I am constantly on the edge of burnout.
That should be no surprise, considering I’m a Millennial. I’m part of the Burnout Generation, as Anne Helen Petersen so eloquently put it in January of 2019. There’s a lot that Ms. Petersen said there that similarly-aged friends and colleagues of mine resonated with at the start of this year:
Self-awareness is only one part of the puzzle, however. We resonated. We shared the article on Facebook. We moved on. We continued on the hamster-wheel towards burnout.
Why do we keep burning out when we know we shouldn’t?
It’s not like it’s a secret. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized it as a health condition. Yet, here we are. Quitting our jobs, worsening our depression, and dying.
I can’t answer that question. I certainly can’t solve the greater institutional problems that have established us as “The Burnout Generation.” What I can do, however, is tell you what I’m doing — even if it’s just what worked for me this week.
So, back to me.
Last week, the worst finally happened (for a Millennial-constantly-on-the-edge-of-burnout): I got sick. Work piled up while I shivered on my couch with a fever of 103(!). I slept and thought — a lot.
Sickness is, admittedly, a blessing for people like me. Universe-imposed rest is sometimes the only rest we’ll allow ourselves to take. As a result, the things I have been using to stave off the feelings of burnout while I work through neglected projects and clients has shifted my perspective — for today.
I am owning my lack of action.
After my illness, I had no choice but to compartmentalize the pressure. I had to rest.
I had to both decide and accept that I was not going to work on the weekend — no matter the consequences.
This was painfully hard to do. I had to face my innate fear of failure and disappointing others. I had to accept that the “Sunday Scaries” were a foregone conclusion. I had to be okay with what I was going to find when I opened my inbox on Monday morning.
Yet, something unexpected happened. By making the decision and accepting the result, I regained control over my own time.
The craziest thing was, by Sunday night, there were no “Scaries.” I was at peace because the choice was mine. The consequences were my own.
Better, Monday wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it would be. There were some tough snarls I needed to work out, but because these were now my snarls, I felt a new sense of excitement. I wasn’t getting crushed under a pile of work; I was a problem-solver.
I am refocusing my energy.
On Wednesday, I learned that I’d made a mistake. That mistake affected other people. I proceeded to calmly take responsibility for my actions with those people, come up with a solution, and carry out the required action.
In the midst of all this, I realized that my normal characteristics in this situation (panic, anxiety, profuse apologies, fear) weren’t my default reactions.
This wasn’t the result of a new meditation routine or mantra (as I am wont to try in the face of impending burnout). It was because I was still recovering, and I just needed to be selective with where I focused the little energy I had.
It was so strange that I had to go back and clarify with my partner on the project:
“It’s not that I don’t care about this project or the mistake I made. Instead of internalizing shame over my mistakes, I’m making better use of my energy by refocusing it on solutions and the things I can control.”
At this moment, it was clear to me how much of a waste of time berating myself for past mistakes is. I suddenly had a pool of untapped energy to draw from to work towards solutions and a refreshing focus on responding, not just reacting, to setbacks.
I am seeking purpose.
Since I was, again, economizing my limited energy, I started to look for areas where I could be of service to others around me during the work day (instead of just freaking out over the work I needed to do).
In addition to being a workaholic, I am a recovering alcoholic. Over time, I’ve cultivated a small sober community in my workplace that grew larger this week. We even started discussing starting our own recovery meeting for future people who are seeking.
I had a purpose that had nothing to do with my daily work.
In these moments, I was reminded that I could matter — if just for a few seconds before I had to get back to work.
While recovery from addiction and sober communities are not applicable to everyone reading this, I think we all have our “thing” that we can invest time in to be of service to others. Perhaps if we all devoted some of our energy to sharing with others the things that give us joy in the workplace (leadership, wellness, spirituality), we’d find purpose and help others seek it, too.
What happens next week?
The institutional circumstances producing burnout explained by Petersen aren’t going to be fixed by Monday Morning. In the meantime, all I can do is stay with this slight perspective shift to prevent burnout.
My sickness taught me how much energy I waste when I’m well. Now that I’m well, I have a new opportunity to apply my perspective.
I am confident that if I continue taking ownership, refocusing my energy, and seeking purpose, I’ll at least have a fighting chance.
What are you doing to prevent burnout? Drop me a line and share your tips!