It can happen to anyone: burnout.
Long hours conducting a repetitive task increases the risk. Not enjoying the work also increases the risk (though it could be more to do with drudgery than burnout). Not controlling your environment on any level is sure to increase stress and the likelihood of burnout.
Burnout is not about working a lot of hours. Rather, it involves stresses on the nervous system similar to PTSD. While a soldier in the field can suffer massive stresses to his nervous system, the same can happen to anyone who feels trapped in a dangerous (even perceived) situation.
Elon Musk is a perfect example of a person who can handle significant stress without feeling burnout or worse, Musk loves his work and believes he is making a difference that will outlive him. He handles stress differently as a result.
However, when stress built in areas he could not control he showed classical signs of burnout. Shareholders demanded profits and more production or they would sell the stock, adding stress to an already full plate for Musk.
Normally Musk is a pretty happy guy living his dream. But when market conditions outside his control pressured him hard he started to crack as everyone does when they struggle with a situation they are in. Tweets and other outbursts were counter-productive. Smoking weed on a podcast didn’t help either. (We may have assumed he smoked weed, but doing so publicly in his position put his business at risk.)
Musk survived in large part because he retained a massive amount of control. He made changes to Tesla and worked relentlessly until a resolution presented itself.
Not everyone is as lucky as Musk. Stuck in a job you hate will sap the life out of you. If the job has high demands and stress it will start you down a path that doesn’t end pretty.
Symptoms of Burnout
Burnout is only one step on a road to hell. Left unchecked it can cause serious damage to your health.
If you experience burnout and take no remedial actions you can start to exhibit symptoms of something much worse.
The first step toward a nervous breakdown is burnout. Fatigue lowers your mental defenses. When the situation continues to pound, feelings of desperation can set in. Helplessness is a large factor of burnout.
When you really love what you are doing fatigue and stress are handled in a manageable way as long as you have some control over the situation. (You can take a break when needed.)
Exhaustion is natural when you work hard at a task. A short break, a nap, a good night’s sleep, are all rejuvenating. When time off doesn’t reinvigorate you something is wrong.
Business owners can experience burnout from long hours coupled with the demands of running a business. Even if you love the work you can feel trapped inside the demands you don’t care to handle inside your business. It is this trapped feeling that stresses the nervous system without a release.
In a world where financial independence is possible at a young age for many and dreams of early retirement coat the internet it is easy to think burnout should be a thing of the past.
But burnout can affect you in retirement, too! You might feel trapped living the dream of a significant other. A goal of world travel can turn into drudgery when travel doesn’t give you what you hoped. Eventually you can feel trapped and then the nervous system feels the accumulating stress.
It can even affect pleasant pass times. Golf might have been a great joy every weekend and holiday when you had a traditional job. You might have longed for vacation time so you could enjoy the links.
Then you reach your financial goals and retired. Now you spend all day knocking the ball around the greens and it is no longer an escape. Golf was what you did to get away from a situation (work) you didn’t want to do at the same level as golf. Now golf drags on day after day after day after . . .
Any task can stress the system. Work is a common stressor. Unemployment is too!
Burnout, since it is a close cousin to PTSD, doesn’t require an unpleasant task to experience it. A soldier gets trapped in a situation and his nervous system begins to struggle. The same can happen sitting alone in a room. If you don’t believe it, ask a prisoner locked in solitary confinement for an extended period how much stress he feels and see if it doesn’t sound a lot like burnout, a nervous breakdown or PTSD. He is feeling burnout from being locked in a small room without any control over his environment.
Burnout symptoms can make the situation worse. Depression and anxiety increase. Irritability can cause outbursts. Sleeplessness hastens the descent. Violence, as you struggle to gain some control of your environment, directed inward or outward, is likely to get an unwanted societal response. Rarely does situation improve without professional help.
There is also a tendency to self medicate. Drugs/alcohol might seem like a solution while struggling with burnout. Unfortunately, it only makes it worse.
