For Fear of Burning Out
At my prior job I worked in what’s called an applied Molecular Biology lab- the applied being the important word here. Unlike research labs that may develop new methodologies in search of undiscovered biochemical mechanisms or processes, an applied science lab uses previously developed tools to conduct tests and procedures, sometimes on a more massive scale.
This, unfortunately, resulted in me continuously doing same tasks nearly every day. I was coming into work every day, going through the motions, and heading out just to do it all over again. At first it was not a big issue- normalcy and constancy can be good for those who may otherwise not do well in a continuously changing environment. But even still, at some point the work becomes a bit too monotonous and it begins to feel pointless. After several years I began to feel irritated, exhausted, and morose. I became burned out.
The term “burnout” has been around for several decades, although it has become more commonplace in recent years. It’s usually used in reference to work1 (most notably healthcare), and it describes the moment when feelings of low job satisfaction, boredom, frustration, and low motivation become excessive, and are likely driven by continuous stress in a workplace setting.
Historically, Graham Greene was the first author to use the term burnout in his novel “A Burnt-Out Case” when describing the story of an architect who found neither meaning in his profession nor pleasure in life. Later, the term was picked up and introduced in the psychological sphere by Freudenberger , where he described burnout as a state of exhaustion, fatigue, and frustration due to a professional activity that fails to produce the expected expectations. Initially, this author delimited it as something exclusively related to volunteer workers in a care center where all kinds of people with mental disorders and social problems attended. Because of their occupation, these workers experienced in crescendo a loss of energy to the point of exhaustion and demotivation, as well as aggressiveness towards the service users.
It’s important to note that burnout is a somewhat contentious idea, and some psychologists would argue that burnout is likely to be manifestations of depression3 rather than a separate syndrome or disease.
Nonetheless, there are signs that burnout at least affects many and has definitely been spurred on by the pandemic. Ironically, people eventually began to experience “pandemic burnout” in which constant lockdowns, work-from-home scenarios and fears and anxieties over the virus lead people to become exhausted. There is evidence to suggest that prolonged isolation has extremely detrimental effects, and at one extreme some people who were made to isolate or quarantine may have experienced PTSD4.
A systematic review by Salvagioni et. al.5 elucidated many of the consequences of burnout. Although these results should be taken with a great deal of skepticism and within the context of confounding variables, it does suggest that the overall effects of burnout can be extremely detrimental to one’s own health and well-being.
In 2021 Gallup noted what it called the “Wellbeing-engagement Paradox of 2020”6 where instead of work engagement and stress being inverses (low stress meant higher work engagement) Gallup noted the opposite. Instead, employees- most notably those working from home- were involved with higher work engagement while also experiencing greater levels of stress and anxiety, suggesting a possible paradox where some employees may be working more intensely but burning out quicker.
When we think of working from home we may consider it a vacation; a small break that allows you to work from the comforts of your own home. However, on-site work allows for one important difference- it allows people to leave work at work. Unfortunately, the mix of both work and home life does not allow for separation between the two. In fact, the bleeding of work into everyday home life likely contributed to the high level of burnout felt by those who worked remotely.
Although burnout is considered a work-related syndrome, unsuccessful boundary management of work and nonwork life has also been found to be related to burnout. This occurs not only in the form of work-related experiences (e.g. exhaustion) that spillover from work to home, but also because ineffective inter-role management might be another trigger of burnout[...]
Classically, the relationship between the work and the nonwork domains has been the basis of three different hypotheses 46. The earliest hypothesis is the segregation (or segmentation) hypothesis 47, postulating that there is no relationship between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’. Both domains are considered (psychologically, physically, temporally and functionally) separate domains. Next, Wilensky 48 suggested the compensatory hypothesis, which represents attempts to make up for the deprivations experienced at work. Third is the spillover or generalization hypothesis, which posits the carry-over or generalization of alienation from work into alienation from nonwork. These hypotheses are based on a negative view on the work domain, whereby negative experiences at work are counterbalanced or carried over to the nonwork domain.
All of this can be seen even anecdotally. Children and parents who were both forced to stay at home together may have experienced renewed tensions that would have otherwise been alleviated with time away from one another. Family and friends may not consider it intrusive to call or interrupt those working remotely- they may be assumed to have more time in the world. Worse, those not on a strict schedule may try to work at times when they are not burdened by family, leading to an inconsistent work schedule that may result in chronic fatigue and lack of motivation.
I will also state, personally, that the continuous writings about COVID has led me to feel burned out as well, and I am sure these sentiments are shared by many of my peers. There’s plenty more to be said and the fight against those who enforced draconian COVID policies are not likely to end soon. But at the same time I am feeling myself burned out by all of the COVID talk. At some point all of these articles feel the same and the eyes begin to weigh heavy and gloss over the papers. I’m sure these feelings are the same for many others who many be feeling pandemic burnout and would like to move on with their lives while keeping their thoughts about COVID on the back burner.
Things to Consider
It’s important to know when you have reached your limits and to not try to persevere through those struggles if the result is a fruitless endeavor. As much anger and resentment we all have towards the medical tyranny that has been the past two years, it’s important to take into account your own personal health. Constant stress and anxiety are not helpful, and in fact are dangerous to one’s own well-being. Understand when your feelings may be ones of burnout, and understand that it may be time to step back from the madness if it means improving yourself.
