I’ve been following this conversation with interest because the way I respond to burnout is really specific and goes against the standard advice — just take a break! learn to breathe again! — and plays into the specificity of millennial burnout, as opposed to my late-GenX crabbiness:
My own behavior didn’t make sense to me because I didn’t recognize it as burnout. But everyone’s burnout works differently — which is why my immediate follow-up to the piece was to collect 16 different accounts of how burnout accumulates differently for people from different backgrounds, with different life conditions, with different contexts. As I said last week, no one’s “bottom half of their to-do list” — the things they avoid and find themselves incapable of completing — are exactly the same, and the consequences of the inability to complete them are different. If I don’t get my knives sharpened (still haven’t! the sharpener guy wasn’t at the store!) I might accidentally cut myself while cutting onions, but no huge deal. But if one of the things on my list was my inability to go renew my driver’s license, or make a doctor’s appointment, or find shoes that are comfortable for walking, or have a conversation with my kid’s teacher, or tell my boss about a coworker who makes my life hell — the consequences are different.
In the mid-oughts I had the work I always wanted to have, and it was making me fucking miserable. I’m not talking about a bad job, or a bad boss, or even a few rough days at the office. I’m talking the thing I wanted to do since I was six years old literally wasn’t working for me on any level at all. I would have incredible successes and go home feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. It was all I ever wanted to do and I hated doing it so much I started smoking.
Take a vacation! You need a break! That was everybody’s advice. Take a day off! Okay, but when I get back and I don’t feel refreshed, then what? Because I took days off, days and days off. And I spent them curled up on the bed hyperventilating.
I don’t need a break, I would say. I need this not to suck. Breaks just delayed the suck, and then anticipating it was another level of suck entirely.
I read Anne’s first piece thinking “all these people need a combination of psychiatric medication, lots of it, and to read Unfuck Your Habitat with their therapists” because “errand paralysis” is one of MY danger signs of depression. I stop making haircut appointments and mailing shit and then I stop sleeping, eating and taking my meds. It’s a slippery slope from not emptying the dishwasher to talking to myself on the train is what I’m saying, but when I got done wishing everyone could afford to see a decent doctor I started wishing everybody could have work they felt good about.
Burnout to me isn’t about being tired. I worked something like 60 hours a week this past fall and I didn’t even FEEL any of them. Sure I was exhausted, caffeine toxicity is a real thing and I’ve had it twice in my life, once when Kick was a newborn and once in October, but I wasn’t burned out. I was just tired. Tired is easy. Tired, you take a nap.
Feeling like nothing matters and you can’t bring yourself to participate in the world, that’s burned out.
So many people not only can’t take a break, can’t catch their breath, but also so many people’s work fucking sucks. We devalue work a lot in this country even as we chain ourselves to it, with our catchy little “nobody ever died wishing they spent more time at work” plaques and aggressive marketing of “work-life” balance, implying as that does that work isn’t part of your life. So many people’s work doesn’t make them feel like they’re part of anything, or pay them enough to be able to invest significant parts of themselves, or make them feel like it’s worth it, all the ass-busting they have to do.
And we can’t fix that with a “break” from something that’s just gonna suck as hard when we return to it.