A common work tendency when burnout surfaces is procrastination. You want to avoid the stressor at all costs and all costs it could be.
Left unchecked, burnout can leave lasting wounds even after the stress is released. Damage to those around you may never heal. You may never heal as burnout can progress to a nervous breakdown which can take years to recover from. Post traumatic stress is common at this point. Your nervous system eventually starts to rewire as a coping mechanism. And when the rewiring is no longer needed the nervous system is permanently damaged.
Recovering from Burnout
A soldier in the trenches easily can feel trapped with bullets flying and bombs exploding. There is very limited control over the situation which is why so many military personnel suffer from PTSD.
Thankfully most people reading this will ever experience such a situation. We might get trapped in a job we hate or find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation. In most cases the walls, feelings of being trapped, are more self-imposed than real.
Recovering from burnout requires removal from the stressor. A vacation (extended, if necessary) frequently does the trick.
Burnout finds roots in helplessness which means it is loss of control over the situation you find yourself in causing the problems. The first step to recovery, therefore, requires you to gain some semblance on control over the outcome.
Business owners can find business overwhelming. Reduced hours, fewer client or more staffing can bring life back into balance. Just knowing, acknowledging, you have these controls over the situation can alleviate symptoms of burnout.
A job is worse than owning your own business. In business you can adjust the size of the company and still put bread on the table. A job is an all-or-none financial situation. If you lose your job you take a serious income hit. This lack of control could be a leading reason people hate their jobs so much. It’s not that they hate the work or the people they are working with, but that their life can be turned inside out at the snap of the fingers and you may never see it coming.
The FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement focuses on this very issue. The goal is to get out of the traditional work environment as soon as possible.
However, it isn’t about hedonism. The happiest people in the FIRE community continue doing meaningful activities. Some write blogs, others take up side hustles, others start a business. It wasn’t work that was the problem, it was “meaningful” work and control over your destiny that was the issue.
Burnout has serious long-term consequences if left unchecked. You can change your job, pay down debt (another area where it is easy to feel loss of control), design the life you enjoy most. Refusing to acknowledge you can change your situation can cost you your health, family, happiness or worse.
Regain control. A side hustle can be started while working in a traditional employment environment. Traditional work can also be rewarding. Many enjoy the traditional framework. If you are one of these people and feel the stress, you want to be more, not less, involved. Your involvement is a level of control that helps you engage while lowering stress and the risks of burnout.
And if you are retired and feeling burnout you need to take a long, hard look. It is likely you are living some else’s dream of retirement. Don’t emulate a blogger just because it looks like they have a cool lifestyle. (It is for them, probably not for you.) Travel if you want; don’t is you don’t want.
Live your life on your terms. It is hard to experience burnout, regardless the workload, in these situations.
Diet and exercise play a large role in avoiding burnout. Take time to exercise and make good food a priority.
Once anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts start it is time for professional intervention. Seeking help is not a weakness; it is a strength.
Dealing with Burnout
I had a different post planned for this week. However, I was feeling the pressure from tax returns on extension and blog traffic.
A tax return in my office was causing me no end of grief. Every time I made progress another problem arose. I was feeling the loss of control bad. Six interconnected tax returns were occupying my life for months and I couldn’t break through. I spent long hours at the office doing avoidance work. Procrastination was killing my productivity.
Add to that the normal summer traffic slowdown on this blog and burnout started running wild. Why bother writing if nobody is going to read it, I surmised. Except people are reading it and interacting. It was a pity party doing me no good.
Finally I decided I had enough. I came in on weekends and evenings to find a way to break the problem. I was taking control!
This post is slightly delayed because I just couldn’t get the energy to write Sunday night. The good news is I made massive progress on the problem tax return Saturday. Yes, another wall showed up, but this time I have a head of steam. I’m taking control. I should finish Monday. (Whew!)