It’s also important to note that resilience, the ability to adapt under times of stress, correlates with reduced levels of burnout. In one survey conducted by Yildirim, M. & Solmaz, F.8 researchers asked participants to fill out a questionnaire and measured their COVID stress levels in relation to resilience and burnout. As expected, people who experienced higher levels of COVID stress also had higher levels of burnout. Also, those who rated higher on resilience were less likely to experience stress or burnout:
As hypothesized, we found that resilience not only had a direct effect on burnout but also mediated the relationship between stress and burnout related to COVID-19. This suggests that stress could directly or indirectly, through lessening resilience, increase burnout symptoms during pandemic. It is likely that the more individuals experience stress, the more burnout, generated because of their lack of ability to bounce back from stressful situations, they have.[…] Resilience has a buffering effect on development of burnout symptoms in civil servants by mitigating the adverse impacts of work stress.
So just like immunity, it is important for people build up resilience and become anti-fragile. Avoid burnout whenever possible but also learn to strengthen your ability to cope under times of stress. Activities that help relax and create mindfulness such as meditation and yoga may be beneficial, but overall better health could be achieved with proper nutrition, exercise, and good sleep.
If working from home consider striking a proper work/home balance. Dedicated space and time for work may be appropriate. Create a more structured environment and daily routine that prevents a constant blending of home life that may end up interfering with both.
And as I will reiterate again, it’s perfectly acceptable to step away when experiencing burnout. If you are feeling burned out from the constant talks of COVID or anything cultural/social be aware that it’s perfectly acceptable to step away and take time for yourself.
Find Yourself in the Greater World
As morose as this post may seem, take it as a reflection as to how we have been living our lives the past few years. The ways we have been living are not normal, and that does not just include our lifestyles during the pandemic. Social media has crept into all facets of our lives, and irrespective of whether we wish to engage with it or not it is becoming an even more intrusive part of how we conduct ourselves.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere spring has finally (hopefully) arrived, and with it nature returns renewed and reinvigorated. Now’s the perfect time to renew those strained relationships that have been crippled by lockdowns and the inability to see one another. Spend time outdoors. Mother nature blooms forth with welcoming arms, inviting those to enjoy in her bounties and wealth. Remove yourself from modernity- if only for a time- and get back to nature and understand your place in the world.
As you do so consider this post from Dr. Heather Heying. It was actually the post that removed me from my constant procrastination after leaving my job and inspired me to finally start writing for this Substack. I think about it every now and then and her piece still reminds me to find meaning in life, but to also take time and gain some perspective. There’s more to just social media and technology, and there’s far more than to be in a constant state of fear, anger, and resentment.
And I’ll leave you all with an excerpt from Heather’s piece:
We all need a room of our own, at least metaphorically. Virginia Woolf was correct to identify having one’s own space as imperative to the creative process. We need space in which we can be, with our thoughts and, yes, our things, into which nobody unexpected will come without explicit invitation.
And we also need time: uninterrupted periods of time, in which nobody can call you to their attention; and you do not feel constrained by your own to do list. Many creators work before or after their shifts at work, carving out sacred space in each day in which nobody is allowed to intrude. The siren song of notifications, or of anything else that might be lurking on that phone, is so strong. But this is not a rock and a hard place that we are between—this is no Scylla and Charybdis. No. We are trapped between our short-term interests and our long-term ones. We enjoy junk entertainment, junk food, junk sex, junk everything. It all feels so good. Sinking into that couch, one hand in a bag of salty crunchy goodness, the other on a remote that promises infinite regress—it feels good. But it is not memorable. Just as people on their deathbed do not say that they wished that they had spent more time at work, less time with their family; so too do people never wish that they had spent more time on their phones, checking their notifications, participating in the soap opera drama of social media. It gets our attention. This much is true. But so much of what gets our attention is not worthy of our time.
We need to take back our time, which requires taking back our attention. You will know you have it when you find flow.
Sometimes it’s important to take some time, gain some meaning, and find our flow in the world. I think it’s a lesson we all need even more now.
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Burnout is continuously expanding to include other domains of life including education. There has been a number of studies suggesting that high school students are likely to experience burnout as well. For more on high school burnout:
Vera Walburg, Burnout among high school students: A literature review, Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 42, 2014, Pages 28-33, ISSN 0190-7409, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.03.020.
Edú-Valsania, S., Laguía, A., & Moriano, J. A. (2022). Burnout: A Review of Theory and Measurement. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(3), 1780. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19031780
Bianchi, R., Schonfeld, I. S., & Laurent, E. (2015). Is it Time to Consider the "Burnout Syndrome" A Distinct Illness?. Frontiers in public health, 3, 158. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2015.00158
TMGH-Global COVID-19 Collaborative (2021). Psychological Impacts and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among People under COVID-19 Quarantine and Isolation: A Global Survey. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(11), 5719. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18115719
Salvagioni, D., Melanda, F. N., Mesas, A. E., González, A. D., Gabani, F. L., & Andrade, S. M. (2017). Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. PloS one, 12(10), e0185781. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185781
This is an interesting paradox. As Gallup noticed stress levels continuously oscillated and the large spike dissipated throughout the year. Why such a situation occurred is not indicated, although I wonder if the sudden change to working at home was too much of an upheaval, and it was only after a few months that people likely become more acclimated to working at home. With all that being said burnout is still likely to manifest, and possibly in a different manner than typical work, as the inability to segregate work and home can end up becoming detrimental.
Demerouti, E. Strategies used by individuals to prevent burnout Eur J Clin Invest 2015; 45 ( 10): 1106– 1112