One (Not So Easy) Trick
I burned out at my job (in academia) pretty spectacularly in the spring. This is the first time I've called it burnout - it was easier to say that I was ill (because I was and because that meant less immediate deep thinking about what had brought me to that place). I just couldn't anymore. I lost function. I fell apart. I physically felt like I had actually run into a wall.
I had a sabbatical scheduled for this fall - I'm on that sabbatical now. (I can't go further without plainly stating just how deeply fucked up it is that *everyone* doesn't get sabbaticals, no matter their line of work, because a period of time where you get to pause and engage in some deep thinking outside the regular schedule of your career is transformative. It's particularly fucked up in academia that so many people doing the lion's share of teaching never get a sabbatical because they haven't been given the protection of tenure. To get a sabbatical is a wholesale privilege, and it shouldn't be. It shouldn't be a prize. It should be the way we do what we do, no matter what we do.)
I did not approach this sabbatical as an opportunity to be wildly productive. I looked at it as an opportunity to rest. I deep-cleaned my house in June. A friend offered her house on the west coast for me to get away in July, and I went there and I read and I wrote but I also spent hours looking at the ocean, and knitting, and painting watercolors until I kinda sorta got the hang of it. I traveled a bunch to give workshops this fall, but I had long periods of downtime between.
And I knitted. I am not a good knitter. I've been doing it a while but still regularly manage to knit holes into whatever I'm working on, and reverse the pattern, and bork my stitches. I knit scarves, mostly - sometimes for me, but mostly to give away when it gets cold to the local domestic violence shelter, or the clothesline in the library where people can pick up warm clothes for free. I buy nice yarn for the pleasure of working with it, and if I don't knit in a given day, I know something's up. My days are punctuated by sitting and knitting between chores or errands or reading or writing, and it has become a priority to me to do it, to sit down and enter into the particular, methodical silence of knitting over and over again. And somewhere along the way I realized . . . I want to orient my life around the opportunity to knit. It sounded wild to me to say it the first time I had the thought (still does somewhat), but I want space in my life that is for me, and for others, and that's quiet and creative. It's both about the kntting and not about the knitting - it's about prioritizing rhythms to a day that are not at someone else's behest.
In January I'll go back to the classroom with a new order to my day. "Did I knit?" will be a question that's not about making progress on a project so much as holding space for breath and glee.
Honestly, death and grief did it. I was one of those people who changed when millions of us died from Covid. Then around my 45 birthday a childhood friend of mine back who I had not stayed in touch with went into the ER w Covid and died there alone (she lived in France; my people Cabo Verdeans immigrate a lot). It is a cliché but the voice inside did ask me, “If this was it, would it be okay with you, your life?” In the pandemic I also felt guilt bc so many people (especially people who looked like me: Black women, immigrant women) had no choice but to burn out: go to work, risk everything, they were not allowed to be home or safe. I had a choice and was behaving like I didn’t, I was burning out of my own accord. So the work burnout (Black academic in comfortably polite racist dept) became unacceptable to me. I quit. Since then, I’ve lost someone again, this time someone who was like a brother, to suicide that was not directly burnout related but had a lot to do with an unhealthy relationship between worth and work. So, again, the lesson for me is very clear: burnout and over identification with work that makes us feel awful is a kinda slow and polite dance with death. And I’ll be damned if I ever do that again unless I have absolutely no choice.
I relate so deeply to this. I burned myself out over the first 35 years of my life -- rough childhood with economic insecurity, super intense all-consuming jobs, kids, divorce, etc.
Something I wish I'd known earlier and which I want to tell the world is that you WILL eventually pay for pushing yourself too hard. In the moment feels like you're facing this conscious choice of whether to keep pushing or to slow down, but your body will start physically breaking if you don't give it a break.
