By Lillie Brown
Let me begin with this: burnout is never your fault. It is the product of a frenetic, hyper-capitalist, optimisation-obsessed society that assigns value based on your output, sustained productivity, and jam-packed schedule. Eighteen months into a global pandemic in an industry that is notoriously under-resourced, overworked, and underpaid has many of us feeling angry, exhausted, and hopeless. But what if it’s burnout, instead of a justified emotional reaction to the shitstorm we’re currently navigating?
Burnout has been defined as a form of exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally depleted, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you lose interest in the things that are usually meaningful to you and feel increasingly hopeless, resentful, and like you have nothing more to give. It’s widely accepted that burnout often stems from your job, with familial and home responsibilities exacerbating the negative effects that leak into every aspect of your life. Social commentary writer Anne Helen Peterson has written about her experiences of burnout and task paralysis at length, and regularly reiterates that individuals are unable to “self-help their way out of it.” Burnout cannot be remedied with a vacation, an adult colouring book, or a Netflix binge. This sentiment is equally alarming and comforting — burnout is the result of a fractured system that does not value or support the very humans that uphold it.
While this information might send you into a spin, hit pause on that existential crisis for a moment. This intel is a gift! Have I gone mad, you ask? Perhaps, but that is beside the point. While we collectively work to dismantle harmful systems and create holistic and fulfilling structures and expectations to replace them, here are a few things you can do to safeguard your wellbeing and begin to recover from burnout.
Audit your day-to-day life. Make note of every task (both professional and personal) that you perform on a daily basis and write down how it makes you feel, too. With this information in front of you, delegate the tasks that you can, ask for help from your community, and build rest and reward around the particularly arduous tasks in your schedule.
Build moments of joy and pleasure into your day. Begin with a daily five-minute pleasure practice. Savour that morning coffee, take some deep nourishing breaths, snuggle your pooch. How can you intentionally make time for things that feel good and energise you?
Ease up, cowgirl. Human beings are not robots (capitalism will be shocked!) so if you’re feeling burnt out, pushing yourself to work harder or to find motivation will not help. Instead, it’ll likely make you feel even more inclined to remove your own eyeballs with a fork. With this in mind, book in some downtime — a week off is great, but you need to implement small moments of rest and pleasure into every day. Overwhelmingly, research suggests that daily recovery efforts are more beneficial than hanging out for the weekend or blocks of time off like annual leave. Start with manageable additions to your schedule: a small screen break, a walk in the sunshine at lunch, a daily lie-down. Pace yourself very carefully across your workday.
Utilise “next-action” thinking. Productivity expert David Allen says that “what’s the next action?” is the most important question when it comes to alleviating overwhelm and getting shit done. Ask yourself “what is the next physical action that can be taken with this project?” This is a practical approach that requires you to make clear and quick decisions which can help to quash procrastination and that pesky getting-started paralysis.
Identify your boundaries and uphold them fiercely. If you find yourself responding to client emails at 10pm, agreeing to meetings at sparrow fart or quietly allowing scope creep, it’s time to get crystal-clear on your personal and professional boundaries and communicate and enforce these agreements to your network. During this process, it might be helpful to revisit your core values and reflect upon what is meaningful to you. This can be uncomfortable and confronting, but it’s crucial for your longer-term wellness and the sustainability of your business.
Treating burnout is important, but it’s even more important to prevent it. As a small business owner or freelancer, you’re uniquely placed to reframe harmful modes of working and create routines and boundaries that work for you and support you to feel fulfilled, accomplished, and content on a daily basis. Start small, be consistent, and whatever you do — do not allow yourself to succumb to this capitalist hellscape.