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An Ode to Burnout
Are you exhausted? I'm exhausted.
I don’t know about you, but these days, I wake up every morning with aches, pains, and a certain reluctance. I’m happy I get to open my eyes — life is a gift, and should not be taken for granted — but nevertheless, it’s hard not to wonder how much more sleep I should have gotten, and what fresh hells may be in store.
Raise your hand if you identify with this: I’m tempted to look at my phone first thing in the morning, as soon as I clear the sleep from my eyes, not because I’m excited to go through my notifications and the news, but because I’m a rip the band aid off kind of guy. What good comes from torturing myself for a couple of hours wondering what gut punches are in store? Let’s get the cards on the table, shall we?
But I keep reading how bad it is to do this, so I try not to. I try to give my first moments of the day to the people that I love. You know, the people who actually deserve them? Like my wife, who is usually awake long before I am, but sticks around so we can have those first minutes of the day together. And I love to roll over and grab my sweet baby, burrowing my nose into the soft spot right between the back of his head and his little neck, breathing in deep the incomparable scent of newborn.
Sometimes I shower. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even check to see if my hair is standing straight on end. I’ve been working from home for 8 years, invisible to the outside world except for my thoughts. It’s easy to give appearance a pass.
And my appearance has certainly deteriorated during that time. The stresses of my life, and those related to the business I started back in 2014, have aged me significantly. I look at videos of me from that year, and I still look like a young man. But now my face looks weathered, and the bags under my eyes are deeper. I’ve put on a lot of weight. My hair is thinning out on top, and my beard has gone from mostly brown to mostly gray. It’s the difference between age 36 and 43. Not much on paper, but a hell of a lot, it turns out, on my actual body.
My normal morning routine, post-bedroom pleasantries, involves stumbling to the kitchen, where I make a beeline for the espresso machine. Grinding, tamping, and pulling my double shot of sweet, sweet wake-up juice happens almost completely on automatic. Sometimes, I have an “Irish coffee,” with my Irish on the side. (Don’t judge. I’m a writer. It’s a professional privilege.) Iced Americano in hand, walking back to my office on the other side of the house completes my brief commute. I try not to pay too much attention to whatever my kids have left trashed and lying around, or I’m going to start barking orders. It’s too early in the day for that kind of conflict.
They’ve been at home almost non-stop since February of 2020, when their spring break turned permanent. What started out as a remote-learning experiment turned into COVID-fueled trip back to homeschool. Our house was purchased for space and location — close to school, room for 8 people, plus an in-law suite for my wife’s father, plus two home offices for the businesses we run from here. It’s a house meant for entertaining, not for children, and had there been others that met our needs we’d likely have chosen differently. With a stunning view of the city lights of Mesa and Tempe through the view fence in the back, across miles of untamed desert that belongs to the Salt River Reservation, it’s great for sunsets and pool parties, but not for boys who need to run and jump and climb. There’s a patch of grass in the back not much bigger than a walk-in closet. Everything else is tile, pool, and patio. When we moved in, the boys were at school most of the time, the little guys hitting the playground multiple times per day. In the summer, we figured, they’d spend most of their time swimming, since it’s hotter than the back room of hell most days here in the desert. Last year we had more days over 100 degrees than any year on record. And no rain. Two years of wild fires are plenty of reminder of how ridiculously dry it has been. Some nights, the smoke hangs like a yellow-brown haze over everything, the smell of wood charcoal filling the air if the wind blows just right.
But as it turns out, a pool is only so much fun for so long. You can only spend so many hours out there before you’re bored out of your mind. And running around in circles on the postage stamp of grass when it’s 117 out just isn’t an option. So when they’re on summer break, like now, my kids wind up spending too much time in front of screens.
The chaos of having them home all the time, the realization that we have placed them in an environment where they’re not living like kids should live weighs on me. As does their incessant trashing of our living environment, and the endless subsequent battles to mobilize them for reparatory chores.
I spent the bulk of my summers in Connecticut and upstate New York, where it cooled off at night, and the morning grass was laden with dew. My days were about riding my bike, climbing trees, building forts, and coming up with random stupid things to do. I read lots of books. I used my old beat up boombox, given to me by our downstairs neighbor, to make “radio shows.” I played with fire in the barn out back. My mom limited our television time, but it wasn’t much fun anyway. We had to watch so many commercials, and the shows only came on when they came on. Nothing was streaming or bingeable. (Although my brother Matt did watch The Return of the Jedi pretty much every day one summer. Can’t believe he didn’t wear out the tape.)
With the feeling of needing to do something, to move to a place where our kids can be kids, hanging over me, I make it to my desk. This is where the real procrastination begins: methodically working through social media comments, checking emails, taking a spin around the internet looking for inspiration to write something. On my taskbar, an icon for Steam (the PC gaming service) lights up green for some reason. I click on it and see no notification to warrant the color change, but it does get me thinking about how much more fun I’d have if I were gaming myself.
