At some point last year, when the pandemic had dug its claws deep into Indian society and the lockdown was at its peak, Arya Sharma began losing track of her work hours and the rest of her life. The 22-year-old middle-school teacher in Jaipur realised one day that these boundaries had become blurred beyond recognition.
In those early weeks of remote schooling, teachers and students were struggling to get a hang of the sudden shift, trying to get technology to bridge the gulf that the coronavirus had opened up among people overnight. “We (the teachers) were texting parents every day, at all hours, with updates about classes and lessons,” Sharma says. “I am young and don’t have as many responsibilities as some of my colleagues, who have family and children of their own to look after—and, after all that’s taken care of, they have to find the time and space to do their job properly from home.”
This is a nightmare that many, especially working women, will remember long after the pandemic has faded. Forced to keep the home fires burning without any house help (or supportive family members, in many instances) for extended periods of the lockdown, women in India’s workforce have paid a steep price over the past year. This, in spite of early reports (one based on a survey conducted by economist Ashwini Deshpande, for instance, published in June) suggesting that the gender gap in housework had reduced by an hour every day in Indian homes during the lockdown.
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, women around the world were already doing the bulk of unpaid housework. A 2018 report from the International Labour Organisation found that every day around the world 16.4 billion hours are spent doing unpaid care work—three-quarters of this is performed by women. Since the pandemic, men have begun helping out with household chores more than they did before—in a global survey conducted by UN Women in November, 67% of women said their spouses or partners are more involved in housework now—but women still do most of the heavy lifting, and it is costing them sharply.
A recent report by the professional networking platform LinkedIn estimates that 85% of the women in India’s workforce missed a job opportunity, promotion or raise in 2020 for reasons related to their gender. With increasing demands at both work and home, alongside the ever-evolving challenges of working from home, more than 80% of working women across the world felt their lives have been negatively disrupted by the pandemic, noted another recent survey by business consultancy Deloitte Global.
As early as October, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index 2020 report had predicted this. Of the 6,000 people from eight countries who took part in it, 41% spoke about the lack of separation between work and personal life, while 29% mentioned experiencing increasing burnout at work.
As the days went by, Sharma found herself succumbing to the stress and anxiety induced by her job. “I started feeling numb, indifferent to whatever was happening around me,” she remembers. “There was a time when I used to have plans for the future, but I seemed to have lost all drive to do anything.” Like millions of others, she was experiencing some of the classic symptoms of a burnout. Eventually, Sharma went into therapy. “Most of us believe that we can solve everything by ourselves, but that’s not true,” she says. “You have to ask for help, not wait until you crack.”
The reluctance to seek therapy seems to be decreasing gradually as mental healthcare moves online, as Lounge found out last October. But with a staggering treatment gap of 85%, according to estimates by the World Health Organisation—which means only 15% of the afflicted get the help they need in India—finding reliable and affordable mental healthcare is a gamble in this country. Add to this challenge the general lack of understanding of the correlation between mental and physical health.
“Burnout, for instance, can manifest through physical symptoms like backache, headache and irritable bowel syndrome,” says Divya Kannan, clinical psychologist with mind.fit, an online platform that provides mental healthcare services to clients, a majority of whom are aged 20-38. “Dentists are reporting an increase in the number of patients coming to them with the problem of grinding their teeth during sleep—which can be a sign of stress and anxiety.” Psychologically, burnout may make itself known through habitual procrastination, pessimism, an overwhelming cynicism towards the world, and a chronic lack of excitement about starting one’s workday.
However, while no one can deny that the pandemic has made us more prone to burnout, it may not be right to dump all the blame on the coronavirus alone for pushing us to this brink.
The hustle-and-grind culture
The coronavirus outbreak may have led more of us to acknowledge our burnout but it is a state of being that has long existed as synonymous with capitalist work culture. The term “burnout” goes back to 1974, when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first used it while diagnosing cases of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. Since then, psychoanalysts like Josh Cohen have theorised and analysed the phenomenon extensively, most recently in his 2018 book, Not Working: Why We Have To Stop. In 2019, writer and journalist Anne Helen Petersen shot to fame on the internet with her viral Buzzfeed article, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation”. It became the basis for her 2020 book, Can’t Even, elaborating her findings on the subject.
The pandemic has tipped over millions who were already suffering from the effects of the capitalist grind without quite understanding its toxic grasp over their lives. As Petersen wrote, the millennial generation has long internalised “the idea that we should be working all the time”. This is generally true for white-collar workers all around the world now, who often mistake burnout for exhaustion.
“Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go further,” Petersen explains, “burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” The lowest low of burnout (if you can imagine such a state) is that there is no satisfaction or end in sight—unlike the feeling that fills you after reaching a long-cherished goal. When you are dealing with burnout, instead of a sense of achievement you feel fatigued and drained, while never reaching the end of the gruelling work schedule you have thrown yourself into.
