We are not superman or superwoman (or a super-person), and whether we want to admit this or not, we are only human.
Burnout is frequently associated with overworking i.e., spending a disproportionate amount of daily hours working on tasks. The early mornings and late evenings, the habitual weekend work, the non-stop connection to company email via your smartphone, and most notably, the uncomfortable feeling of guilt, anxiety, or shame you feel in the moments where you are not doing something to move your business or career forward. I’ve found that burnout is more than a need to do more work, it’s a result of something more internal and insightful.
When I reflect back on my work life as an entrepreneur, the signs of burnout were there. I just didn’t recognize it because it was like death by a thousand cuts: just another hour here, a declined social invitation there “Not today, I have some work to finish up.” I didn’t see how my everyday stresses and work pressures were chipping away at me — emotionally and physically.
At one point, instead of my usual routine of waking up at 6 am to start my work day, I found myself staring at a blank screen. I knew what to do, but I wasn’t doing it. I started questioning everything that I was doing and the impact of it all. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was thinking about my work, but when I got to work, I was drained. I started waking up, but not wanting to get out of bed. Getting up and going to work was painful. It wasn’t a lack of willpower, laziness, entitlement — or any of the many things that Millennials get accused of — I was experiencing burnout.
Burnout is referred by medical professionals as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” It may involve insomnia like in my case, irritability, sadness, or the sensation of overwhelming stress. The conditions of burnout create fertile ground for other complications we haven’t even mentioned yet, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, skin problems like psoriasis, substance abuse, insecurity, and crippling self-doubt. Like many, my inability to get in there and force myself to work after experiencing burnout only fueled the desire to work more because it exacerbated my feeling of lack. Thus, I became unable to enjoy periods of rest, relaxation, and leisure activities without the accompanying sensations of guilt and shame for what I “should be doing.”
A Stanford Study found that it is practically pointless to work beyond 55 hours per week from an efficiency standpoint. There is little difference between people who work 70 hours of work a week and those who work 55 hours as far as output is concerned. Furthermore, this chronic overwork can literally kill us. In a (study by Oxford Academic), of over 85,000 participants, those who worked over 55 hours a week were more likely to develop an irregular heartbeat which can lead to stroke, heart failure, or multi-infarct dementia. Find out if you are on the verge of burning out by using our Burnout Assessment tool.
But you probably know much of this already. You’ve likely already read the reports about the effects of stress and lack of sleep on you physically and mentally. You may have probably come across productivity studies and other material about the problems with overworking, but, like me, you still fell victim to it anyway. But why do we chronically overwork ourselves to the point where we sacrifice our physical and mental health? Well, for one thing, cultural conditioning is powerful. Cultural conditioning is not some arbitrary or abstract thing, it’s a very real and influential part of being human and has real consequences. It shapes our values, priorities, behaviors, and influences our decisions while supporting a self-perpetuating mental cycle — a rat race of sorts. Our belief systems often compound upon one another. As our brain seeks to create a consistent storyline, it looks to make sense of the world by paying attention to those things that support our existing beliefs and disregarding stuff in the environment that doesn’t. Our tacit assumptions about life and success become rigid and dogmatic. We no longer see our beliefs for what they are: moldable, glorified opinions of the world. We see them as truth.
How many of us have grown up with the American folklore of the “Self-made” man? How many of us have seen someone work several jobs while going back to school and running a household? How many stories have we been exposed to where hard work was an essential ingredient for achieving the American Dream? Hard work is part of the American identity, and the myth that overworking is a requirement for success is reinforced everywhere.
It’s no wonder that our identity is often so tied up with the illusion that hard work is the same thing as success. We are so consumed by this illusion that we sacrifice everything for it: our physical and mental health, our relationships, our vitality. After all, being a “good worker” is something to be proud of. Our work ethic is a way of showing to ourselves and the world what a worthwhile person we are. It is reinforced every time we are praised for our busy lifestyle with statements like “Wow, I don’t know how you do it all! It’s incredible!”
It is our work ethic that often takes center stage, more so than the actual results we produce. It is something we feel we have direct control over and so it is something we take immense pride in. Internally we proclaim to ourselves: “I am going to do this better than anybody else. I am always the last one to leave the office. I don’t need the same amount of sleep as other people. Burnout? Please, I’m not going to burn out, I am going to prove to everyone just how good I am.”
Yet we do burn out. Startup founders, entrepreneurs, freelancers, and employees alike, we are all susceptible to burn out. We are not superman or superwoman (or a super-person), and whether we want to admit this or not, we are only human. We need to sleep to function adequately. For all the people who think they can sleep 4–6 hours per night without it affecting their performance negatively, very few actually can. Only 1–3% of the human population are truly unaffected by sleeping less than 6 hours per night.
Humans do not possess unlimited concentration either. In fact, periods of focus and unfocus are prerequisites for optimal performance regarding things such as decision-making, creativity, and resilience against stress. Humans are multi-faceted, social creatures who experience and will always experience a fluctuation in energy levels, motivation, and mood.
“One of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout is that it takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks.” -Anne Helen Petersen
Your desire to keep working even when “burning out” may feel like a personal victory for your ego, but is likely the by-product of years of cultural and psychological conditioning in the realms of work, success, and self-worth. Your burnout is not unique and is indeed the rising condition of our modern times. Nowadays, we are constantly plugged in — we can set our own limits for when the workday ends, but for some of us this is virtually never.
No matter how we try to solve our internal distress by adding and checking off tasks on our never-ending to-do lists, this overwork strategy will ultimately fail us. Even well-intentioned self-care activities such as taking a warm bath or taking time to mediate ultimately don’t address the root of the problem. After all, taking time to exercise, meditate, or do yoga only adds more things to our already busy schedules.
We are in desperate need of a paradigm shift. We need a fundamental change in our underlying assumptions and approach to work, success, and self-worth. One by one, we need to facilitate an unlearning process where we ask ourselves the hard questions. Questions like:
Where is all of this hard work taking me anyways?
What does success mean to me?
How much money or business growth is enough?
Where do my feelings really come from psychologically and logically?
We can become our own best resource using our real lives as our classroom to foster greater personal insight. This is precisely what happened for Kate Northup, author of the book “Do Less.” When she became pregnant, she was forced to cut her work hours, yet to her astonishment, her business maintained the same results. “I was shocked by the amount of pressure that my identity had wrapped up in being productive and being busy,” says Kate.
Burnout is a symptom of overwork, but if we are wise, we can see it for what it is — a sign of overpressure. With a keen awareness of this destructive habit, we can start behaving differently. We can ask for help or be honest with ourselves about the amount of work that is reasonable for one human being to handle. We can seize these moments for greater awareness when our mind, body, and spirit are telling us to stop and take a break.