Amy Gandon rarely does things by halves. Naturally energetic, she thrives on feeling as if she is making a difference at work. When the pandemic hit, she was working in Whitehall as a senior civil servant and found herself putting in 14-hour days on the government’s Covid response. At first, she thought it was normal to feel constantly exhausted.
“When you’re working in an emergency situation, lots of feelings that might prefigure burnout – constant adrenaline, racing thoughts, racing heartbeat a lot of the time, feeling I couldn’t switch off at night – are indistinguishable from what I thought I should be feeling in that context,” says Gandon, 32. “I thought that was part of being professional and responsible. I do care a lot, I want to work hard.” She found it difficult to let go at the end of the day, worrying about whether there was something more she could have done. “There are big consequences to this stuff. It’s not easy.”
Even when she started to feel emotionally detached, she didn’t suspect burnout. It was only after a panic attack so severe she thought she was dying that she realised something was wrong. Ironically, she says, her doctor went off sick with burnout shortly after signing her off work.
Burnout used to be a furtive secret, something few dared admit to for fear of being judged professionally. Not any more. When the 28-year-old singer-songwriter Sam Fender cancelled several gigs last month, declaring “Me and the boys are burnt out”, he kickstarted a public conversation about burnout. Shortly afterwards, the 22-year-old Brit award winner Arlo Parks also scrapped some of her tour dates, announcing: “I am broken.”
Generation Z, raised to be open about mental health, may find it easier than older workers to admit to feeling overwhelmed and unable to carry on. But they are not the only ones at risk. A recent paper on midlife crises from the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that “the maximum level of work stress is reached at approximately the age of 45”. Middle age often brings hefty responsibilities but also nagging questions about whether the years of slog were worth it, or how much longer you can maintain the same pace.
For work itself is becoming more intense, following us home through our phones or piling up in jobs where those who leave don’t get replaced. The prevailing mood of rolling economic crisis – first the financial crisis, then a pandemic, now an inflation shock – hasn’t helped anxiety levels, either.
In Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, the American journalist Anne Helen Petersen argues that insecure jobs and housing have left the under-40s feeling frazzled and precarious, fearful of everything coming crashing down. For her contemporaries, she argues: “Burnout is foundational; the best way to describe who we’ve been raised to be.”
Rising interest in a four-day week, the popularity of working from home and the alleged vogue for “quiet quitting” (refusing to go above and beyond professionally) all suggest a broader yearning for less stressed working lives. Liz Truss may have put her name to a book describing Britain as a “nation of idlers”, but we are hardly unique in mutinying, with a recent study by the management consultants Deloitte across 10 countries showing 53% of women felt their stress levels were higher than a year ago and almost half felt burnt out. Are we nearing the end of our tether?
Burnout was only formally recognised by the World Health Organization in 2019, not as an illness but as an occupational health phenomenon “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. (If work isn’t the cause of your stress, however bad that stress is, for the WHO it is not strictly burnout.) Its definition combines feeling drained of energy, becoming less professionally effective and – crucially – feeling cynical, negative or distant from your job. The nurse who is too jaded to feel for patients and the war correspondent who is numb to atrocities are classic examples.
“When pressure exceeds your ability to cope with it, that’s stress and burnout,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester. “The first sign that you are getting burnt out is your behaviour begins to change. If normally you are fairly affable, you lose your sense of humour, or at meetings, when you are usually engaged, you’re quiet.” Taking a holiday doesn’t help: you still feel jaded when you get back.
Cooper agrees there is a difference between this kind of burnout and use of the word to describe a broader sense of millennial anxiety. “Being disenchanted is what we’re seeing in that generation. I think they are looking for something different from work.” But that doesn’t make them lazy, he adds – it may be that watching their parents’ generation work all hours, only to be cut loose by employers in a downturn, has simply convinced them that slavish loyalty doesn’t pay. “They are prepared to work hard, these kids. It’s not that they want to be protected or just want things their own way,” he says. “They are saying to us that the older generation put up with this, but they won’t.” In the long run, he argues, they are probably doing everyone a favour. “If you consistently work long hours, you will get ill. Anything over 40 hours a week is not good for you.”
Like anxiety and depression, burnout seems to be more commonly reported by women than men, although it’s unclear whether that is specific to female working lives – and the fact women typically still carry more of the domestic load – or because it is harder for men to admit they are struggling. Jeremy, a retired lawyer, thinks his burnout was partly fuelled by his reluctance to complain about overwork: “Perhaps at some level I liked being the only one who could sort things out.” But in retrospect he wishes he had been more willing to push back, “not burn the midnight oil and my health”.
The term “burnout” was coined in 1974 by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe the consequences of stress plus high levels of dedication in “caring” professions such as health and social work – jobs more often done by women. Last summer, the House of Commons health select committee reported that “burnout is a widespread reality in today’s NHS” and had been building up well before the pandemic, with BAME staff risking “additional challenges” due to discrimination.
Ayesha, 41, was a consultant paediatrician in a busy Welsh hospital when Covid hit. After the initial terror of infection came an endless cycle of testing and isolating, plus nagging anxiety about her patients. Redeployed from her usual ward to A&E, she was out of her professional comfort zone. Her shifts changed constantly as colleagues went down with Covid, meaning she could rarely relax. “It was the complete lack of being able to plan even a weekend off, constantly being vigilant or feeling obliged to be available – that was tough. Plus the constant undercurrent of anxiety about what if a child seriously sick with Covid comes in?” She started feeling frustrated by parents bringing children in for relatively minor complaints, and ground down by treating problems that were more societal than medical. “I was seeing the same families time and time again, and nothing was changing – it was to do with the situation they were in.” When she eventually quit, she felt immediate relief. She plans to go travelling with her partner, although the sense that she is wasting her medical training weighs on her conscience.