“We live and work in a culture that’s set up for burnout—a culture that makes little place for rest and relaxation or listening to our body and intuition,” says business and career transition coach Sampada Chaudhari. “We are expected to hustle and grind. We push through long working hours even when our body is screaming and asking us to stop. We caffeinate ourselves, through fatigue and exhaustion, to meet deadlines. Because we believe that working longer hours will lead us to success. After all, that’s what we see ‘successful’ people do.”
The effect of this mindset trickles down to other areas of our lives too, especially as the grip of social media grows tighter on our mental health. It’s not enough to be decent at our jobs any more. As self-help gurus tell us, we have to be our best selves at all times, pandemic or not.
Deepa Medhi paid a price for falling into this trap during the worst phase of the pandemic. The 35-year-old, who works in public relations in Bengaluru, was by herself through the lockdown, far from her family in Guwahati. “I thought burying myself in work will be good to keep away the constant worries about my family,” she says. “But around October-November, I found my performance dipping. I wasn’t able to give 100% to the work. Instead of job satisfaction, it had become a race to tick off all the chores assigned to me.”
Social media made her listlessness worse. “Everyone seemed to be busy taking up this challenge or that challenge on these platforms,” Medhi adds, “and there I was, unable to even finish the work I am supposed to do!”
It’s true that burnout isn’t brought on by our uncompromising work culture alone. The conditions for it are laid early on. “Grade XII students face it, as they worry about getting into engineering courses,” says leadership coach and writer Latha Vijaybaskar. “An average homemaker these days does not feel up to the mark unless she has mastered Chinese, Mexican, Italian, all sorts of cuisines and launched a YouTube channel to show off her talents.”
A 2018 study by Montreal University, Canada, found women more prone to burnout than men, though there is research to indicate that men are likely to suffer from similar mental health crises, especially burnout, in silence. In July, Rob Whitley, an assistant professor at the department of psychiatry at McGill University in Canada, found that men account for 70% of suicides across the globe but only 30% of them tend to seek mental health services. In addition, a majority of boys (and many girls too) are conditioned to perform and excel from a young age, leading to an early onset of fatigue.
Take, for example, the case of Shalini Singh, a 27-year-old successful “bookstagram” influencer who grew up in a family of high-achievers. “I was brought up among IAS officers and CXOs, burdened by the expectations of my parents,” she says. Although eventually she became a lawyer, Singh says she has experienced burnout several times through various stages of her life, mostly because of her habit of “living in the extremes” since her student days. Creating content on social media, keeping up with the follower counts and all the other stats, can also exact a toll.
Vijaybaskar mentions “accelerated expectations” as a major cause for burnout. “In the days of yore, there used to be a 9-5 routine job, after which people would head home and watch TV or listen to the radio,” she says. “Today, our means of gratification (be it the internet or social media) have raised absurd expectations. All the activities we once did in order to relax and unwind have become pressure points for us to perform—a rat race to get likes, comments and shares.”
Working from home (often from the bedroom for lack of space and amenities), deprived of the commute to our offices and back when we could switch on or off from our work mode, or the water-cooler conversations that eased the tedium of sitting at a desk for hours, we are becoming ever more alert to the true nature of the work we have signed up for. And such self-awareness can be a double-edged sword, at once freeing and terrifying.
Adulting, the hard way
Thirty-one-year-old Nimisha, who goes by one name, was a mid-level executive with a multinational company, based in Mumbai last year. Originally from Pune, Maharashtra, she rented an apartment with a few friends and soaked up the excitement of living in a metro. “I never liked my job much but did not give it a lot of thought either,” she says. As a market researcher, Nimisha was used to handling high-pressure assignments, but with the pandemic and the lockdown, there was a sudden dip in the workload. As an introvert, she didn’t mind being home, even as one of her flatmates left to stay with her boyfriend. But by June, as the country began opening up, the stress was back full steam.
“When people don’t see you in the office, they lose their sense of control over you,” Nimisha says. “They can’t walk up to your desk and shout at you when they please.” Increasingly, the pent-up stress in her managers and her began to clash and collide. “If you were working a 9-5 shift, you could tune out and unwind at some point,” Nimisha says. “But that wasn’t the case any more. It wasn’t possible to go out for drinks with friends or on a date once in a while.” Soon she was spending her days staring at Excel sheets but not able to make sense of the numbers. She started stammering and fumbling during calls. At an internal review meeting, her mind drew a complete blank. She couldn’t speak a word. “I disconnected the call and burst into tears,” she says. “This had never happened to me before.” She had already applied for leave in July, but after the breakdown during the review call, Nimisha requested her manager to let her go on the break earlier. The conversation didn’t go well. “That day I realised I had to quit, though I took another five months to resign from the job,” she says. “I could clearly see the mismatch between the woke vocabulary of being an empathetic employer and their actions in real life.”
A recent survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value, in which four out of 10 Indian CEOs said they were willing to give priority to employee well-being over near-term profit, puts Nimisha’s experience in perspective. By leaving her corporate job to work on freelance projects that allow her rest periods, Nimisha not only took a bold step but also one that is risky. The pandemic has expectedly hit the earnings of India’s gig workers (according to a survey by fintech company Flourish Ventures in September) but our gig economy is still among the largest in the world, according to the 2020-21 Economic Survey.
