Digging through the ashes

”I’m so tired.” This is often the first thing I hear from people when they reach a turning point in their burnout, the point at which they have to acknowledge that their burnout has hit a truly unsustainable level and there’s no ignoring it anymore. Usually, I reply with some form of, “Tell me more,” and then listen as people unload about all the things that have brought them to this point. They’ve been working late nights for months; their manager regularly texts them at midnight; they spend time working on the weekends, even though no one has asked them to, because they fear being seen as someone who can’t get it all done; they’ve redone three different projects as different leaders cycled in and out and changed up the goals; their most senior direct report is out on leave and they don’t have a budget for a temp, nor is there any leeway in the deadlines; no matter how hard they work, the work isn’t recognized or rewarded—the list goes on.

Often—not always, but often enough that I’ve noticed it—there’s a turning point where someone says something like, “Actually, I can do something about this one thing today.” Maybe they can say no to that project that just landed on their desk, or reach out to a peer for counsel, or propose a change in scope to work that’s inflight. None of these steps solves the burnout, of course; none of them amounts to a full repair or reparation. But often, one small, or even experimental, step can help someone see where else there might be room to maneuver, help them identify the range of responses or choices they might make.

It’s not enough; and I always stress that burnout is never a problem that was caused by one person, and is likewise never something that can be resolved alone. But addressing the most challenging and intractable problems usually means taking one small step, then another. And then another after that.

In order to find those steps, though, we almost always have to move past the word burnout and onto something else—something more specific, or more contextual, or more personal, or all three. This, I believe, is because the concept of burnout has grown so big a single word is no longer sufficient for us to attend to it completely. I do not wish to discard the word “burnout” simply because the pile of ashes before us is too big to be gathered up in one person’s arms. What I want to do is suggest that it’s useful to recognize that those ashes aren’t uniform or singular, that if you kick things around you’ll find bits of unburned wood and leaves, a few pine cones, a singed bird’s nest, a cluster of seeds. If we’re really going to attend to burnout—in ourselves, in each other—we need to speak clearly about what it is we’re attending. And that what isn’t a single, monolithic, or organized structure but something more like a smoldering pile of half-burned forest, already being reclaimed by the mushrooms and the bugs.

Note that I mean here to intentionally rescue burnout from the territory of the mental health industry: in a three-dimensional Venn diagram, there is likely some overlap between burnout and mental health as a category of concern. But burnout is also more and different than that—it’s zeitgeist, it’s shorthand for the way our relationship to work is changing, it’s a criticism of systems that ruthlessly prioritize profits over worker health or equity. It’s the outcome of laws and policies that engender exploitation. Reducing burnout to a mental health issue has the effect of putting it out of reach of bigger structural conditions and relegating it to individualized settings—in effect, this allows those structural conditions to escape interrogation or intervention. I’m not saying there isn’t a mental health component to burnout, or that some sufferers of burnout won’t benefit from therapy or treatment. I am saying that we cannot fully address the problem that is burnout if we see the scope of repair as limited to mental health.

So how do we approach that repair? I think we have to first name the experience. Acknowledging your burnout (or that of your teammates) is one step, but the next is to unpack what that means. Maybe (probably) you’ve been working too hard for way too long. Maybe you’re feeling a loss of faith in the work itself—something that had seemed important or valuable to you no longer does. Maybe you’ve been doing the same work for a while now, and have grown bored with it. Maybe you feel isolated or unsafe or like you can’t influence decisions. Maybe the way you think about your work has changed, and you don’t know where this job fits in anymore. Maybe it’s all of these things. The point is that each of these subjects—overwork, loss of faith, boredom, isolation, lack of autonomy, etc.—are all more readily addressable than burnout is on its own.

Once you name a thing, it becomes easier to consider how to respond to it. And easier to see how some responses (like simply taking time off) may not be enough to address it. But first we have to get our hands dirty in what’s actually happening, in the experiences that make up the pile of ashes at our feet. Maybe there’s nothing left but to walk away. Or maybe there’s a seed in there, ready to germinate. Maybe you need to feed it some water and see what happens.