I’ve been sort of going through the motions at my job for several months now. For a while, I couldn’t quite figure out what was up, because I’ve always liked my job and been enthusiastic about doing it, but when I started reading all these stories about burnout it hit me: That’s what I’m experiencing. I work in media, so it’s not like I’m saving lives, but it’s been a stressful year between the pandemic, financial pressures at my company, the difficulty of working at home with kids, and the challenges of managing people who are also burned out. I talked to my boss, who I like, about it. He encouraged me to take an extra week off, which I did. Now that I’m back at work, though, I still feel burned out. I can’t quit my job, because I’m the source of health insurance for my family, so how do I cure myself?
Stories about burnout, you say? Have there been stories about burnout this year? I guess I remember a thinkpiece or two, a historical lookback, a few oddly framed trend pieces, a big reported feature, and ohmygod so many how-to stories. (I’ve repressed at least a dozen others; it’s actually illegal to send me more.) Nearly all of them made me feel something on the spectrum between annoyed and furious, either because they were dismissive or overly glib about the concept or because their suggested solutions made no sense.
For a while I kept getting Google News alerts for my name because, as a person who quit my job in April 2021 and made the mistake of using the b-word in my tweet, I somehow became a data point in a handful of these stories, despite exactly zero of their writers asking me for comment. I am so burned out on Burnout Discourse that I ignored multiple questions about burnout submitted to this very column. I also ignored multiple friends who suggested I write about burnout instead of just ranting about how everyone else got it wrong. I literally got a request to be on a panel about burnout while writing this column.
At one point, frustrated with another bad burnout article, I deleted a bunch of spicy tweets and instead decided to channel my energy toward setting up office hours for journalists in need of free coaching. I’ve since done about 50 of these sessions, and the word burnout has come up in at least 40 of them. So as bad as I think Burnout Discourse is, I also recognize there’s a real problem here. So here we are, at my last OOO advice column, and I’ve finally caved.
One thing I’ve noticed about people’s descriptions of their own burnout is that they tend to list all the reasons they don’t “deserve” to feel burned out. One woman a few years out of college was working basically round the clock writing articles she found tremendously unfulfilling, but she was sheepish about calling her exhaustion burnout, because she felt like she hadn’t been working long enough to qualify. One guy apologized for using the word because he was making a high salary by media standards. And you, Katie, feel compelled to qualify your legit stressors by establishing that your job isn’t as important as health care workers’.
All of these hesitations, though, are bullshit—and bullshit that makes our lives worse. Being burned out is not some deranged badge of honor. That means you don’t need to earn it. But when people are told over and over again through dumb articles and even dumber tweets that burnout isn’t “real” or that it doesn’t apply to white-collar workers or that they’re too young to know what actual suffering is, they’re inclined to bottle up and delegitimize their feelings rather than take concrete steps to change their circumstances. And yes, of course the word has become a catchall that means wildly different things to different people, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Part of the reason it was odd to see my own experience used in all these stories was that people made assumptions about what “burnout” looked like for me and thus passed judgment accordingly, without actually having any idea. (Never tweet, is what I’m saying.)
So then, what do we do? I pretty much agree with Olga Khazan’s take that bosses need to step up to solve people’s burnout by fixing the factors that lead them to feel exhausted by work. And an extra week off, while a nice idea, is a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. That said, it’s also overly simplistic to say that only your boss can cure your burnout. For one thing, all the best bosses I know are pretty burned out themselves—the good ones have spent months if not years preventing the boulder from rolling down the mountain and flattening their employees. I’m also skeptical that a top-down approach is always the only way to solve cultural issues at work; in my experience, many of the best ideas come from people without management responsibilities.
But most fundamentally, I think curing burnout requires resetting your own relationship with work. Many of us have worked many more hours during the pandemic—not because our jobs truly required us to do so, but because we sometimes don’t know what to do when we’re not working. And so many of us define ourselves so completely by our work that we’ll sacrifice our own sanity long before sacrificing our ambition or scaling down our grueling schedules. Your boss can’t solve that for you, but you know what can? Good therapy. If you don’t have a therapist you love, find one right now. Talk to them about why you feel burned out and what steps you can take to fix it without anyone else’s help. Excavating the depths of your own relationship with work is hard and often terrible, but unfortunately it actually helps.
Meanwhile, redouble your efforts to find fulfillment outside of work. I know that can sound impossible when you’ve got kids to worry about, but I genuinely believe you’ll be a better parent as well as a saner person if you can devote some time to things that make you purely happy. That might mean picking up a new hobby, but it could also be about volunteering your time to a cause that’s important to you—for me, working with low-income teenage journalists has been a uniquely restorative experience.
Lastly, remember that your current job and the unemployment line are not your only options, Katie. Maybe you’re burned out in part because you don’t like your job anymore, which is fine! Looking at listings and chatting with people in your network about opportunities they know of can be fun and exciting, and it doesn’t commit you to anything. Fantasize a little about what you’d really love to be doing! See if anything starts to feel right. Then, you can start to make it happen.