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Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

How the pandemic and modern work made burnout an acceptable state

For years we’ve been working longer hours with stagnant wages, but the Covid pandemic has driven work to excess like never before. Sophie Gallagher on how burnout became part of the modern job description

Monday 10 May 2021 16:04
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<p>‘Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,’ said the WHO</p>

‘Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,’ said the WHO

It started in lockdown one. My limbs flailed, seemingly detached from the will of my brain, as I knocked over cereal boxes and dropped cutlery at random. This new clumsiness made the simplest of tasks difficult. Doctor Google was inconclusive but suggested the cause was the usual cocktail of tiredness and stress. It should have been obvious that the explosion of a pandemic, constant fear of death or serious illness, and working long hours in a bid to prove commitment from home would have consequences. But I was convinced I was coping.

As the summer wore on and our lives remained monotonous days of endless work and isolation, colleagues began sharing similar tales of fogginess and mental fatigue. Putting soap on their toothbrush; having to pop home yet again for a forgotten face mask; walking into rooms unable to remember why; needing subtitles on all TV programmes just to follow a basic plot. My iPhone notes became a graveyard of admin tasks yet to be ticked off – a single bag of clothes destined for the charity shop sat in my hallway for weeks after the shops reopened. And it was hardly like I didn’t have the time to do it. All I had was time. 

In January 2019, a Buzzfeed article by Anne Helen Peterson titled “How millennials became the burnout generation” was widely shared for its insightful articulation of the overwhelming “errand paralysis” many were experiencing. Adults who were otherwise able to hold down steady jobs, climb the career ladder and pay rent were coming undone over posting a single letter. The cause it claimed: burnout. 

In the 1980s, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Christina Maslach, created the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to diagnose and measure the problem. It measured burnout using three criteria: exhaustion or lack of energy, cynicism or negativity towards a job, and reduced efficiency at work. To be burnt out requires all three. Three decades later, in 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO), defined burnout as an official medical condition, saying: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It used the same criteria as Maslach and said it is an “occupational phenomenon” and does not happen outside of work.

Modern working culture is a fertile breeding ground for burnout: the TUC found workers in the UK were putting in the longest hours in the EU (42 hours a week, 2018). Narratives around dream jobs, careers as entire identities and a source of self-worth, and the phrase “do what you love and you’ll never work a day...” is emblazoned on everything from fridge magnets to Etsy driftwood signs. While we work ever longer hours the wellness industry sells itself as a solution – spend money on yoga and smoothies to free yourself from the ills of capitalism.

One of the biggest tools in the neoliberal arsenal is intensification in work – expect more of people in the same time and with the same resources

Teena Clouston, occupational therapy and wellbeing professor at Cardiff University and author of Challenging Stress, Burnout and Rust-Out, says: “Burnout is a modern-day problem because of a couple of contemporary issues. The first is neoliberalism, the economic model used in the UK to promote growth. One of the biggest tools in the neoliberal arsenal is intensification in work – expect more and more of people in the same time [frame] and with the same level of resources. Another problem is the 24/7 always-on approach, infinitely achievable through modern technology. Suddenly traditional boundaries between work and home [are] lost like water in sand,” she explains.

In the last five years burnout has become recognised as an increasingly prevalent issue (mostly self-reported by workers): a Deloitte study from 2015 found 77 per cent of respondents (and 84 per cent of millennials) had experienced burnout at their current job with nine out of 10 citing unmanageable amounts of stress and 80 per cent saying the problem had impacted their relationships. Nearly half of millennials (and 42 per cent of all respondents) had left a job as a result. In the UK, data from the Health and Safety Executive regulator reported that the rate of work-related stress, depression and anxiety had been rising steadily year on year although it did not use the term burnout. Then came the pandemic.

‘Treating burnout as a clinical disorder doesn’t solve the problem, as it is not about major crises but the everyday demands of the job’

As well as presenting one of the biggest global health crises in living memory, the coronavirus pandemic upturned everything we knew about modern work. Companies that had historically resisted remote work had their hand forced with a government-mandated stay at home order. Our living rooms, once spaces in which to wind down, became the site of meetings, performance reviews and all the related work stress. And for those essential workers who remained on the front line, they did so under ever greater strain, with fear for their health.

Louise Tyler, a counsellor with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, had clients come to her as they struggled to juggle homeschooling their children all day and then working into the early hours to get their job done. “The adrenaline experienced at the start of the pandemic kept people strong to begin with,” she says. “However, as the year progressed, and we realised this was going to be a marathon rather than a sprint, burnout started to become more prevalent.”

During the pandemic Peterson’s 2019 description of “should be working all the time” mentality was no longer an intangible, internalised pressure expressed only by side-hustling millennials – partly fuelled by a not-so-distant memory of the 2008 financial crisis – it was a stark reality.

