Twenty-Eighteen felt like a big year. Not a year of busyness, but a good productive year. Indeed, reflecting on the year, and writing down just who I have worked with, I feel like I covered some good ground this year. It’s been a year of working with many individuals, couples, and a wide range of organisations, including air traffic controllers, airport staff, travel agents, and tourism operators.
I spoke at a conference for Australasian groundskeepers on the topic of mental health, and at a small local event to a group of men for Movember. I’ve researched and half written a book. I’ve worked with a couple of elite athletes (the runner) (the mountain biker), a few weekend warriors, defence force personnel, and plenty of folk not involved in any athletic endeavours whatsoever.
Across everyone I have worked and spoken with, there has been a strong theme to this year: It has been a year of low energy and of feeling fatigued. I’ve worked with plenty of organisations, groups, and individuals over my career who have wanted to be healthier, more productive, and perform better. But across the board this year, people have wanted, first and foremost, to feel less tired, less worn out, less wrecked, less fatigued…
That there seems to be few individuals, organisations, and sectors untouched by this fatigue shows that the hustle has become a cultural and societal phenomenon, in the Western world at least – a global contagion spread by, dare I say it, our 40-plus year love affair with infinite economic growth and wealth accumulation. As consumers, we all want more for less. At an organisational level, the same holds true. Even in our personal relationships this notion seems to hold true – we want more relationship for less investment in that relationship on our part.
When I ask groups and individuals whether they feel the demands of their roles, and indeed life in general, are increasing, the answer is invariably yes. Most also feel that the speed of life and its demands are going to increase further still. This poses a collective problem for us. Most agree we are already feeling stretched, strained, and in increasing numbers, completely drained and empty, and yet nobody can seemingly foresee a let up in this any time soon. Historically, individually and collectively, we have tended to convince ourselves that all of this stress is only temporary – we only need to push through a little bit more, persevere for the next few weeks/months/years, and we will be rewarded for all that hard work, that hustle (and likely that side hustle on top of that).
Yet society isn’t exactly over-flowing with Gen X’s & Y’s kicking back in their early semi-retirement having reaped the rewards of a short period of hard work (leaving aside the false projections of social media). Sure, some are probably doing okay if the measure is the on-paper value of their property portfolio, or perhaps more tangibly and relevant for these generations, their metrics around Instagram engagement and YouTube subscribers. But if the measure becomes their physical and mental health, their energy, vitality, contentedness, real world deep connectedness, their generosity, gratitude, and happiness with life, then Houston, we have a problem.
Here in New Zealand, over the past 12 months, there has been increasing industrial unrest and threats of strike action from all the usual sectors – junior doctors, nurses, broader healthcare workers, teachers, and engineers – with the usual demands – more money and better working conditions. Perhaps most notably this time around, however, is that each of these groups are citing overwork and fatigue (rather than being underpaid) as their primary issues. It is almost as if, after years of asking for more money as compensation for the stress and demands, workers are coming to the realisation that more money doesn’t buy back you back your energy or your life. No point in earning more dollars per hour if it is the hours you are working, and the conditions you are working them in, are blowing you to bits.
The theme of feeling overworked, fatigued, and burnt out has been echoed in the popular media over the year:
Teachers:“Work load. There’s a lot that goes into teaching and I think when you start out you’re not fully prepared for what that may look like.”
Doctors: “Burnout and fatigue among hospital doctors have left many without compassion for patients, and putting their care and safety at risk, a medical expert has warned.”
Farmers:“Month after month of badly managed stress can eventually result in ‘burnout’. Burnout sneaks up on you over time, like a slow leak. It’s characterised by physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness.”
Police, pilots, truck drivers, shearers, military personnel, salespeople… the list of occupations is endless. Largely because the list of sectors running on the most minimal of full-time equivalents continues to rise, both for economic reasons (*cough* shareholder supremacy *cough*) and skills shortages reasons. For many of these occupations, the road to fatigue and burnout is largely the same. It has become such a systemic issue that the New Zealand coalition government announced late in the year that it was changing its approach to health and safety, with a greater focus on mental fatigue in its strategy for the next decade, the Workplace Relations Minister citing the increasing issues with individual’s physical and mental health deteriorating as a result of their work as the key inspiration for this shift in focus.
Radio New Zealand, 13 December 2018
Focuses for the strategy include this country’s poor health across the workforce, the growing harm caused by mental health problems, stress, sexual harassment, bullying, delivering on ever-increasing expectations, and fatigue.