No matter how dire the situation you have some level of control. And since loss of control is the first step to burnout and worse afflictions, control is where you need to focus.
The soldier in the field can focus on what he can control. Elon Musk took control like a boss and broke through the problems and ended many of his burnout symptoms. Musk never eased up a step on his workload. He loves what he does and made sure it stayed that way.
You can also take control. There is always some aspect of your work or business situation you can manipulate to your advantage. (Don’t think of this as bad manipulation. Manipulation of a situation for the good of all is more than acceptable.)
In the end you might choose early retirement or a different job or a side hustle. I’m here to tell you, it’s okay.
Keeping yourself locked in mental solitary confinement is not good for you, your family, friends or community. If you need professional help, seek it. Or, you might find you just need to acknowledge what you can control and then use that to move forward.
Nothing is worse than the helplessness of burnout; the feeling of quitting and running away. You can do better than that.
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Wednesday 26th of June 2019
I spent the bulk of last weekend sleeping, recovering from over-work from the past few weeks. I haven't taken a vacation in a while, and my company tends to work most holidays. Now, I've had plenty of jobs where I worked 65+ hr weeks, but it was towards a mission, and I felt a decent degree of control. I can feel the anger, disillusionment, sarcasm, and ultimately, despair, building. It's what you say - a lack of control, lots of work, little rest, and mental solitary confinement. For the first time ever in my many years of life, I'm actively thinking of calling our Employee Assistance Program. Or just straight up retiring.
So, you're blog entry is timely. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
Wednesday 26th of June 2019
Ally, if the stress is too much, please seek help. Only now, after publishing this post, have I realized how many people are suffering burn out. Don't wait until it is too late.
And there is nothing wrong with retiring from traditional work and starting a side gig or a work schedule that doesn't suck the life out of you. Work should be satisfying and refreshing. A long, hard day of work might leave you tired, but it should also make you feel good you accomplished something meaningful today.
Monday 24th of June 2019
Yep, the lack of control with having a job is real. For me, working for government where there's much less chance of losing my job, the lack of control comes from being told "you're going to sit in this chair for 40 hours a week, not more not less, and whether or not you have things to do." Then add guilt for being burned out from a cushy job with good coworkers, competitive pay, and great benefits. I *shouldn't* be burned out, but here we are. Thanks for writing this today.
Monday 24th of June 2019
Burnout is a confusing topic to me. I worked with largely the same group of people for over thirty years. I think I observed one case of what you are calling burn out. And we had times of long hours and the occasional real life and death crises of fires and toxic gas releases. Out of many hundreds of employees that passed through the company during those decades we had a couple of suicides, but work was barely an issue compared to serious family relationship problems those employees were dealing with. Burnout just wasn't a prevalent thing. Yet now, just about every millennial blogger talks about burning out and people who enjoy their jobs are the rarest of unicorns. I'm not disputing burnout exists but I am puzzled by how it became epidemic when the nature of work hasn't changed that much as far as my experience goes.
Monday 24th of June 2019
Steveark - Really? You don't see how the workplace has changed over the past 30 odd years you were working? That the power of unions has decreased, that workplace protections are being rolled-back, that there has been low wage growth while at the same time that real costs have increased at rates greater than inflation? That today's workforce is often expected to be available around the clock (that fewer employers are talking about work life balance and are now talking about work life integration)? That there is less security in being an employee (see the labor law changes, fewer defined benefit plans offered and retirement contributions by employers are declining)? Can you see how all of those things would be stressors to people now entering the workplace?
Though, for all I know, you could be shifting the blame to externalities, instead of people internalizing their stressors, given that you said "but work was barely an issue compared to serious family relationship problems those employees were dealing with." So, you could be saying that it was some other factor, not work, that was calling these individuals stress (this is just hypothesizing; as I don't know what you did or these people, but dealing with life and death crises is incredibly stressful, as shown by studies).
Though you could also read articles like https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work to help you understand.