Workplace Stress to Sustainable Innovation13 min read

Jeffrey Paul Coleman / August 28th 2020

Feeling tired? It’s not just you.

Burnout often feels like a personal story, both for the person experiencing it and for the others who aren’t; however, it’s not! It is not a story happening only to you.

In a Deloitte survey from 2015 over 75% of US professionals reported experiencing burnout at some point in their current jobs. That is a very high percentage. The events of 2020 have undeniably increased the amount of workplace stress for Americans. This is a system-wide problem.

Burnout can feel rather ambiguous. This is partly because someone experiencing it will not likely self-diagnose themselves in real time as they are experiencing it. As with most ailments, from a brain aneurysm to cancer to COVID-19 or a sprained ankle, we usually consult medical professionals before we recognize exactly what is going wrong. Fortunately, while it’s perhaps not so widely known in the US, last year the World Health Organization recognized burnout as “a medical condition resulting from extended workplace stress that is not adequately managed.” An official definition exists.

That said, Burnout colloquially in regular conversation before it’s officially diagnosed can go by many different names. It is important to recognize that fact before we dismiss the reality of burnout (expressed perhaps with other words) as “not that big a deal”.

It’s called “burnout” by ambitious over-achiever professionals (generally) and by people who intend to return to professional life soon but who are currently beaten down by the relentless (and often unnecessarily unrealistic) expectations of poor management.

Burnout can also be called total exhaustion, depression, having a mental breakdown, feeling stomach pain or experiencing severe headaches, falling apart, no longer being able to cope, going under, ‘feeling sad’ or ‘feeling tired.’ The vagueness of these statements should not be miscontrued to mean that there isn’t something serious going on — even if it is the case that some could deliberately exaggerate their hardship with the above descriptions to gain a much-needed rest (for reasons that are harder to articulate). It comes down to power, recognition and trust.

Someone in the midst of a burnout is going to struggle at first to find words to describe how they feel. Whatever words they use — or even if they don’t use words at all, we can help others by recognizing burnout early. As it is not a personal matter, it should not depend on the individual experiencing the burnout to describe it a certain way for them to be helped or treated.

Now that it’s been said burnout is a matter we’re all impacted by and can each play a role to resolve (wide support is crucial), it feels safe to share my own story. I am not looking for your pity. I will naturally welcome your empathy, and empathy is an important part of the grander action required by us all to resolve this systems issue. But I am sharing my personal story more so to demonstrate a way that burnout manifests.

I am choosing to tell my personal story rather than citing statistics or talking about someone else’s situation because (1) I don’t want to be generic and I don’t want to make this “other people’s problem”; (2) to talk about things with statistics is often an effort to persuade the mind and I want to persuade your heart. I’m not really interested at all in debating the matter. This is urgent, and it requires our concrete action. Because I believe (3) the problem of burn-out affects us all, including me.

Here is my story:

I first heard “burn-out” being spoken of in a way that I felt connected to (because it felt as though it put words to a feeling I was having and because it spoke of it as though it were impacting particularly my entire generation) when I spoke with Raz, a Senior Researcher previously at Spotify and now at Slack, about some things that I was feeling. She’d reached out to get my thoughts on starting her own research practice, to allow her to work on projects that interest her at her own pace, leaving room for her art practice and other pursuits. She thought that I might be able to help. I told her that as a tech recruiter in NYC I knew many who were looking for a break, who were looking for the permission to slow down and recharge. She said, sometimes the things we tell to others is more for ourselves than for the person we’re talking to. And she mentioned an article she’d read in Buzzfeed about millennials being the “burnout generation.” This was in February 2019.

That December prior (two months before), I’d spent half my holiday vacation in Austin TX feeling sad — as I told my wife at the time — about a wide range of things. It felt like, I said, that sadness is cumulative. That one sadness layers onto another, even while triggering other sadnesses to pile on top of those until I’m overwhelmed! It’s like that scene when Alice in Wonderland almost drowns in a pool of her own tears.

I won’t go into all of the details, but I can say that included in the mix were sadnesses related to failed romances, sadnesses related to my withered sense of self-worth, sadnesses related to the loss of family members, sadnesses related to the loss of communities I’d been a part of but no longer belonged to, sadnesses related to the feeling that I’d missed out on opportunities, sadnesses related to the fear of missing out on more in the future.

