Why is burnout on the rise and what can we do to curb it? Organisational and performance psychologist Gemma Leigh Roberts believes ergomania is the problem.
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Workaholism is so rife in our culture that even the office decor at the likes of WeWork demands us to ‘hustle harder’ and ‘don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done.’ But while the #ThankGodItsMonday work movement is growing, this kind of unrelenting toil is making workers unhealthy and can even kill.
Karoshi, the Japanese term for death from overwork, has made headlines multiple times in recent years. Closer to home, research by University College London of more than 85,000 middle-aged workers also found a correlation between overwork and heart problems. How did we get here?
The nine-to-five is extinct
Workaholism is nothing new, of course, but the advent of the gig economy and advances in technology give it new life. Any readers who have responded to work emails on their commute or while cooking dinner at home will recognise the pressure to be always-on.
Presenteeism has become the new normal and pushback against it is not often welcomed by companies. The introduction of a ‘right to switch off ‘ law for office workers in France, for instance, was met with mockery and disdain simply for wanting to curb this ergomania.
Real resilience is about how to recharge and take care of yourself for optimum productivity, not about how you endure hardship and plod along.
With all the freedom and convenience that the gig economy has gifted society, it also celebrates us working ourselves to complete exhaustion. Businesses must recognise that the Facebook-era ‘move fast and break things’ mentality does not work in the long term when it comes to workers’ overall wellbeing – it will lead to burnout eventually.
Britain is burning out
Over half a million people in the UK suffer from work-related stress, according to a recent report by the Health and Safety Executive. The same independent watchdog report also estimates 15.4m working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017-18.
Beyond Britain, the World Health Organisation even officially classified burnout as a specific ‘occupational syndrome‘ resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
The psychological breakdown following stress at work often creeps up on people, with many not even realising they are starting to burn out until it’s too late. The signs are often a mix of different symptoms, such as severe exhaustion or lack of energy, disturbed sleep, zoning out or going into a daze for a long period of time, irritation, self-criticism and detachment.
The crux of it is that a simple trip to the supermarket can feel overwhelming due to the choice overload and that you don’t feel quite yourself, as things that you enjoyed doing don’t give you a satisfied feeling any more.
The source: performative workaholism
So why are we working ourselves to exhaustion? In a viral BuzzFeed essay earlier this year, entitled ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation‘, author Anne Helen Petersen wrote: “Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalised the idea that I should be working all the time.
“Why have I internalised that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it – explicitly and implicitly – since I was young.”
This captures the societal element of performative workaholism, which urges us to show how busy and focused on our hustle we are. And it’s not just millennials who are feeling this pull; other high-pressure professions, like medicine or law, have dealt with this for decades.
How do we fix work-induced burnout? Get real about resilience
The simple solution to avoid burnout is a more resilient workforce, but resilience in itself is positioned the wrong way within most organisations. New age resilience is promoted with the aforementioned ‘hustle harder’ mantra, with the idea being to go one more round before the bell rings.
This is scientifically inaccurate – real resilience is about how to recharge and take care of yourself for optimum productivity, not about how you endure hardship and plod along.
Research into resilient employees has found that what makes them stand out is the ability to manage stress by actively engaging in self-care and nurturing themselves after a stressful incident, however minor that may be – from a brisk walk or enjoying a coffee outside of the office.
About the author
Gemma Leigh Roberts is the founder of The Career Compass Club.