Burnout Solutions Start With Setting Boundaries & Here’s How I Tried To Do That
The first time I realized I was burned out at work was in 2008, during the Great Recession. The company where I worked laid off more than half its staff, and while I was lucky enough to make the cut, I was left doing four people's jobs — some of which I did not have the skills for. While I was busy working 24/7, my dad — who lived out of state — became terminally ill and died within a few months. Instead of being able to take time off work, I was fielding calls from my staff while I was sitting by my dad's hospital bed.
Being confronted with the fact that I had no one to delegate my work to so I could take care of my family responsibilities made it abundantly clear I was running on empty. After my father's funeral, I resigned. At the time I thought it was just that job, and things would be different at my next job. But I now realize that, thanks to technology, 24/7 work culture is just the new normal.
Because I've been working steadily since I was 13, when I first started to feel burned out, I asked myself: Am I being a baby? Why can't I handle the pressures of my career? It's not like I hadn't been prepared for hard work. I'm from a working-class family in Ohio's rust belt. I had three jobs in college. Despite this, I now look back on that time as relatively stress-free. As an older millennial, social media was in its infancy when I started college, texting wasn't even a thing, and no one had email on their phone. When I left work or school, I had actual free time.
Because I remember life before 24/7 tech culture, it's clear to me that the constant juggling that it takes to maintain a life and career in a digital world that didn't exist 20 years ago is not a sustainable act. Case-in-point: the recent piece by Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed on the unique experience of millennial burnout that went viral earlier this year. In it, she argued that burnout is a systemic aspect of the millennial condition.
In fact, younger millennials have never known anything different. While it's undeniable that technology has myriad benefits, many of the things that make our lives easier also make them more difficult. This is particularly true at work.
According to Harvard Business Review, this is common. "Managers routinely overload their subordinates, contact them outside of business hours, and make last-minute requests for additional work. To satisfy those demands, employees arrive early, stay late, pull all-nighters, work weekends, and remain tied to their electronic devices 24/7. And those who are unable— or unwilling — to respond typically get penalized."
This is a pretty accurate description of what happened to me. In the last job I had before I went freelance, I was responsible for a workload that should have been spread out over multiple departments. Because the business was global, and I was in the last time zone in the organization, people would call, text, and message me as early as 6 a.m., and it would continue well into the evening.
What's more, while work/life balance was touted as a value, time off was not respected. I regularly received calls and texts while on vacation, while out sick, and even while at a funeral. Sometimes there's no way around this. But nothing I was responsible for could have been considered an emergency by anyone's definition. The stress began to affect my health, which I've since learned is a common side effect of burnout.
A study published in PLOS ONE found that burnout has significant negative consequences on health and well-being, and can lead to: "Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries, and mortality," the study reported, also citing a number of mental health side effects.
While it's always nice to be validated, I needed no further proof that working 24/7 is bad for mental and physical health than what I myself was experiencing. I've had migraines since I was 6 years old, but after four years of working around the clock, I developed a migraine that lasted for two months. The pain was so bad I was convinced I had a brain tumor. When my MRI came back clean my doctor gave it to me straight.
"You've got to find a way to reduce your stress," she told me. "That's the only way this will get better." I also developed severe anxiety and woke up hyperventilating and crying every morning at the mere thought of tackling the mountain of work in front of me. And while it's true that today's culture contributes to these health problems, so do the humans willing to put up with it.
"There is a generation of young women who seem overworked and underwhelmed," Los Angeles based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Michele Goldberg told me for a Bustle article about millennial women, career, and mental health in 2017. "They have adopted this notion that they must have a successful career in order to be valuable, falling into achievement addiction without questioning whether or not their pursuits are compatible with their values."
As I looked for ways to reduce stress in order to reclaim my health, I realized that like Goldberg noted, I had fallen into achievement addiction at a job I didn't even like, and I needed to make a change. What's more, I also had to accept some responsibility for my situation. As a perfectionist, I was determined to meet all expectations, no matter how unrealistic, at the expense of my own well-being.
When I decided to resign, I was worried about how I would support myself when I left my job. But I also realized that no one was making me stay there, and in order to take responsibility for my mental and physical health, I had to solve my problem. While I made the most money of my career to date at that job, it's also the most sick and miserable I've ever been. Choosing health and happiness over a high salary — that's my definition of adulting.
Our 24/7 work culture is a systemic problem without a simple solution. This means that if you're edging toward burnout, it's up to you to create your own boundaries. I set expectations about when I'll check email (I reserve time in the morning and afternoon — if there is an "emergency," someone will call me). I turn off the email and messaging notifications on my phone after working hours, and block off some time on my calendar each day just to get my work done. I don't take meetings during this time. I also set a dedicated time to begin and end my work day, and I try to stick to it as much as possible.
If you work a 12-hour day, leave early the next day. If you work a weekend, take a day off during the week. Don't leave vacation time on the table. You've earned that time; take it and don't apologize. Don't work on vacation. Meditate regularly. If none of this helps reduce your stress, or people keep ignoring your boundaries, talk to your boss or HR. And if all else fails, it might be time to consider that you need a new job.
I learned the hard way. After resigning, taking six months off to recover my health, spending all of my 401(k), running up my credit cards to pay my bills, and getting a roommate to cut costs after leaving my toxic job, I became a freelancer. While this affords me the freedom to decide how to manage my time and my life, hustling comes with its own stress. However, it's also empowered me to say no to jobs I don't feel good about doing and that don't allow me to prioritize my health.
This doesn't mean I don't get burned out. Because I tend to operate from a baseline of fear and anxiety, I don't always say no when I should. My mind starts to spiral into "What if no one ever hires me again if I turn down this gig?" In many ways I am my own worst enemy. I know this, and I am trying to do better.
I saw an old friend recently who took one look at me and said, "Girl, you need to give yourself a break — be kinder to yourself." I wanted to cry because it was exactly what I needed to hear. My main goal for 2019 is to establish better boundaries so I can avoid ever getting to my previous level of burnout again. If you're feeling the burn, remember that you're not alone and there's nothing wrong with you because you can't handle the pressure. Be kinder to yourself. Give yourself permission to take control of your narrative. You have more power than you think.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.