I dealt with infertility all through my 30s (for sure related to stress), and now that I'm 40 I'm realizing I have several chronic health conditions that are all tied to adrenal dysfunction (aka burnout) which had been progressing over the past 10+ years. So even if I wanted to work really hard now I'm not physically able. I'm lucky that I'm able to slow way down and still pay my bills. I try to celebrate my new "slacker" mentality -- hooray for missing deadlines! The old me would NEVER allow that.
If I'd known at 30 what I know at 40, I wonder if I would've pushed through anyway. I don't really know. I was so consumed by the drive to achieve (and never re-experience the hardships of my childhood), I'm not sure anything would've stopped me. But would've been nice to know.
I read the Buzzfeed piece you linked to and kept nodding my head because it was all so familiar. Except, I'm not a Millennial. I'm an elder Gen-Xer, one who is very aware of the external advantages I've had over those born in the generation after me. (More affordable higher ed meant I graduated without debt and at a time when real estate in the PNW was within reach for many people, which allowed me to buy a house as a first-year K-12 teacher. A house, btw, I could no longer afford to buy with the salary I was making at my top level of earning.) So, obviously, yeah: There's definitely a personal component to burnout.
I'm wondering about some variables, though. I worked in a field where my easing off or missing deadlines wasn't about a company's profits or about my own promotion/continued employment; it was about the well-being of children. As societal supports changed/diminished and expectations of those doing the work I was doing increased (in large part to mitigate the degradation of those supports) my work became harder and harder. My own economic prospects dimmed, too, and nothing about the way I did my work had any impact on them. So, the way I worked (all the time, except for breaks that didn't so much restore me as let me know how damaging all the other weeks of the year were) wasn't about economic survival or even (not really) my own desire to perform well. It was about feeling that I needed to give my students resources they needed to survive in an increasingly difficult-to-survive world while not being given the resources I needed to do so without working many hours beyond those I was contracted to work.
I guess what I want to know is: How do you do less (to create space for the other kinds of things that counter burnout) when your job isn't about profit but is about providing care to vulnerable members of our society? And it exacts a pretty heavy mental health toll because you're constantly encountering pretty painful stuff? I'm wondering how burnout is the same/different for those in helping professions or non-profit organizations vs. those in other kinds of settings. I've seen all manner of educators adopt all kinds of stances. I tried a lot of them on myself. I did all the personal things: therapy, guardrails, mindset shifts, etc. I tried "working smarter and not harder," I abandoned practices with no evidence of effectiveness (even when doing so flew in the face of workplace culture, which meant it was not without costs), I changed positions within my field. Some things got a little better, but the only thing that worked to cure my burnout was (finally) retiring. That's not a viable solution to the problem for those still needing to bring in a paycheck.
For me, work burnout has never not been autistic burnout.
Running a freelancery where I frequently accidentally worked 60 hour weeks for years on end never burned me out. Not in 15 years.
However, I've never managed a long term job without imploding into burnout. Looking back, I realized most of the flames feeding my burnout were accessibility issues. An open office layout where I was constantly observed. Meetings where I kept blurting out "the quiet part" (memorably, once gasping "so we're LYING to our client!?" in naive dismay). Meetings that I was asked to stop drawing through, at which point I ceased to be able to follow or remember the meeting. Constant interruptions disturbing flow state. Getting in trouble for using the bathroom too much (many autistic people have gastro issues and touchy bladders). Going into shutdown on business trips (with shared hotel rooms) where I was required to be "on" 24 hours a day. Getting in trouble for doing the work so efficiently I didn't "prove myself" by staying late. Getting in trouble for doing the work instead of chatting up the team. Just always in trouble despite delivering award-winning work, and never really understanding why. Just being around people and their confusing expectations all day tanked me like none other.
The thing that kills me is, I'm doing the same role as a freelancer...but people love me. They're so happy with the work, when it's just about the work. When I don't need to try to be neurotypical. All the hyperfocus and loyalty and tenacity that comes with autism are suddenly strengths in the right context.
I wish more employers could learn to harness them.
I think of outside interests as “avocations.” The official definition is “subordinate to vocation” meaning what you do for a living. Hobbies are fun; avocations have a little more heft to them. For instance, my father was deeply involved in launching and then running our church when I was small. Definitely not a hobby.