It is striking how often burnout sufferers talk not just about their workloads, but the emotional weight of responsibility they feel. Denyse Whillier is a Brighton-based business coach for female entrepreneurs who came close to burning out a decade ago, when she was the CEO of a small charity for elderly people. “We were always in a financial juggle: grants coming to an end, does that mean I’m going to have to let staff go? If I didn’t come up with the goods I was going to have to make really awful decisions,” she remembers. The stress became so bad she was hyperventilating at work, but, as the boss, she felt unable to tell anyone. “You’ve got to be seen to hold it all together, particularly as a woman. You can’t turn up not looking on your game.”
Far from being weak, she says, the burnout sufferers she has encountered tend to be unusually diligent high performers, “the type of person who pushes towards achieving things and maybe has a tendency towards perfectionism”. Ironically, these traits – drive, commitment, not wanting to let other people down, persevering when others wouldn’t – are ones employers value highly. As Whillier points out, that gives companies who don’t want to lose their best people good reason to help prevent burnout.
There are glimmerings of change in some infamously “work hard, play hard” industries, including tech. Twitter has instigated a paid monthly #DayofRest for staff, and the Wall Street investment bank Jefferies has offered free Pelotons and fitness packages to some of its analysts, following complaints of overwork.
But Prof Cooper, who runs a forum of major employers with an interest in occupational health, says millennials would rather feel consistently valued and supported than have gimmicks such as mindfulness sessions or sushi delivered to their desks. The best thing anyone at risk of burnout can do, he says, is talk to someone – a trusted friend, colleague or health professional – which is why employers are increasingly offering free confidential counselling, or appointing corporate directors of wellbeing to encourage conversations about mental health at work. But what if yours isn’t so enlightened?
In Can’t Even, Petersen writes angrily that her contemporaries won’t be fobbed off with advice on managing their own stress because “this isn’t a personal problem. It’s a societal one and it will not be cured by productivity apps or a bullet journal, or face mask skin treatments.” She also rails against advice to “do what you love” for a career, arguing that it trains people to see work as a passion for which they should sacrifice everything. “A good job,” she writes, “is one that doesn’t exploit you and you don’t hate”, even if it’s not exciting.
Yet settling for something duller but easier seems a rather dispiriting solution. “I can’t relate to that way of working where you just work the hours and then you finish and completely compartmentalise the job,” says Joy Parkinson, 32, who suffered from burnout while working in arts communication in Glasgow. “If the majority of your life is spent working, it’s a real shame if people don’t love their job.”
She began to struggle during the pandemic, as lockdown forced performers to cancel live events or put them online. Working alone from her one-bedroom flat, glued to the news to try to figure out what was and wasn’t allowed, she felt “stuck in some form of working constantly, but also in a kind of limbo. I didn’t understand how we were ever going to get back to a normal life.” Her managers were “really helpful” when she said she was struggling, easing the workload on her entire team. But in the end she went freelance, which gave her the freedom to take breaks between contracts. (When we speak over Zoom, she is in Greece, following a hectic summer working on the Edinburgh festival.) A course of cognitive behavioural therapy has also given her tools to manage anxiety if it strikes again.
Self-employment isn’t for everyone, however, and few of us can afford to quit our jobs in a cost-of-living crisis. Employers are legally obliged to take reasonable steps to mitigate work-related stress, such as referring you to occupational health specialists. If stress is making you ill, you can be signed off work by a doctor as you would be for any physical illness.
If you are worried you might be nearing burnout, Whillier recommends not just talking to managers about easing your workload but making time for exercise (yoga and dance classes worked for her) and asking honestly whether you are shouldering more responsibility than you need to, at work or at home. “I felt the whole burden was on me. If I look back now, I can see why I felt that, but it actually wasn’t.”
If you have already burnt out, it is worth knowing that recovery and a successful return to work are possible.
Claudia, 40, a mother of two who works in external affairs, says it helps to remember that it “isn’t a personal failing” but a physical reaction to pressure, much like breaking an ankle. “You can’t carry on and if you force yourself, you are going to make it worse.” When her doctor signed her off with burnout, her boss suggested she ignore the medical advice and carry on. Instead, she quit, and after taking several months out to recover is now working again but for a company with a more supportive culture.
She has also, she says, learned to pace herself. “I have a discipline now that’s ‘Right, I’m going to knock some things off the to-do list’ rather than trying to do it all. It’s incremental things: take one thing out of the diary, cancel one meeting, don’t let your mum come over at the weekend.”
The catch, of course, is that for the kind of highly driven employees most at risk from burnout, slowing down may not come easily. Gandon, who eventually left her job last summer, is now running a research project on stress and burnout among civil servants. Recovery has felt frustratingly slow at times, she says, and she had to force herself to rest. But she is looking forward to returning to a full-time job this autumn.
“I’d always be the person who wanted to throw myself at stuff and maybe I had to learn a hard lesson to pace myself better – not like ‘I’m going to make sure I leave at 6pm tonight,’ but actually saying no to things, and that’s uncomfortable,” she admits. But it may be more sustainable in the long run, perhaps, than always saying yes.