We’re often wired to be ‘driven’ in life but that sense of ambition can be unsustainable and lead to burnout. Over three quarters of a million people in the UK suffer from work stress, while in the US, 57% have reported the same impact. In part, this is due to the strain of being constantly on call. With the 5pm work exodus long gone, we can answer emails at all hours. The expectation to do this alone creates a major spike in the stress hormone cortisol.
The boom in modern stress levels is also down to the sheer weight of responsibilities we carry. Today’s world brings a pressure to ace your job, meet family commitments, keep up a dazzling social life, work out regularly – the list goes on. It’s a lifestyle illusion made worse by the perfectly edited lives we see every day on social media. While having a burnout still carries some stigma, there are some ways to help us recover.
Research shows career burnout hits its peak in the 34-54 age group
Awareness you are burnt out tends to come in a moment of realisation. Our brains aren’t conditioned to multitask and so, by our mid-30s, the hamster wheel of life can start to wear thin. Rather than hitting full-speed on the treadmill, as we may have in our 20s, we can falter and lose momentum. Research shows career burnout hits its peak in the 34-54 age group and typically affects more women than men. A psychological stress condition, it shows itself via exhaustion, apathy and a sense of detachment. However unpleasant it feels in the moment, it can also be a powerful wake-up call.
Take media mogul and editor Arianna Huffington, who fell and broke her cheekbone after pushing herself to the point of exhaustion a decade ago. “That day literally changed my life,” she writes in a post for Medium. “It put me on a course in which I changed how I work and how I live. It’s a prime example of how good things can come out of bad — how, very often, events that come to define our lives in positive ways would never have happened without events that were painful and sometimes, yes, even bloody.”
Achievement is breeding a generation of miserable people
Huffington’s epiphany led her to write two best-selling books about finding balance in the workplace, along with launching the wellbeing website, Thrive Global. Her experience is far from unusual. Many people reassess their goals in the wake of a burnout and realise that work isn’t everything.
Our current obsession with achievement is breeding a generation of wealthy, successful and miserable people. They may be affluent and have high-flying jobs, but they have zero time or energy to do the things that bring them joy. Relationships, creativity, finding focus and flow: all these things can help fuel happiness but they all need time to develop. You can’t just squeeze them in on a Friday night between beers and a Netflix marathon.
I make barely over half my old salary and yet I’m so much happier
We’re so conditioned to graft and grind that it can take hitting burnout to realise that the dreams we’re sold as 20-somethings (Aim high! Do more! Get promoted!) aren’t all that. Instead time — that ephemeral, finite quality — is the currency to savour.
Thrive Global defines time affluence as “having more of one’s own time to do as one wishes”, a value that makes us happier at work than either promotions or pay. New York-based digital writer LeAnn is an example of this. She tells the publication that she feels so much better after quitting her demanding, around-the-clock role to become a bookstore events manager. The transition has allowed her to build up sideline interests in podcasting and pursue her passion project of writing a book. “I feel great!” she says. “I make barely over half my old salary and yet I’m so much happier.”
Burnout is a loss of identity and direction
Time affluence is also the reason why more and more employers are starting to recognise the value of a four-day working week. With more time to pursue hobbies and interests outside of work, people become more engaged when they are there. Of course, money is still essential in everyday life and not everyone has the luxury of choosing time above it. If you can carve out extra house for the people and things that you love, it will go a long way towards burnout recovery.
Burnout is characterised by a loss of identity and direction. So, you need to be able to create distance between yourself and work demands that have overwhelmed you. You have to rediscover what it is that makes you you. One route into this process is travel and even a career break. When you go abroad on an adventure, you put physical distance between you and your stress triggers. With a dramatic change of environment comes the opportunity to find out where your passions lie — a world away from work.
Creativity is almost overshadowed by office work
“I’ve found a new appreciation for time and breathing,” says Frankie Flower, who quit her corporate job to train as a ski instructor in the Canadian Rockies last year. “It’s simple but I wasn’t really doing it back home. It really is like going back to school, only my skis are my desk and my poles my pen. I didn’t expect to feel so excited to get up in the morning or feel so happy quite so soon.”
The added perspective of travel may also serve to remind you what you loved about your job to begin with. “In my day-to-day life running a business, creativity is almost overshadowed by office work, emails and meeting customers,” says jewellery designer Arabel Lebrusan, who took a sabbatical to travel the world. “At the beginning of our trip, I wasn’t that creative but, after a few months, I had this incredible burst of it. I couldn’t stop myself from weaving palm tree leaves, making sand sculptures or drawing everywhere I went.”
You can develop a new awareness of your happiness
Most of all, whether you’re spending your days hiking glaciers in Argentina or nights searching for the Northern Lights in Iceland, you can develop a new awareness of your happiness. That’s something you can bring home with you, too, using it as a tool to ward off future burnout. “I was once in a daily work routine I thrived in but it was very limiting,” says Teha Kennard, who quit her high-powered consulting job in 2017 and has since travelled to over 14 countries with Flash Pack.
“The value of my days used to be based on what I had accomplished. Now, I take the days as they come, make the most of them and enjoy them for what they are. This allows me to treat my mind and body well and in a much more organic way.”
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Images: Flash Pack