The point on raising kids as a counterbalance to burnout is interesting to me. In my (albeit limited) experience, some
People just transfer the burnout mindset to raising their kids. I say that with as little judgment as possible, because I find myself there too when I’m deep in burnout mode.
I felt a huge surge of frustration reading this because I WANT SO BADLY to be living the life you describe, but it just keeps feeling out of reach. Between ever more complex caregiving duties, and a financial position that continues to feel precarious, I keep looking for, and not finding, the space to ease up a little and stop hustling. Instead, I'm still where I have been for the past several years: working a full-time job, selling clothes online to make some extra money, AND trying to carve out space to write (although I have completely stopped pitching stories or working on my book proposal, even though I could badly use the money that would bring in). Every other conversation in my house is about how we could save a little more money, or cut our spending, or do something more cheaply or efficiently. Burnout feels so much harder to escape when expenses exceed income!
Loved this. Just came here to say that AHP’s productivity astounds me. Every piece is so deeply considered. Sometimes I even get mildly stressed when CS newsletters pile up in my inbox unread. I feel like, “eek I can’t keep up but I don’t want to miss out!” All this to say that even if newsletter content/pace decreased by HALF, it would STILL be one of the most engaging and valuable things I pay for. So if you decide to run a dahlia farm and publish here half as often, I would enthusiastically support it and still give you my $.
I was diagnosed with ADHD this year at age 33, and so many things about work history made sense in hindsight. I was expending so much mental effort to “stay on top of things,” and then let that go when I worked with a great therapist and read Dr. Kristin Neff’s book SELF-COMPASSION.
Still working on cultivating meaningful hobbies, because even now that I’m taking medication, feeding myself and maintaining a somewhat tidy house feels like it takes up a lot of my spare time after work.
I’m addicted to work and the internet, and these addictions exacerbate one another. After work, I feel like I have no energy to do anything. With the internet, you don’t have to do anything, you can just be on it.
For me, it’s been a black hole, taking not just my time and attention but also my ability to direct and sustain my attention. The outcome is feeling like outside of work, all I have is the internet, and outside of the internet, all I have is work. (I also have a partner and friends, but I expend so much time and energy on work and the internet that I’m losing my humanity. I feel more like an instrument.)
I have the feeling that most people are addicted to the internet, and it gets in the way of developing a rich life outside of work—and a rich life inside yourself (inferiority)—but I also feel that people don’t talk about it as much as I would expect, making me feel alone.
I just submitted my notice of resignation (I work in higher ed), my last day being December 31st. I’m gonna start the New Year anew. More than anything, I want to rest, recover, reflect, and discover who I am and what I want (and want to want). I wanna give myself a chance.
This essay really resonated with me and I could say so much! I'm currently in my Year of Unfucking My Burnout, as I've been calling it. Teaching online for a year and a half of the pandemic, and then the ricochet of going back in person, redoing a whole curriculum AGAIN, the pressure of combating learning loss, plus a handful of intense family traumas/griefs, wrecked me. I had all the classic signs of burnout last spring and over the summer, especially finding zero joy in any actual accomplishments.
My process of healing burnout has been, as I've been telling people, frustratingly simple. Teach less (one class instead of 3). Write more (I'm working on my first novel and journalling all the time). Exercise and be outside (I'm taking horseback riding lessons again after twenty years away! and using extra time in my schedule to bike commute more). Totally a huge privilege to be able to do all of the above. But I definitely noticed how those external changes only make containers within which I have to make personal changes. The challenges don't stop once those containers are made. For example, I didn't automatically sit down at my writing desk on Day 1 of the Burnout Healing Semester and work on my novel for hours; I first spent quite a few weeks (months?!) watching TV and dicking around on Instagram. Which, I know, rest takes all sorts of forms, etc. But I did have to consciously think about this as a new phase of life, not just a rest period from which I'll bounce back more ready to work than ever -- which is how we often conceive of rest.
