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Baby, I’m Burnt Out

Written By Hannah Risser-Sperry | Aug 30, 2022

We’ve been hearing a lot about burnout lately (and for the last few years, as the pandemic has raged on). We’re all dealing with a global catastrophe, a planet in crisis, and endless human suffering while also making sure we show up for meetings on time. To put it plainly: being alive right now is hard.

The other reason we’ve been hearing a lot about burnout? Because everyone seems to have some secret sauce to fix it! I’ve seen articles that encourage “quiet quitting,” AKA setting some boundaries and doing your job. One spot told me to build my resilience to stress, something I’m not sure can be done while experiencing acute stress. Others encourage classic “self care” strategies like exercise or massages, which are great ideas but not always manageable for people; if they’re chasing kids around or struggling to make ends meet, I doubt they have time or mental capacity to book a facial.

It’s also worth noting that so many of these articles act as though burnout is an individual’s job to prevent or crawl back from, rather than a symptom of a corporate system we’ve allowed to flourish. Expectations don’t come out of nowhere, and neither do our responses to those expectations. Capitalism is a breeding ground for bad behavior, as long as it’s justified by making a profit. So just remember: you aren’t burnt out because you’ve fallen down somewhere or done something wrong. You’re burnt out because the system is set up for you to be burnt out.

I’m not an expert; I’m just a human who works in Marketing, after all, not a mental health professional. And I don’t know how to heal or prevent chronic work stress. But I am someone who has experienced burnout and come back from it. Here’s what that journey took.

You aren’t burnt out because you’ve fallen down somewhere or done something wrong. You’re burnt out because the system is set up for you to be burnt out.

First things first, I had to spend a lot of time considering my relationship to work. And second things second, I know that that’s not what you want to hear if you’re experiencing burnout. But it is often true that if you’re going through a tough time, the only way out is through; this is no exception. So take a look at where you’re at and interrogate what’s not working. If you’re drowning in work, talk to your manager about what can be handed off. If your exhaustion is making meetings difficult, connect with your coworkers and see how you can communicate updates differently. If your self-worth is tied into your work performance, take some time to reflect on the other things that bring you meaning. The unpacking of your relationship to work might take some time; be prepared for that.

Next up, I had to leave my job. This isn’t true for everyone, especially if you’ve done some of the above introspection before you fully crash, but it was true for me. I worked at a creative agency doing social media for a really big brand, and there really wasn’t a way for me to keep doing the work I’d been doing. Luckily for me, I got laid off – huzzah! But what had I landed on that made it impossible for me to work there?

Boundaries, baby! I had finally found some, and they were not at all conducive to the job I held. Why, you ask? Well, here’s what I demanded:

  • work stopped at 7 PM, no questions asked [social media for big brands never sleeps, so this was a no go at my employer]
  • I would no longer take on others’ work without being compensated [I hold true to this one to this day]
  • just because I’m nice did not mean I was leadership’s assistant [this is a boundary I’ll never stop setting – something about becoming a manager or a director makes people think that their time is more valuable than anyone else’s]

I’m now in a job where working past seven rarely happens, and because of that, I don’t get so mad when I have to do it. But the other two are firm lines in the sand; I don’t do extra work unless I’m passionate about it, and I’m not in a meeting to take notes. I also made a big move; I left my agency life behind and moved into a new industry. Right away, I let go of a lot of the hustle instincts I’d long been driven by. I no longer have multiple “fire drills” per week, and I still get to make stuff for a living. Sometimes, it’s less about the work you do and more about where and how you do it.

I also worked hard to identify the things at my job that I enjoy and adding more that when possible. Luckily those are plentiful in my current position, and they include writing (hey, I’m doing that right now), working with fellow creatives, analyzing content performance, and anything involving diversity, equity, and inclusion. When I’m stuck in the weeds on other things, I speak up that I’d like to do less of that in the future – it never hurts to ask, the worst someone can say is no. When I’m doing the things I like doing, I work quite hard on them and produce strong results, thus ensuring that I get to do more of it.

Sometimes, it’s less about the work you do and more about where and how you do it.

Last but not least, yes, I engage in some self care. I know, I KNOW, but it’s true. The things I do aren’t going to be reachable to everyone, what with me being a decently paid childless person and all that, but I promise all of it can be achieved with a bit of effort.

  • I read. A lot. I like to escape this dumpster fire of a world and live somewhere else for an hour or two at a time. I listen to audiobooks while I do chores at home or take a long walk, I read from a physical book before I go to bed, and I can do either of those while I commute to work by car or by public transit. Books are FREE from the library (or via Libby!), and I promise it helps you to calm down.
  • I do a lot of activities. Whether these be hiking or biking or swimming or kayaking or just Yoga With Adriene in my living room, getting your body moving is a surefire way to calm your brain. If your body is in pain or isn’t used to moving? Start off with a walk near your home or some stretching. It never fails to piss me off that being active makes me feel better because I truly love to lay around, but it just does.
  • I go to a lot of therapy. I’m well aware therapy is expensive and that our healthcare system is a joke. But if you can find a good therapist (yup, finding them is more work) and invest some time in yourself, it really does pay dividends back to you. Currently I’m doing EMDR, which is a helluva lot of work and I cry through it most days, but it’s also led to the calmest version of myself I’ve ever known. Who knew?

This may just be another article in which someone is telling you to do things you’re simply not ready to do. That’s one of the hardest things about burnout; it gets you to your lowest and every way out feels really hard. But if you can prioritize yourself and think through what you’d rather your life (and your work life) looked like, you can start to find a way there.

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