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Hey, Colleague: Can you leave your burnout behind?

We are on a constant quest to optimize life. A higher salary. A bigger house. A faster car. More things. More, more, more.
As a major cause of physician burnout, this crisis of incivility and abuse threatens the people who patients need to trust when their health is at stake.

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Hey, Colleague,

It’s day 247 of burnout, and I’ve begun to think that my best option is to move on to a different job elsewhere.

But here’s the thing: what if my burnout follows me? Is it enough motivation (or bad motivation) to seek out a change? How do I know that the job itself, currently, is the main source of my burnout, and it’s not just a part of my working behaviours or personality?


Fortunately, it’s not entirely your fault you are burning out, but going to a new job won’t change the situation if you don’t understand the systemic and cultural reasons why you are burning out. Hopefully, once the reasons are brought to your awareness, you will subconsciously start making decisions to direct you on a different path.

We are just a part of a race with no finish line. We live in a work-obsessed world driven by our dopaminergic desire for more and more. We are on a constant quest to optimize life. A higher salary. A bigger house. A faster car. More things. More, more, more. We burn out because we try to live up to society’s standards, mimicking those around us who are also caught up in this colossal economic machine of hyper-productivity. 

In the famous scandal involving Lance Armstrong, which stripped him of all his Tour de France titles, he admitted to doping– using illegal performance-enhancing treatments to win multiple tours. However, at that time, he states that he didn’t think what he was doing was wrong.

Subjectively, we can’t argue with that seemingly narcissistic statement that flutters on the borders of ethics. Doping was already rampant in competitive cycling, and he was doing what others were doing to stay at the top of the race. He only became the poster child for doping because he did it best. It wouldn't be a problem if wouldn't be a problem if allhe cyclists were doping, but there was no collective agreement amongst them not to dope either.

The race with no finish line

I used that analogy because whether we admit it or not, we are all addicted to efficiency. We all want to be at the top, whether we consciously realize it. Efficiency is supposed to promise us more time, but with more time, we internalize that we should be working because free time guilt trips us into thinking we’re not productive. We fill our free time with new projects. We see everyone around us thriving, and as human beings, it is in our innate nature to belong, so we strive to join the hustle culture– the culture driving us to inevitable burnout.

Our lives may be getting better, but it’s not getting more manageable. Our tendency to mimic and adapt traps us in a fast-paced vacuum pulling us along for an infinite ride.

The irony is that start-ups are popping up everywhere promising to help you automate every mundane task to save more time– food delivery, meal prep, online shoppers, Task Rabbit, and virtual assistants. Once we get used to certain luxuries, we can’t live without them. We’ve adapted to it. But to be able to afford these services, we need to keep our bank accounts topped off.

Time as a status symbol

Even though we know it’s not always ‘real,’ we want what our friends on social media seemingly have – the leisure time, gratifying vacations, all the delectable foods consumed, the accumulations of partners, pets, children and property. It’s the default state of our minds to compare ourselves to others. After all, community and acceptance are one of our deepest humanistic desires. Posting about your productive life is seen as the fruits of your labour; thus, you must achieve more and more to keep up. As we brand ourselves, we are pressured to maintain pace, and when documenting your life, there is no time off. Life never stops.

Unless you are born privileged with opportunities, this swift and agile world requires quick adaptability of new skills and knowledge. Yet, we are plagued by old ways of thinking that have not yet evolved to a new accelerated pace of life. School never taught us how to survive in an ever-changing world fast-forwarded by technology yet run by those still part of the old institution, some stubbornly unwilling to change. 

Millennials are thus plagued with anxiety, lack of sleep, debt and living under chronic stress while paying off burdensome student loans that never got them their dream jobs. And those that do devour coffee and Adderall like no tomorrow to fuel the economic engine.

The problem is that we still feel the only way to ‘succeed’ is to accumulate university degrees, homeownership and mass amounts of wealth. Still, we no longer have the cushion of a more stable economy and government pensions like those who made it in the Boomer generation. 

Think of our children

A tragic element to this tale is that some of us pass this way of life to our children because we are creatures that inherit our desires and habits from others around us as a part of collective consciousness. In the book, The Secret of Our Success, Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich, showed that ‘under uncertainty, toddlers used cultural learning’ by mimicking the reactions of adults they’ve observed. When presented with an unfamiliar toy, they looked at adults four times more to look for guidance on approaching it. We have evolved to learn from our caretakers. Still, the downside is we will also inherit their bad habits— unless we become aware of this behaviour at the beginning of parenthood.

Society also coerces us to erase our anxieties caused by burnout with medication. It enforces the idea that we must stay silent and continue contributing to this interminable machine. This causes us to blame the weakness of an individual for burnout, so we are less likely to investigate hostile work cultures, unreasonable expectations and ineffective leadership, which is the actual cause of burnout culture.

Self-care isn’t the answer

The self-care industry is designed for us to reinvigorate ourselves to get back to work as soon as possible. It doesn’t take us out of the cycle; instead, it gives us the tools to work harder. Sunday meal prep, inbox zero, and going to the salon to get my hair and nails done so I can feel better about myself are just another item on my endless to-do list. I am all for self-care and encouragement, but it’s only a Band-Aid and will not end your burnout. No amount of yoga classes, bike rides, massages, essential oils and perfectly manicured french nails will fix toxic work cultures.

All this may seem overwhelming, but it’s not the end of the world. To even be alive in this vast universe, we are an intelligent species who needs constant reminders not to get stuck in our brain’s default survival mode.

How do we change this?

The first step to treating burnout is acknowledging it because if you don’t accept it for what it is, you won’t know how to deal with it.

A collective solution:

We live in an individualistic culture, but burnout is a collective issue. We may experience a sense of shame if we feel we can’t handle the pressures of work but talking about burnout with your colleagues will remove stigma, hopefully leading to workplace interventions. Company leadership needs to prioritize a healthy work culture with a delayed gratification mindset because happier and healthier employees are more productive in the long run. It may be up to the individual to bring up this movement in their workplace until the collective is screaming for larger systemic reform to inspire action to design ideal work environments.

Solution for an individual: 

Again, self-care practices won’t solve burnout, and understandably, people have bills to pay and may not have the flexibility. Still, as an individual, you can do things to reduce cognitive overload and enhance your quality of life temporarily.

Evaluate your options. Unfortunately, navigating burnout isn’t a linear path, but it may be time to find a new job with a healthy work culture that respects its employee's well-being. 

Schedule downtime. Incorporate relaxing activities such as playing with your children or pets, spending time with family or going for walks.

Prioritize your needs and well-being. Sleep, exercise and sunlight are some of the most important non-negotiables for your well-being.

Mindfulness. Create moments of calm by practicing mindfulness, even if it’s 5 minutes of breathwork in the bathroom or while washing dishes, if that is all the time you have to yourself. It may not seem like a lot, but these small moments of peace will equate to exponential gains in well-being.

Seek support. Burnout can be overwhelming, so do not feel alone, talk to your colleagues, friends, and family. If you have the resources of workplace benefits, consider talking to a therapist– I consider therapy a privilege because we all need someone to talk to in a non-judgmental and non-biased environment.

Practice self-compassion. You are not a failure if you have to take time off due to burnout.

Find out the underlying cause of why you are choosing to burn yourself out. Be aware. Self reflect. Are you causing self-induced burnout by taking on unnecessary projects because you are caught up in the machine? Be honest with yourself.

Simply being aware that you are burnt out means you have already subconsciously decided to work towards solutions. Good luck!

Kate Pn writes about mastering a healthy work-life balance by focusing on productivity hacking. Write to her at [email protected].