I’d love to tell you that by summer of 2019 — six months after putting words to the burnout I’d felt in Dec 2018 but struggled to describe — I had fully recovered. But the honest truth is that it’s summer 2020 (a year and a half after realizing the difficulty and beginning to address it) and I have still not fully recovered. Writing this to you dear reader is in fact part of my recovery. Not that a doctor or therapist prescribed that I write an essay as part of the recovery process, though that would have been cool. Rather, what I mean is, my process has been organic and long and somewhat circuitous. It’s not been self-directed but I’ve not had professional help either. I’ve not been alone in the journey but it has felt as though I needed to avoid mainstream advice (hustle harder! keep going! work on yourself more. you gotta be strong. don’t quit now.), the sort of advice that’s been commonly articulated in the United States of America before 2020. That advice was sometimes for me (and my struggles to figure this out) less-than-helpful.

Over the past 18 months, I have spoken with hundreds of others — friends and family as well as professionals I was “networking with” — about different elements in my healing process. I have made Slowing Down my mantra of 2019 and Healing my New Year’s Resolution for 2020. I have benefitted last spring from monthly group therapy on anti-racism with a small group of white parents in NYC and from participation with a small group of men in our 20s and 30s meeting to move through a self-facilitated curriculum related to gender justice and wealth redistribution. I have also been nourished by new and revived friendships with people from all walks of life, all different ages, genders, ethnicities, personalities, etc. And I have been educated by books, articles, podcasts, and short youtube videos about themes as disparate and related as loneliness, the climate crisis, global inequalities, sustainable business models, the changing nature of career paths, the problems with institutional education in America, the oversights of VC (Venture Capital) funding, and the courage of vulnerability.

Along with all of you reading I’ve been challenged and inspired by the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic and related crises made more obvious by the stressful situation. It’s time!

Time to properly address the burnout situation, shifting the status quo at an individual and systems level in order for us all to collectively heal. “Restarting” the US and global economies will not succeed if employee burnout is ignored as a primary consideration.

Now for the good news:

Treating burnout as a system-wide problem rather than as a personal issue will lead to a system-wide recovery. AND while we need all hands on deck for this sort of recovery to take place, the necessity for everyone to take action doesn’t mean that individuals need drop everything else they were doing and instead focus on this one topic. Far from it!

Fortunately, some of the systems-wide changes already at work in society right now will also begin to resolve the system-wide burnout problem, especially if we strengthen those particular efforts with appropriate support. Including a solution to burnout into any system-wide solution will also help shed light on matters that might otherwise have been missing if burnout was not already something being considered. It’s one of those joyous intersectional moments: a moment when we realize we are working together, and we need to work together, because the problem is bigger than any one issue but it’s also not something that only some people are facing. It’s something we are all up against. We have common cause!

To read some ideas I’ve had on how we can work toward a solution together, see a longer version of this piece here: https://medium.com/@jeffreypcoleman/something-has-to-change-a7ab72df20a5

We might be afraid about the obstacles we face, and we might not know on our own how to recover from burnout. I did feel afraid, and I didn’t know how to find my way out. When I realized that burnout was not a problem unique to me but was a shared experience, and also something that I could heal from if in community with all those around me… BOOM! CRACK! LIGHT! like the discovery of electricity or the invention of firecrackers, it’s been a fairly dramatic moment for me. I feel so lucky to be alive at this moment.

It’s also been pretty natural because… as anyone knows who has realized that for all the complexity that’s involved in channeling electricity into millions of homes through a system of grids connected to power plants that harness the earth’s energy and then, when we flip a switch — voila! we have light… In a similar way, I’m saying that the solutions we’re looking for are going to feel simple in retrospect. First though, we need to acknowledge we all play a part. Burnout is a system-wide problem.

About the Author, Jeffrey Paul Coleman:

Born in the Philly suburbs, a 10-year NYC dweller now in Paris with his wife and daughter, Jeffrey has worked in education, the arts, food, and tech. Currently he is exploring ways to leverage all he’s learned so far to empower others across differences of culture, gender, wealth/class, or ethnicity. One day he hopes to write a book on par with Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem or Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing; until that time, he recommends you go read one of their books because they’re amazing.