When I think about energy, I’m reminded of my year eight physics class. That energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed. One thing they never taught me about energy, however, was how to manage it effectively. As uni students and humans in general, we’re socialised to believe that being busy is a necessary part of our lives. Having deadlines or finding new projects just to take up our spare time. Burnout is not healthy and praising busyness and a ‘I don’t know how s/he does it’ narrative is damaging to society on large.
Taking a step back; it’s important to look at what burnout is and what it’s not. Burnout is typically a by-product of extreme stress. Whether it’s physical hours or limited headspace, burnout is different for everyone. Working sixty hour weeks could be just as harmful as worrying non-stop about an assignment. Saying that you’re tired from study or work isn’t burnout. Burnout is a debilitating lack of energy causing an inability to function how you normally would. Often burnout contributes to mental health issues and can even lead to abnormal anger or anxiety.
I’ve experienced burnout to an extent before. For me the most significant aspect was subnormal performance in everyday tasks. I was struggling to have conversations with people and constantly creating (looking back probably useless) spreadsheets and lists. I recall feeling useless and ineffective; feeling the weight of other people’s expectations but most significantly feeling responsible for things out of my control. I wasn’t eating or exercising properly and couldn’t go five minutes without worrying about an assessment or project. I realised I had to take a step back; luckily I was in a position where I could do this. This was not extreme burnout, but I’m glad I eventually saw the signs and was able to alleviate some of the pressure I felt.
The important thing is giving people the tools to deal with stress in their own way. Just like grief and joy people express stress differently. Some people overwork themselves when they stress, others exercise furiously or simply worry. What’s important here is that stress tends to be caused by feeling a lack of control. These thoughts are pernicious and potentially inevitable. But as a society we have a duty to put in anti-burnout measures that empower people and don’t dictate how they should live their lives. Incentivising corporations to create mandatory mental health days, having dedicated lunch hours every day at uni and recognising burnout as a real health issue could help massively.
I think that we’ve made a good start in some ways, but the more we do and look into these issues the more we realise how much farther we have to go. Celebrating small symbolic gestures from governments and institutions removes pressure and impetus for actual change. Sweeping reforms don’t just happen and historically it takes a crisis to cause revolution. But what will this inaction cost?