Part of the issue is that tiredness and fatigue have become so normalised that they are just accepted as part of the package deal. You work hard, maybe play hard too (in the beginning at least), you earn some money, you buy some things (or at least can make the After Pay repayments), you do the hustle and post it all to Instagram or else it didn’t happen. You do this long enough to get your business/name established, or to climb the ladder to a more senior position, to buy a ute, to put a dent in the mortgage, to get the kids in a good school. Maybe a couple of times a year, you can pack everything up in the ute and crawl along the highway with everyone else to all the usual hot spots (making sure you complain about how bad the traffic is along the way). Feeling stressed, anxious, hurried, frustrated, defensive, tired, and fatigued, is the price we pay, in the short term, until it all gets better, right?
A good summary of the issues with chronic work/life stress, fatigue, and eventual burnout, appeared in the UK’s The Guardian at the start of this year. I encourage anyone interested in this topic to take the time to read this article, which discusses the state of vital exhaustion that is burnout (as opposed to the common conception/assessment of burnout being a form of mental illness), as well as the insidious nature by which such fatigue and exhaustion can creep up on people, “not a single event but a process in which everyday stresses and anxieties gradually undermine one’s mental and physical health”.
“At the extreme end there are people who entirely shut down and end up in hospital having physical investigations; at the other end is someone showing signs of anxiety, low mood and feeling detached from day-to-day life.”How burnout became a sinister and insidious epidemic
The Guardian, Feb 2018
Being the partner of a medical doctor, I often hear the stories of patients who end up in urgent care/emergency departments getting work ups for heart attack-like physical symptoms that are perhaps the early (and sometimes late) warning signs of a body that has been under prolonged stress. In my own practice, I have talked to more people this year than ever about their anxiety, low mood (or volatile mood swings), and deep tiredness. In a society which champions the cult of the individual, there is a belief among those who ask for help that they are somehow weak and unable to cope when everyone else around them is. The reality, however, is that the pattern is largely the same across everyone, and we are all in this together.
“It’s like a mission creep of sorts, where you find yourself working a bit later, taking calls on weekends, being less inclined to play with your children or feeling more isolated and irritable.”
How burnout became a sinister and insidious epidemic
The Guardian, Feb 2018
Mission creep. This is exactly right. I routinely see employees still in the stores 1-2 hours after closing (potentially 5-10 hours per week of additional unpaid time). Mission creep is also the getting up earlier to get ahead of the game. It is the checking in on email or social media just before bed to finish a few things off. It is the working on your holidays out of the fear of what might happen if you disappear offline or out of the office for a couple of weeks. The reason we are able to do this, or course, is our access to technology that has blurred the boundaries of where work begins and ends. The constant connectedness that computers and smartphones have allowed us are actively contributing to fatigue and burnout.
“[T]here is now an expectation that workers will respond to work messages during what used to be “out of hours.” It’s a “trade off for using social media and keeping connected with friends and family during the working day.”HRM Online, 24 Jan 2018
Spanish research has identified three different profiles that can lead to fatigue and burnout:
The ‘frenetic‘ profile is related to those who work long hours (typically more than 40 hours per week), and is typically seen in the ambitious, perfectionist-types who are heavily involved in their roles or careers. These can be those go-getter types, out there doing the thing, thriving on the recognition (and sometimes envy) they get from others, but churning through their mental and emotional energy resources. Typically, these are the types who go hard for a few years, blow up, need time out, only to rise again elsewhere but repeat the same pattern.
When Adam was promoted in the summer of 2015, he says: “I knew it would be a great opportunity, but I also knew people in similar roles had suffered burnout – you would hear horror stories about the pressure and the hours. My reaction, instead of saying, ‘I need to be careful and have open and honest conversations with my employer,’ was to say, ‘I’m going to do it better than everyone else. I’m going to be the guy to buck the trend.’” And, at first, he thrived. “I loved being the last man standing in the office, when the lights turned off around me because no one had moved on my floor, and even the security guards had gone home.” But, two years later, he could see the damage he had done. “I definitely wasn’t happy,” he says. “It was such a warped mentality.” He started drinking every day, and neglected his marriage. “I was so irritable and grouchy, my wife was afraid to talk to me,” he says. “She really suffered for a long time.”