“In my experience and knowledge, younger millennials and Gen Z are highly sensitive and empathic. So they are more affected by an oppressive work culture,” says Chaudhari. “They are less accepting of a narrative of success that’s rooted in scarcity. They are less likely to adapt to a hustle and grind way of work that makes little space for their individuality, creativity and replenishment.”
In 2019, Deloitte’s Global Millennial Survey, which included a sizeable number of Gen Z workers (born between January 1995 and December 2002), found that 49% of the respondents, across 42 countries, wanted to leave a job within two years. Although lack of career advancement and fair compensation were cited as some of the primary reasons for their decision, the low attrition rate was also indicative of an overall unhappiness among younger workers with existing work cultures. In the 2020 survey, conducted during the pandemic, three out of four millennials and Gen Z workers in India said stress was a legitimate reason to take time off from work—this number was higher than the global average.
In the 2021 Work Trend Index, published by Microsoft earlier this month, 60% of Gen Z workers from around the world said they are “merely surviving or struggling” with their work. The correlation between burnout and exploitative labour isn’t talked about nearly enough.
“I often hear my Gen X colleagues (people born between 1965 and mid-1980s) say that millennials are chilled out, laid-back and less ambitious. And that’s great, as it’s the perfect antidote to the hustle and grind culture which is taking the working population closer to burnout. Millennials seek commerce and conscience together. They have a leaning towards organisations that are purpose-driven and care for people,” Chaudhari says. “These are the exact qualities required to dismantle a capitalist, patriarchal and colonial work culture that’s inching towards burnout. I am optimistic that when younger millennials move into leadership positions, they will catalyse the shift to create a healthy work culture on a larger scale.”
Of course, even when the causes of burnout are evident, workers may still feel helpless about acting on them. “There are people who need their incomes desperately and can’t move jobs, especially during a pandemic,” says Tejasvi Paramkusam, who works in retail. “Taking a few days off isn’t going to solve the problem of burnout either, because once you go back to work, you are thrust back into the same rut.”
As the retail segment plummeted during the pandemic, the 32-year-old from Hyderabad experienced terrible anxiety. “My upper body was wracked with pains because I was clenching my shoulders so tight,” she says. “I had sudden bouts of headache, my brain would race all night, preventing me from sleeping.” It was only after she went to a therapist that she found a way of coping with her burnout. Instead of worrying about the future, she began to look at her problems as part of her immediate present. “My therapist asked me to adopt a ‘fix it now’ approach, which proved helpful,” Paramkusam says.
In the prevailing corporate order, including startups, the idea of admitting to burnout is ironically tied with shame and guilt about not doing enough. “Our job, as therapists, begins with asking the client about the cost of speaking up—talking to someone in their organisation—about the difficulties they are facing,” says Kannan. Dealing with individual burnout is likely to feel less overwhelming if the employee has the support of an emotionally intelligent working environment, one where leaders are not hesitant about speaking openly about their own setbacks and vulnerabilities. “Personally, I learnt a lot from my mentors as they talked about their mistakes and failures,” Kannan says. Now that she steers a team of her own, Kannan tries to lead by example.
Indeed, the problem of burnout often starts with the hiring process itself. “Organisations need to ask if their employees are really working in roles that suit them best,” Vijaybaskar says. “Burnout is easier understood if you don’t like your job and treat it like a transactional activity. But if you love your job and are still suffering from chronic exhaustion, you have to figure out the obstacles making you feel this way.”
Apart from intuitively paying attention to the needs of employees, specific structures and processes can improve an organisation’s work culture vastly and reduce burnout. “Organisations need to put in place channels for aiding the mental health of their employees—employee assistance programmes, or EAPs, mindfulness sessions, mental health days, and so on. Managers need to be trained in ways to recognise if a team member is facing burnout and intervene at the right time,” says Hema Ravichandar, a strategic human resource adviser with decades-long experience of working with large companies. “Finally, the culture at work plays an important role in the way employees are provided regular feedback and recognition, the extent to which they feel empowered, and the way leaders create an environment of support and appreciation.”
From implementing shorter work weeks to limiting email usage to fixed office hours to mental-health leave, organisations around the world are trying out different ways to beat burnout—or at least stem its seemingly unstoppable progress. But no amount of technological intervention and strategic planning can replace the comfort that a sympathetic hearing, or the gentle assurance of a patient voice, can bring. “If an employee comes to me complaining of burnout, I would ensure I give them my full attention,” Ravichandar says. “After understanding their situation and the possible causes leading to it, I would step in to provide immediate, medium-term and long-term interventions.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for burnout—other than to start by showing up and doing our best to listen carefully, one human being to another. Adulting isn’t a challenge only for millennials and Gen Zs; their leaders and managers have to learn to grapple with it too.