There’s one I’ve been playing lately called Rimworld. It looks stupid, but it’s addictive and fun. The premise is simple: you have a few colonists who crash land on a planet and they need to survive and build up their resources to the point where they can construct a new spaceship and go home. It’s a massive amount of tasking, assigning work priorities to different “pawns” (as the game calls your characters) based on their skills, and fighting off diseases, injury, animal attacks, and pirate raids. Build this, cook that, clean here, research this, make sure your food doesn’t spoil and your people don’t starve, and so on. It amazes me, sometimes, as I sit there flooring the dopamine trigger in my brain, that I am playing a game that emulates and exaggerates the responsibilities of being an adult, and yet for some reason actually find it fun.
Maybe it’s just that your successes in a game are realized much more quickly. Your failures, too, but the consequences of losing one of the little people in your care to disease or injury is a hell of a lot less significant in game than in real life. I don’t know what it is, but the kind of micromanagement I hate in the real world somehow becomes fun when you put it in the context of a game.
Maybe, too, it’s about a feeling of control. My wife says video games are basically accomplishment porn, and I think she’s right. I feel like the world of a game makes so much more sense than the one I live in. I know what I’m doing, I know why I’m there, my limitations are clear, but so is my mission. I have purpose and means. I am running the show within understandable parameters.
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There seems to be precious little of that in our real lives, these days. We live in a world that feels to be spiraling at breakneck speed into pure chaos. Politically, religiously, we have never felt less certain or less safe. What we do feel fairly sure of is that the future will be worse than the present or our past. That age-old hope felt by parents across the millennia — the desire to give your children a better life than you had — feels more and more like a naïve dream.
What kind of a world did I bring them into? You think. How are they going to thrive in it?
If you’re anything like me, the uncertainties and regrets of your life are spiced up with personal drama. Damaged or difficult relationships with siblings or older children. The realization that you’re screwed up because of your parents, and they’re probably screwed up for the same reason, and how that affects your relationship with them. Marital or parental obstacles and challenges that turn what appear to be brief morning conversations into day-long discussions, fraught with emotion and angst.
Somehow, in the middle of it all, you have to actually get some work done, too.
And you just sit there, staring at the screen, wondering how the hell you’re going to put one foot in front of the other. (Full disclosure: I stared at a blank Substack screen for a while this morning, unable to muster up a single thought I could write down. That feeling of “no gas in the tank and many miles to go”? That’s not just you.)
I’m burned out, and I know it. But life doesn’t ask you if you’d like a nice lie down after a glass of ice-cold, fresh-squeezed lemonade. Life is more like the IRS, telling you to pay up or they’re gonna take all your stuff.
In truth, as my morning routine demonstrates, pandemic life wasn’t extremely different for me. I don’t know what it’s been like for those not used to working from home, but I hear it had a pretty profound psychological effect on a lot of folks. And now, more and more, we’re seeing people talking about “burnout.”
“Today we use burnout as a catchall term,” writes Katie Heaney at The Cut, “a word to describe the entire maelstrom of emotion endemic to working life in 2021: anxiety, grief, boredom, exhaustion.”
But the word is almost overused now, and can feel somewhat self-indulgent…at least, when other people say it. Writes Heaney, “Burnout is an attractive diagnosis for the self-aggrandizing; it suggests that one’s job is uniquely draining, almost to the point of a medical emergency.”
Dr. Lucy McBride, an internist in Washington D.C., thinks burnout is a medical condition. Writing for Forbes, she says:
Burnout is usually reserved to describe work-related phenomena: exhaustion, feelings of negativism, and reduced professional efficacy. In 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout in its International Classification of Diseases but clearly stated that the term “should not be applied to describe experiences in other [nonoccupational] areas of life.” Burnout “is not classified as a medical condition,” the agency declared, using boldface for emphasis. Similarly, the Mayo Clinic calls burnout “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity,” and specifies that it “isn’t a medical diagnosis.”
I beg to differ. The symptoms of burnout have become medical. The work of living through a pandemic has been making us sick. As a primary-care doctor, I’m witnessing the physical-health toll of collective trauma—high blood pressure, headaches, herniated discs. And this has been before many people have returned to the office or resumed their pre-pandemic schedules.
Simply being human carries occupational risk. Now is the time to redefine burnout as the mental and physical fallout from accumulated stress in any sphere of life, whether that’s work, parenting, caregiving, or managing chronic illness. To muster the energy for reentry into non-pandemic life, people need more than a vaccine and a vacation; they need validation of their experience, a broader reckoning with how they lived before March 2020, and tools to dig out from more than a year of trauma.
Americans were flirting with symptoms of burnout well before the pandemic. The combination of hustle culture, toxic stress, and poor access to affordable health care conspired to make Americans among the least healthy populations in wealthy countries. Diseases of despair—including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction—were already rampant.
Living through COVID-19 brought the simmering pot to a boil. By stripping our emotional reserves even further, the pandemic has laid bare our unique vulnerabilities—whether medical, social, emotional, occupational, or logistical. Every aspect of life has required added work during the pandemic—eating and sleeping, shopping for necessities, getting routine medical care, learning, relating to others. Despite heightened anxiety, we’ve had to juggle parenting, caregiving, and working without our traditional support structures.