How burnout became a sinister and insidious epidemic
The Guardian, Feb 2018
Personal trainer Alana Joe flipped the switch to change her life around after her high paying corporate career left her feeling empty on the inside.
“I wanted to be a perfectionist, the best athlete, the best employee, the best aunty, I just wanted to give all I could to the people around me,” Joe says. “I was on the hamster wheel, I had everything but felt shallow.”
Kiwis are working longer than ever
A worker who does monotonous tasks, with a tendency to get bored and a lack of personal development opportunities, is more at risk of developing the “under-challenged” profile. Maybe due to the nature of the tasks they perform, they are ‘invisible’ and rarely get the level of recognition and sense of achievement that the more frenetic types do. These are the people who are just the cleaner, just the barista, just the tech support. But they could just as easily be the doctor in general practice, stuck in a room, seeing the same types of patient over and over again. Without the challenge and recognition, these people feel a sense of purposelessness in what they do.
People in the “worn-out” category are the ones who have a long history of doing the same job. They have been putting in the hours without much recognition.
Note the common ground across all three types. Recognition. Two of the three profiles (under-challenged, worn out) suffer from a lack of recognition, while the other (frenetic) is driven by too much of it.
In my background reading for this post, I came across the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which defines three stages of burnout as “a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with other people in some capacity.”
Stage One: Emotional exhaustion refers to the feelings of being emotionally overextended and fatigued. In this state, you are increasingly unable to give yourself emotionally to your work and others. In this stage you might hear someone say they are “pretty over it.”
Stage Two: Depersonalisation is caused by emotional exhaustion and refers to the unfeeling and impersonal responses toward service, care, treatment, or instruction. It is a state characterised by increasingly cynical and negative responses toward others and perhaps life in general. Someone in this stage might tell you they “don’t give a fuck” (or words to that effect).
Stage Three: Reduced Personal Accomplishment is the point at which you develop negative feelings toward yourself, and can manifest as poor self-esteem, low self-efficacy, and a loss of confidence in your own abilities. You are unable to recognise your own skills and accomplishments.
Whilst the MBI is a specific tool for assessing workplace burnout, particularly in teachers and medical professionals, it is clear to see that all of these stages can occur in any aspect of life, inside and outside of the workplace. Indeed, anywhere there are human relationships (or a lack thereof). It is often said that we don’t leave our jobs, but rather a specific person or people in our jobs. It is all about our relationships with each other.
Our relationships could be described as frenetic when we are trying to display some degree of perfection via the likes of social media (which includes the #sohotrightnow displays of being imperfectly perfect – the proud and public display of all your imperfections, character flaws, and anxieties; see ‘Losing Our Inner Lives to Social Media‘). That drive to have more content, more often, share more, be deeper and more meaningful than the next person, have the best lighting, the best sound quality, reply to more people, and to do that every day of the year, can only be described as frenetic.
Similarly, an individual might begin to feel under-challenged in a relationship when they take on the mantle of the invisible partner, getting stuff done, keeping everything ticking over, but receiving little by way of recognition for anything they do and give to a relationship. This is the classic relationship where one person feels completely taken for granted and unappreciated due to the lack of words and actions from another.
Perhaps as a result of too many months and years of being under-challenged, relationships can just become stale and worn out.
There are some common signs and symptoms you are becoming deeply fatigued, if not burnt out, including;
- Feeling a level of tiredness and exhaustion that isn’t addressed through a few days off and good sleep.
- Becoming increasingly cynical, defensive, frustrated, and irritated by anything and everything.
- Feelings of selfishness and entitlement when this isn’t part of your usual character.
- A lack of empathy and generosity.
- An inability to concentrate and focus on anything, perhaps feeling scattered, spending your time scanning many things at a superficial level.
- A feeling of being hypersensitive to, and overwhelmed by, light, noises, smells, and people.
- A feeling of being detached from the people/things you once loved and felt passion for.
A Personal Story
With my audiences and clients, I often talk about energy conservation (often framed as disengagement in the workplace) – a state where, recognising (subconsciously, at least) that our life demands are exceeding our capacity, we start to pull energy investment away from areas we feel are not immediately important, and direct what energy we do have toward areas with the most immediate payoff (recognition, achievement, financial reward, etc). All too often, we won’t invest in and nurture the very habits and relationships that recharge our energy and protect us from fatigue, because perceptions around time and energy. For example (one I deal with all too frequently), you might be so frenetic in your work that stopping to have a break, eat a good meal, get out in the sunshine, go for a walk, and breath and relax, is deemed as unimportant/unnecessary/can wait until later/takes too much time/is a level of energy expenditure with no recognition attached to it.