Millions were furloughed (since March, 11.5 million jobs have been furloughed at some point) or made redundant (ONS data shows the rate of Covid redundancies was faster than during the 2008-09 recession), and for those able to hang on to a job, there was the inability to switch off as bosses increasingly interrupted non-working hours, knowing employees rarely left the house, and many felt increasingly lucky to have any work at all. “There was a sense of needing to keep your head down... people felt they needed to prove themselves indispensable,” Tyler says. 

As we realised this was going to be a marathon rather than a sprint, burnout started to become more prevalent

Louise Tyler, counsellor

It didn’t help that while people were increasingly feeling the strain of longer hours and increasing pressure, there was a dominant narrative, peddled by many, including the prime minister at the Tory party conference nonetheless, that those working from home have basically had a glorified holiday (that we were having sex or masturbating on lunch breaks) and only a return to the office would get us working again.

Statistics show that now, after 18 months of living in a pandemic (and its unrelenting bad news cycle), burnout is running rampant. A survey by the British Medical Association (BMA) found 25 per cent of respondents wanted a career break and 21 per cent were considering leaving the NHS altogether for another career following the last year. Now 32 per cent are considering early retirement compared to 14 per cent the year previously. In education, lecturers and academics report burnout fuelled by student welfare concerns and lack of in-person teaching.

And it isn’t just frontline workers. An Indeed survey found 67 per cent of all workers thought burnout had worsened in 2020. Just 210 people searched for the term “occupational burnout” in August 2015, and 1,900 in August 2019, but by the same month last year that had risen to 5,400, according to Microbiz. That’s a year-on-year increase of 184 per cent. Even the CEO of Zoom, Eric Yuan, has admitted to Zoom fatigue.

Our living rooms, once spaces in which to wind down, became the site of meetings, performance reviews and all the related work stress

Although we are undoubtedly seeing increasing cases of clinical burnout during Covid, in an effort to describe more widely what we’re enduring in the modern workplace, Professor Gail Kinman, visiting professor of occupational health psychology at Birkbeck University, says we’re seeing a “hijacking” of the clinical definition – most often seen in frontline healthcare professionals. Now burnout is being used as a “shorthand” for describing stressful or toxic workplaces, says Kinman, and is increasingly relied upon for people to ask for help to cope – especially in the context of employees talking to managers, and in lieu of alternatives that may still be more stigmatised in the workplace – such as depression or anxiety.

Although Kinman says it is “fine” that people use this to describe emotional exhaustion and overwhelm, we “shouldn’t take it to mean the same thing as true burnout”. “It’s a very useful term but we need a better emotional vocabulary to talk about how we feel” (a New York Times article coined the term “languishing” to mean a more generic “blah” feeling). Not least because using burnout incorrectly thwarts how we – and employers – respond to the growing problem.

Some businesses are seemingly taking steps to address the issue: LinkedIn gave its 15,900 full-time employees an extra paid week off, Google gave its employees a day off in September, and Facebook allowed workers to have a whole week over Thanksgiving. But Kinman says that true burnout cannot be fixed by interventions such as these: “[Burnout] is a reaction to very challenging organisational conditions. [Employers] offer these individual interventions, do a mindfulness class or some crystal therapy but then you do them and go right back to work.”

You tell people it is their own fault; you patch them up and you send them back into the environment that made them sick in the first place

Christina Maslach, professor of psychology

Maslach told Kinman in an interview, we risk “pathologising people who are unable to cope with the excessive demands of their work”. “Treating burnout as a clinical disorder doesn’t solve the problem, as it is not about major crises but the everyday demands of the job. You tell people it is their own fault; you patch them up and you send them back into the environment that made them sick in the first place. It is not like giving somebody an aspirin for a headache.”

In an ideal world, addressing burnout, Professor Clouston says, would require addressing “excessive workloads, supporting work-life balance, creating opportunities for personal growth and promotion, identifying levels of staff satisfaction”. “First and foremost, culture change is needed; not just in workplaces but at social and political levels to challenge the idea that the ideal measure of success is based on financial performance and growth.”

But on a personal and immediate level you can try smaller steps, Clouston recommends: aiming to get balance in your life by reviewing how much time you spend on each area (work, social, leisure); slow down the pace and try to pull back from multitasking and focus on one activity at a time; share tasks and chores by delegating more at work and home; get to know your coping strategies and ask if they are healthy; and try to establish where you find meaning and purpose in your day-to-day life and lean in. “Of course this is not easy to achieve, but it may be life changing,” she says.

As we enter the next era of the pandemic in the UK – with mass vaccination and the reopening of hospitality, shops, and travel – people will also begin to return to offices in bigger numbers, balancing a renewed desire for flexible working with the constant pull of the “old way” of doing things. The last 18 months have shown that for many our modern relationship with work is toxic, and even in a global pandemic the pressures of work can dominate our mental and physical wellbeing. As we sit on a cliff edge looking forward, maybe now is the time to demand change.

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