IT STARTS WITH a lack of energy, which gradually builds into a sense of exhaustion. You feel an apathy towards your job, when you previously took pride in it. Cynicism sets in. Your productivity drops, or at least it feels that way. You put in more time and effort to try to compensate, but you don’t feel the sense of accomplishment you used to – you just feel even more tired. You’re burned out.
More than a year-and-a-half into the Covid-19 pandemic, burnout is having a moment. Having initially scrambled to adjust to the sudden upheaval of the workplace – made to switch to remote work with little or no preparation, or deemed an essential worker and asked to continue business-as-usual in highly unusual circumstances – we’re perhaps only now really starting to feel the repercussions.
When the pandemic first hit, says Torsten Voigt, a sociologist at RWTH Aachen University in Germany who has researched burnout, everyone was so busy trying to adjust and keep things moving that we didn’t have time to worry about longer-term consequences. But more than a year on, and with lockdowns starting to lift in some regions, this initial expenditure of energy may be catching up with us. “Now, when we take a deep breath, some will realise that they potentially have given too much at that point and that they need a break,” he says.
But while it may be little comfort to those suffering, there could be an upside to our current burnout reckoning. It presents an opportunity to reconsider our relationship with work – not just on an individual level, but on a societal one.
Because while burnout may be gaining greater recognition, it’s not applied equally. We tend to think of burnout as affecting doctors, teachers, office workers. “I'm not sure if, say, a hairdresser or a car mechanic would say they are burned out,” Voigt says. It’s not that people in these roles don’t experience burnout, he says – but discussions of burnout often seem to be centred on occupations associated with a certain educational or socioeconomic level. You don’t often hear of cleaners, or supermarket workers, or people balancing three jobs as being “burned out”, even though most of us would say their work is objectively harder. “They basically don't even have the luxury to talk about burnout,” Voigt says.
The world in which burnout as a concept was initially conceived likely looked quite different to the one we live and work in today. The gig economy, zero-hours contracts, automation, even smartphones, have transformed the way many of us work. Our understanding of burnout – and how to address it – may need to evolve too.