We keep charging on directing energy toward the thing we need to do. We consequently erode the very foundations of our energy (eating good food, getting good sleep, getting bright sunlight, moving our bodies), the very foundations which fortify us against a world wanting to suck us dry. I shouldn’t have to point out the effect of not recharging ourselves physically has on our mental and emotional energy. It’s a fast track to deep fatigue and beyond.
I, of course, am not immune to any of this, and I can reflect back on plenty of times in my life where work and personal relationships have suffered due to the erosion of such foundations and the subsequent building fatigue. Indeed, as an example, I can look back on the demise of my marriage a decade ago and see that physical and emotional burnout played a significant role on both sides, with each partner blindly caught up in some degree of hustle (the pursuit of career and sporting recognition), taking the relationship for granted and leaving no energy to invest in it. A malnourished relationship was likely long dead before the final act of walking out on each other (seemingly, out of the blue).
I could share many other stories, being myself imperfectly perfect… Suffice to say that, in my wisdom and old age, I am much more protective of my own personal energy levels, as well as the relationships which sustain them. Any hint of something that is a net drain on the key areas of my life, will get quickly kicked to the curb, be they habits or people. I have recently taken action in a particular area for this very reason.
I recently made the decision to cease using my personal Instagram account, with a view to most likely deleting it for good. This seemingly snap decision had been brewing for quite sometime, and it was the recognition that the energy cost associated with using this platform was too high. I am not a public figure by any stretch, and I didn’t use Instagram as a way of promoting my business. I have a private (locked) personal account, with a small number of followers (as these are largely people I know and have met in person, it feels kind of dirty and disrespectful referring to them as such).
The original premise of having such an account – the original encouragement I was given to start one up on the first place – was to create a touch point for friends and loved ones to see what I was up to in life. That touch point would develop closer ties among people geographically distant from each other, being the catalyst toward deeper, more personal interactions. Indeed, this happened some of the time. There would be the occasional comment, either on the post or privately. Increasingly, however, any engagement was very shallow. Serious and/or controversial topics wouldn’t generate any discussion or debate, just a “like”. You could ask a question and get only a “like”. Occasionally you might get something as deep and meaningful as an emoji. Notably, some personal achievements being celebrated would even get ignored.
If this was a platform to deeply connect people, and to share and recognise each others thoughts, experiences, and achievements, its actual shallowness made such a platform deeply and fundamentally flawed. None of this is new, of course. I think all of us know this about social media, instinctively or otherwise. Heck, I am the architect of a full program on this.
Alongside the emotional energy cost of putting your life out there and getting very little in return, there has been the mental energy cost of having such a powerful digital distraction in my pocket, sucking me into the very behaviours I loathed on my own account – mindlessly scrolling and liking. The mental drain of seeing nearly everyone in a race to the bottom – the selling things, oversharing online (whilst simultaneously under-sharing in real life with friends and loved ones), the increasing number of food-posts with people showing how little they were eating all while wondering where their energy had gone – was all becoming too much.
Perhaps most wearying are the invasive yet distant commands from media, state institutions, advertisements, friends or employers to self-maximise, persevere, grab your slice of the diminishing pie, “because you are worth it” – although you must constantly prove it, every day.
How neoliberalism is damaging your mental health
My life on Instagram, then, was a source of unnecessary energy drain and fatigue, and certainly was not a means of recharging my energy. My time on the platform would leave me emotionally exhausted and depersonlised, and the absolute time waste that it is would leave me with a sense of reduced personal accomplishment. Can you see where this was going?
In 2018, many of us found ourselves feeling fatigued, the sources of which are often out of our control (or at least, will take us some time to unravel from). But I have no doubt that there are also many such sources of fatigue, relationships, habits, etc., that we can make changes to straight away. I’ve replaced my morning social media habit with a morning mobility routine, and I feel all the more better (energised) for it. As many of you unravel yourselves from the giant energy suck that can be the mad dash to the end of the year and Christmas, and you look toward 2019, take some time to reflect on what your sources of fatigue are. You might not be able to quit the job or throw the kids on the street just yet, but I have no doubt each of you will be able to find at least one area where you can do something differently and fight the fatigue.