As I was running over the list of reasons to explain my almost 4-month long writing hiatus, I found myself growing increasingly hesitant to: say it how it is™. In drafts, I was rambling about university stress, poor work-life balance, seasonal change yada yada, instead of talking about what can only be labelled as pure unadulterated burnout. [The first three reasons were all contributors of the big looming B-word though.] The NHS defines burnout as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when an individual feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands. Essentially, it’s a state of total exhaustion that pervades all aspects of one’s life: social, academic, and work.
Burnout is a term that has fairly recently entered our mental health dialogue, after being coined by America psychologist Hervert Freudenberger in the 1970s to describe the consequences of severe and high ideals in service professions. However, we now know that burnout is a condition not exclusive to careerists, rather, it is something that can affect individuals from all backgrounds and at any stage of life. Specifically, students—we’re alllll in this together, and burnout is a feeling we know all too well. We start the semester optimistic, confident in our ability to prioritise, compartmentalise, and organise our time effectively. But by the time exam season rolls around, there is the eventual dreary slide into all-nighters, unhealthy habits, stress and boom, bang, bing: burnout. I’m not condemning all last-minute revision (sometimes it’s essential), but what I do know is that burnout is not an overnight phenomenon. It slowly creeps up day by day, manifesting in physical and mental symptoms, which if go unchecked and ignored, will cause burnout.
In a capitalist society that convinces us that hustle = value, the very idea of ‘burning out’ feels like a defeat in itself. If we are not active agents in the production process (e.g., going to work, completing tasks, earning money), we are considered invaluable. Although this isn’t a deep dive into capitalism as a dehumanising ideology (if you want it to be though, just message me), it is impossible to ignore the root cause of our competitive mindset. Productivity is the new social media currency, and the busier you look on the gram, the more successful you seem. Side hustles, start-ups, small businesses, panels, and podcasts are all incredible initiatives that deserve to be commended, however, they’re not absolute measures of success, despite what social media peddles to you. I see influencers talk more about adding extra businesses, income channels, and projects to our portfolios than the obvious difficulty it takes to actually manage them properly and maintain good mental health. Productivity is peddled as more more more, with no warning of the inevitable burnout you will face as a result of an overwhelming lack of ‘non-productive’ time for yourself.
This isn’t my way of telling you to quit your job, drop out of university, and live your best cottage core life (all things I have considered on multiple occasions), but it is my way of telling you that burnout feels like sh*t. It’s not glamourous, it’s not full of facemasks and self-care, and it’s definitely not a destination worth pushing yourself towards. At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves, is it worth it? If you had asked me that at 17, when I was pulling all-nighters because I felt like it was the only way to mAxiMisE my waking hours, I would have frantically nodded in a caffeinated buzz. If you had asked me pre-pandemic, whether it was worth signing up to do every single vague career-related opportunity, I would have laughed at you out of a humanities-student-fear of unemployment. You get the gist. For years and years of my life, burnout was not something to avoid, rather, in my warped perception of productivity, it was proof that I was doing something right: working hard, exhausting my brain and my body, and on track for success, whatever that meant.
At that age, I also found a cultural expectation that my, what I call ‘burnout behaviour’ (exhaustion, sleep deprivation, tiredness) was celebrated by brown folk. Aunties and uncles would shake their head impressed, wah wah beta, studying sooo hard. Why do our brown parents tell us that “this is the age for stress and study”, “if you have free time, you’re not studying hard enough”, and my personal favourite, “if you work out now, you can rest later”. I bought that, internalised it, self-preached it, and used it as reasoning for my self-destructive working conditions, as so many of us do. You can understand then why it feels so difficult to consciously unlearn the notion that taking breaks or just not being intensely busy is beneficial if not absolutely necessary for our mental health. Whilst our culture correctly promotes the values of working hard in one’s youth to build a great career and life for ourselves, it fails to recognise the inevitable by-product of pinning success on over-exhaustion. If we feel terrible about ourselves when we’re not working hard or actively moving towards our goals, we feel as though we don’t even deserve to take a break, focus on fun, destressing tasks, or just simply relax.
I find it fascinating that the World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, which again attributes this idea to success. Burnout is not an evidence of your failure or any indicator of self-worth, but rather it’s a sign that your mental health is not being prioritised or supported properly by external sources.
I believe we need to rephrase the narrative where burnout is not seen as a stage to power past to reach the other side, but rather, that it is a signal to slow down and make an active effort to reduce stress. Whilst a lot of life coaches and therapists speak about burnout on social media, there’s not nearly enough discussion on what it is and how we can prevent it in schools and academic environments. I wonder whether this is as a result of burnout being perceived as academically desirable during the process of studying and learning. It’s emotional evidence that you are working at your maximum capacity, which in turn promotes the value that you are hardworking, deserving of success, and dare I say it, a true girl boss. It’s BS. Burnout feels like sh*t, and I’m tired of seeing it packaged and peddled as a sign of success. Let’s call it what it is: a damaging product of over-productivity and over-exertion. Although it isn’t a perceivable ‘destination’, being (freshly) back from burnout (BFB) has forced me to re-evaluate my habits and more importantly, my mindset that facilitates it.
Avoiding burnout whilst prioritising your mental health, all in the face of deadlines, work commitments, and cultural expectations feels like a Herculean task — I’m with you there. But what if there were small changes we could all implement in our day-to-day lives and our larger support systems, such as counselling, life coaching, or therapy? Something I have started prioritising is setting boundaries, in such a way that honours both my mental health, and the person and task in question. What these boundaries look like are obviously different for each person, but what has made a difference for me is deciding to only check my emails in specific times of the day, or digitally separating my work and leisure spaces. I’ve become a planner, although I’m still getting the hang of it, but it has helped tremendously in making me feel more on top of things.
Although you don’t need me to remind you, burnout is something that can affect all of us, and when you’re in that zone, seemingly menial tasks such as texting back friends, brushing your hair, or eating full meals feel laborious. Be gentle with yourself and take time to reconnect with hobbies you find pleasurable, whether that’s mindful colouring, baking, or dancing. Remind yourself that what you’re doing, as a woman, and as a person of colour, is valuable, incredible, and it is worthy of praise. Contact and work with a councillor or therapist; one that will understand your situation and advise you on the best methods to cope and reduce. We are all trying our hardest, and feeling stressed is normal, but taking the necessary self-care ‘precautions’ can be the difference between experiencing periods of greater stress and extreme burnout. It’s a constant work-in-progress, and it feels uphill, but I know we can manage it with guided support and the constant reminder that burnout is not the goal, or any testament to your success—taking care of yourself is. We’re doing healthy girl summer, 2021!
Linked below are some useful resources for counselling, therapy, and general support! It is never too late to start and there are many options to choose from.