We Need To Find Another Gear

Today’s piece is about burnout. Recently I asked on Instagram what people would like to read about, and this topic came up. Thank you for taking the time to suggest something and if anything comes to mind for anybody, please let me know. I would like to talk about the Media’s depiction of burnout but I figured this was long enough so I will tackle that another time. 

‘We need to find another gear’ is something I find myself saying a lot lately. To people when talking about getting through lockdown, to my students when talking about getting through the academic year and, to myself when I am about to hit go on another episode of whatever it is I am passing time with throughout the day, and I know I have work I need to do. 

Burnout is an apt adjective for how we are all feeling now, because at least it is a phrase that comes close to this discombobulating state we all seem to be in. I think we would have all felt burnout before and just not known what it was. It is a result of our hustle culture, of our work is out identity culture, in our super-mum, pursue your passion, do what you love and never work a day in your life culture. It is a result of our (and the algorithm’s) need to categorise ourselves and become personal brands. It is a result of our 24/7connected, 24-hour news-cycle, get up at 5am, work 4 hours a week and capitalise on your hour commute by learning something via a podcast habit. 

I think back of times in my life where I am now able to identify I was burnt-out. 

One was when I was studying full-time (and granted that was only 12 hours a week in my Media and Comms course), working in my part-time job and completing an internship and in order to make this all work with a social-life I was at a point where I would sit in an empty food court near the company I was interning for from 7am to do homework, before arriving to do the 9-5 and then completing uni readings on the tram home, before I switched to a train and a bus. I also remember not feeling accomplished or excited by what I was doing. I was stressed and scared and had all these physical issues I didn’t have the time, money, or patience to deal with. My latest hack job at sorting out the persistent headaches I was getting was Vitamin B so I was regularly taking Berocca. One evening on my way home I felt nauseous and dizzy worried I wasn’t going to be able to get myself home. Madly holding on to all the bags I had, that had all the numerous things in I felt I needed. I had essentially become a packhorse for all the facets of my life I was trying to have. My uni books, a laptop, the materials I needed for my internship. The containers of food I had prepped myself and then the copious amounts of things I needed to get through the day, like the over-the counter pain killers, scarves etc. 

Another was when I was completing my teaching placement, studying, working full-time as a teacher and every Saturday and Sunday at my part-time job. 

A separate occasion is when I finally got the all-important full-time job, and I cried every morning before work. 

There was the psychologist appointment where I nursed a headache, frustrated by the constant pain in my head. I had a night class afterwards and I distinctly remember by psych thinking that I didn’t think I could do both, both being go to uni and have a headache. I am not sure what kind of metaphor she was alluding to, but I dutifully went to my tutorial. The bitter-sweet escape from my day job that brought about its own set of stressors and deadlines. 

I am sure that each of you have times in your life where you were burnt-out and didn’t realise. I don’t even think you needed to have necessarily been your busiest or even busy. 

Burnout is that feeling of the never-ending to do list, the unresolved stress we bottle up each day, or ‘vent’ to a friend and then feel as if we burdened them. It is that constant switched on feeling we have like the low hum of a refrigerator. The process of becoming burnt-out means our body is always ready to go, our mind fighting or flighting and in addition to this, some sort of compulsion to keep going. 

Lots has been written about burnout. Two of my favourite books on the topic are Burnout: Solve Your Stress Cycle by Amelia and Emily Nagowski and Can’t Even: How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petsersen. The Nagowski’s text comes at burnout from a psychological perspective. The biggest takeaway I got from this book is that we need to learn to manage the stress cycle. There are so many points in the day, they discuss, that we get worked up but have no outlet for it. Exercising, walking, meditating, swearing under our breath, they all complete the calm-pissed off-release-calm phase. The problem with this is, these events don’t happen in isolation, so like adding a block to the top of the Jenga pile when you have been playing for a while, the foundation itself isn’t stable. There are multiple ways you can look at this foundation. The foundation can be you and your life, an idea we will come back to. Or it could be the system itself, which is the discussion that Petersen has in her book. 

Our generation, Petersen argues is at a reckoning with itself. We have unrealistic expectations placed on us, the world which we thought we were going to be adults in, isn’t at all like we thought and the institutions around us are shifting. Along with all this discussed by Petersen, we also have the habit of performing it for the online space as well, so no wonder we are in one hell of a position. 

I appreciate that at the beginning of this piece I was talking about talking to people in my life and myself about picking things up a notch on a daily, weekly or even quarterly basis and now I am talking about systematic flaws in society. Yet they are all related. The pandemic has really pushed us to manage ourselves in more ways than one. In many instances we really are our own managers, managing workflow, hours professional expectations and performance. We are also our own personal trainers, chefs, mental health practitioners as we continually take own things that pre-pandemic we could outsource to a degree. I don’t have a personal chef at all but there is an increased focus on food at my place where the biggest question of the day seems to be what’s for dinner (and I realise that’s a fortunate position to be in)? Throughout the day I am continually managing the mental health advice I’ve received to go out for walks, time-block, know when I work best, stick to a schedule, take advantage of the fact we have no schedule and lying on the ground to listen to music as I see fit. I acknowledge there are a lot of run-on lists in this piece but that is part of the nature of burnout. It’s endless. 

There are also elements of life, pre and post-pandemic such as being our own social media managers and life-style stylists, a term I have just coined to recognise that we are not only living our lives but doing it in an aesthetically pleasing colour palette with on brand content. The dual existence in both online and offline spaces is exhausting, let alone trying to flourish in them. 

We also have been told very strange narratives which we perpetuate because they seem easy and pleasant. For example, narratives that lighting a candle is self-care, as is buying ourselves something we probably can’t really afford or taking ourselves out somewhere and spending a large portion of the time pre-occupied with capturing it instead of switching off. What self-care looks like to everyone is very different and personal. I do sometimes think that eating an entire block of chocolate, even though I will feel sick afterwards is something I do for myself whilst the thought of doing nothing or logging off early in the afternoon feels somewhat laughable. *

When I suggest we need to find another gear, I realise that for many of us, lockdown can feel like a marathon with no finish line. The career ladder that keeps changing rungs in front of us can too. Likewise, the social expectations. I have always been old for my age and thought I would find a comfort in my thirties, a sense of growing into myself. But now I just think about being in my mid-thirties and what my forties will look like. Another gear doesn’t seem that sustainable after all. 

There’s this beautiful scene in This Way Up, the series by Aisling Bea, in which Bea’s character returns to her psychologist after a long break.  In discussing her decision to not only return but attend regularly she says, ‘It’s hard, you know, the daily-ness of it can be relentless.’ And it is, but you’re also doing it. 

*Some of the more helpful habits I’ve developed are quite hard and not sexy but they are exercising, listening to music and setting boundaries (I feel so nervous even writing it down because I am so new and tentative at this). I am inserting these here not because I think I have the answers but perhaps some people are looking for suggestions.