What's cool is that just now, about 2+ months into this experiment, I am seeing those changes. This last week I happily sat down to my writing desk, almost every day, 1-2 hours. (There's also something here about not applying the standards of burnout work to our other arts/vocations -- like, I could smash about curriculum development for hours and teach 3 classes in one day from 8am-8pm, but no, I probably can't write my novel that way. And why should I want to?)
I've also had to reckon with how much I'm a yes-man when it comes to opportunities that float my way, and I've had to act like someone I hate to be: someone who renegs on promises! I recently had to do that in a big way. A colleague offered me the opportunity to teach a class that he usually teaches. I accepted it automatically, as the old me would have done, and it was only once the dean approved me for it that I realized what I had done to myself. I checked in with my accountability buddies, and then had to tell the dean, and my colleague who thought he was doing me a big kind favor, "Actually, no thank you." That felt absolutely terrible to do (my colleague, having his own feelings about it, used the phrase "left in the lurch") but also what I needed to do to maintain my own boundaries around burnout. That's a real deep unlearning process that I think I'll always need to be on the lookout for.
I am not in a burnout space right now (though my wife is and I’ve forwarded this essay to her), but I am facing the question of filling time when child free, in particular, now that I am sober. Sobriety opens up so much time! Garden Study, Ross Gay, and Robin Wall Kimmerer have pushed me over the edge and I’m officially a wannabe gardener who is going to spend the winter reading books about vegetables and flowers. We are staking the ground for a raised bed design today.
Before 2019 I was your classic over achiever with an impetus to prove my worth through what I could produce, in the climate movement specifically. Then I was hit by a truck on my bike and almost killed. There aren't many silver linings to having your life thrown off course and being permanently disabled by a negligent driver, but one of them might be, that the sense I must produce to earn my place on this earth and to pay penance for having privilege.... is gone. Sheathed like a cloak.
"I didn’t have anything better to do with the hours I’d regain" resonates and is a similarly embarrassing truth for me. I worried a lot about my screen time and my work time -- sometimes feeling like I preferred working because it was better than Twitter. Ultimately, the only thing that worked was introducing new activities that were good enough to compete with Twitter. Then, it felt surprisingly natural to use my phone less and work less. But it took a real investment in developing hobbies (and their required skills), making lists of books to read, finding different games for different moods, etc. It's really paid off.
Yes, yes! I appreciate you adding this to the discussion about burnout, as well as hearing other people's stories here in the comments. My story is similar: raised by two parents who both clawed their way up class echelon (i.e. overworking) and, absent a faith practice, were devoted to community service through the public school (i.e. my mom's job, my parents' off-hours fundraising, school board positions, etc.) The result: I have spent the last 18 years overworking in my public teaching job in an inner-city high school! The conditions of the work absolutely have fostered burnout--even before the pandemic, the paradigm for the job was "*good* teachers will go the extra mile if they *really* care..." And I did care! I love my job, too! And though I did not love working 12 hours a day, I simply didn't know how to do my job any other way.
Like others... the pandemic was a big wake-up call! I lost a parent 6 weeks before the pandemic hit, so it was a real one-two punch of existential questioning. But after we returned to a degree of normalcy, my job felt more stressful than it ever had before. I had already started dreaming of an exit plan, but when I developed an stress-induced autoimmune disorder and my hair all started falling out (fun!) in February, I got serious about it. We hired a financial planner, maxed out our retirement contributions, and put a 4-year exit plan into place. Even now, my sense of obligation towards work is completely different. I just....don't care like I used to. I still put in hours outside of the school day--I truly don't think it's possible to not in this profession--but it's on my terms, and it's limited.
When I was in my 20s, I used to jokingly tell friends I wanted to retire from teaching at 45 to work in a yarn store and be a screenwriter (despite the fact that I had no experience doing that?). Guess the joke's on me, because that now seems to be the plan. Not to be trite, but what DO I want to do with my one wild and precious life?