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Book extract: Why we need to decouple work ethic and burnout

The sense of “running on fumes” is the experience of mismanaged stress and anxiety for an extended period of time

During the pandemic, many reached a breaking point and were forced to reassess what they were working—and burning out—for. (iStockphoto)

By Emily Ballesteros

LAST PUBLISHED 04.03.2024  |  07:30 AM IST

Have you ever had the overwhelming sense that driving into a field and screaming at the top of your lungs would be therapeutic? Have you pulled into your driveway, sat in your car, and stared blankly out the window, not wanting to go inside to your responsibilities? Whether it’s because of overwhelming professional or personal responsibilities, the bottom line is you’re running on fumes. Burnout is living your life on fumes for an extended period of time.

More commonly, this sense of “running on fumes" is the experience of mismanaged, prolonged stress. We know that a little stress is good for us: It keeps us alert and engaged. But significant stress for a long or indefinite period does not suit our physiology, and when we must endure it for too long, it transforms into something more sinister: burnout. When our bodies are relentlessly combating stress hormones, getting irregular sleep, experiencing daily fatigue, we have no opportunity to replenish our reserves. And it’s not just a physical depletion; it’s also psychological—we start to view our circumstances negatively. Whereas short-term stress is perceived as a challenge that we can overcome with extra effort, burnout feels endless and insurmountable: We become hopeless, fearing things will never change.

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You don’t need me to tell you that global causes of stress—the impacts of Covid-19, inflation, political turmoil, and “hustle culture," just to name a few—are on the rise. While most of us have long been accustomed to some stress, more of us than ever are reporting high amounts of it in recent years. Increased, prolonged stress means an increase in burnout.

As the pandemic bore on and as burnout continued to increase, the dam broke. People reached a breaking point and were forced to reassess what they were working—and burning out—for. As if we had a collective near-death experience, everyone reevaluated what they were spending their precious time on. The reminder of our finite time brought with it a renewed indignation and motivation not to waste it doing things that did not serve or fulfill us.

'The Cure For Burnout: Build Better Habits, Find Balance and Reclaim Your Life' by Emily Ballesteros, Harper Collins India, 272 pages, 499

This widespread burnout reared its head in movements like the Great Resignation (mass exodus of workers from the workforce), the Great Reshuffling (folks who quit and “shuffled" into different jobs), and quiet quitting (the decision to no longer go “above and beyond" basic duties). These trends, driven by worker dissatisfaction, show millions of professionals’ desire for change. We are ready to work for a living rather than live to work.

The 2021 Great Resignation was a period during which a record number of U.S. employees quit, hitting a twenty-year high of 4.5 million in November of 2022. The main reasons workers quit included low pay, working too many hours, lacking opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected by their company. Those who changed jobs were more likely to take jobs that offered higher pay, more room for advancement, and a better work-life balance. Additionally, the increased flexibility in remote work made many question the need to work as rigidly as they had been. Many quit in favour of remote positions that offered more freedom.

For the first time in modern history, the nine-to-five structure was questioned by employees who had achieved the same work on a different schedule and in a different setting. When people’s jobs were stripped of the office, many felt their roles left something to be desired.

The quiet quitting trend—popularized through 2022 and 2023—is further evidence that professionals have been disillusioned. While “going the extra mile" is virtuous, many employees who felt they’d been doing so realized they had merely been “rewarded" with a lot of drain (and, in many cases, being asked to take on the work of a colleague who wasn’t doing their job as well). A “promotion" in duties but not in title or pay has become common. It’s no wonder workers have essentially gone on strike, mounting to a mass refusal to “be a team player" to their detriment. Indignation about these unfair expectations and the realization that many were feeling the same, gave the quiet quitting campaign the fuel it needed to catch fire.

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Of course, not everyone is fist-pumping in support of these movements. Often, the response to these “do less" trends is the assumption that “nobody wants to work hard anymore." Even when the recommendation to scale back is to reduce burnout or boost mental health, many hesitate to acknowledge they’re burned out for fear that it will sound like they “don’t have what it takes." To anyone who has internalized that: It is in your best interest to mentally decouple work ethic and burnout.

Excerpted with permission from The Cure For Burnout: Build Better Habits, Find Balance and Reclaim Your Life by Emily Ballesteros, Harper Collins India

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