I find myself wondering about McBride’s use of the word “trauma” here. I don’t think it was the pandemic itself, or even what it did to our social lives, that caused most of the “trauma” people might be experiencing. I suspect that rather, it was the time spent cooped up with spouses and children in houses bought for pragmatic reasons, finding out that maybe they never needed to spend 3 hours a day commuting for the last 20 years of their lives and that their priorities were all out of whack.
Up close and personal with their loved ones like never before, people also started seeing what was broken in their relationships. They started realizing that their houses were commuter stations, not homes. They started realizing that they, and maybe their kids too, were on hamster wheels, and that it wasn’t worth wasting their lives that way. I think the “trauma” many of us have experienced in the last year is rooted in coming to terms with the realization that we’ve been deceiving ourselves about a lot of things, that there were big problems with our relationships with the people we love hiding right under our noses, and that it’s time to make the changes to put things right.
Referencing a 2015 book called The Burnout Society, by Byung-Chul Han, Heaney continues:
If Zoom and other technologies made many jobs technically possible throughout a year of death and isolation, they also promoted the idea that continuing to work as usual amid unrelenting global suffering was emotionally and spiritually feasible. For many people, it turns out, it wasn’t. As Han explains, “The complaint of the depressive individual, ‘Nothing is possible,’ can only occur in a society that thinks, ‘Nothing is impossible.’ ”
Having transcended the Cold War’s reactive politics and fear of the foreign, Han argues, we’ve become “achievement-subjects” rather than “obedience-subjects.” Ostensibly freed from external dictatorship and bodily threat, we are left to rule ourselves, and we are merciless: “The exhausted, depressive achievement-subject grinds itself down, so to speak … Entirely incapable of stepping outward, of standing outside itself, of relying on the Other, it locks its jaws on itself; paradoxically, this leads the self to hollow and empty out.” Under Han’s theory of contemporary burnout, we are the snake eating its own tail.
Written a decade before the pandemic, Han’s book feels prophetic. “Burnout syndrome occurs when the ego overheats,” he writes, “which follows from too much of the Same.” Does there exist anywhere on earth a better descriptor of the past year?
Too much of the same is something acutely tied to working from home. No matter how lovely your house is, it can start to feel like a prison if you never leave it. But too much of the same also relates to work. “I write about the same thing every day and it’s so negative” is something I came to realize, and it made me want to change. I bet you’re already thinking about the areas of your work or life where “too much sameness” is an issue.
Heaney says that many people are reacting to burnout by quitting their jobs - many indefinitely. I’m trying to imagine what kind of adult has that luxury unless they’re already on the cusp of retirement, or wound up a crypto-millionaire recently.
It’s fun to think about quitting everything though. What would you do if you were financially secure for life? What would you spend your days doing if you didn’t have to show up for your job?
I’ve come to understand myself well enough to know I’d still spend most of my time in work mode. Sure, I’d only write about things I was interested in, when I felt like writing about them, but you’d have to incapacitate me to get me to ever stop writing. It’s who I am. Being away from it for too long is like forgetting to breathe.
But what if I didn’t have to work? What if I could take the break I know my own burnout desperately demands? What if I could buy an RV and start touring the country’s national parks with my family for a year? What if I could take my wife back to Europe? What if I could finally visit Japan? Would these things heal the burnout?
I don’t know for certain, but I believe they would. Bit by bit, day by day, adventure by adventure, the over-pruned soul grows back. Most of us have experienced this. (If you’ve never done it, there’s nothing like a road-trip to rejigger your perspective.)
I think for a lot of us, a big part of the burnout is knowing we don’t have the power to say, “enough.”
By that I mean, “I’ve had enough of this job. It was good for a while, but now it isn’t. I don’t like it anymore, and I want to do something else now without worrying that my kids are going to starve.”
Who hasn’t wanted to say this at some point? But how many of us have actually done so? How many of us have the financial freedom to simply walk away?
If you’re suffering burnout right now, know that you’re not alone. Every day I show up for work, every task I accomplish, every piece that I write, feels like a nearly herculean effort these days. Objectively, I know this not to be the case, but that means that the problem is within me. That means, ultimately, that I have control over it. It may be a battle, but it’s my battle to fight.
I saw a quote last night that really resonated with me. I want to share it here with you:
I think this is a solid piece of advice. I’ve personally gotten this wrong in the past, and the consequences can be costly. If you want to overcome burnout, this is a pretty important thing to get right.
I don’t know how long it’s going to take to feel normal again. I don’t know when the day will come when the thought doesn’t fill my mind, “I need to work, but I don’t have it in me. I’ve got nothing left.” I don’t know when I’ll stop thinking, “I’ll have a better, more productive day tomorrow,” only for tomorrow to wind up just the same as today.
But I know that I will overcome this — and you can too. Until then, all we can do is keep showing up, doing the best we can.