need to do anything dramatic to feel good; it’s usually something mundane. It’s just small steps each day. If using a sage stick gave us a momentary sense of coping with stressful situations, it might be worthwhile to revisit the original intent of the self-care movement.

To engage in purposeful self-care, it’s important to identify actions that genuinely improve our well-being, rather than simply imitating social media influencers who claim serenity from the scent of rain. Self-care could mean having a difficult conversation about shared responsibilities with your partner or setting boundaries like refraining from responding to emails on weekends or our day off.

It is time we stop normalising exhaustion and embark on a journey toward a more balanced and meaningful existence. It may not happen overnight but small steps will go a long way.


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