Burnout & Us
Updated: May 25, 2021
It's alarming to write something really simple like, people deserve to have environments that don't destroy them and have it resonate with a lot of people.
Lots and lots has been written about burnout lately, ranging from doubt about whether it is a 'real' phenomenon to Anne Helen Peterson's wildly viral piece on it as a generational experience.
As a psychologist (at least, a research psychologist, which I emphatically remind people is not the same as a clinical psychologist but does give you a tendency to put numbers and mechanisms behind any number of very personal conversations about widely-shared human experiences, to the annoyance of your friends and loved ones), I tend to think that if a concept resonates with a lot of people that makes it meaningful. It's certainly not new to talk about being tired, overwhelmed, or stressed-out. But the nature of the conversation about why we continue to be tired, overwhelmed, and stressed out--without apparent time for recovery--is a sharp and poignant one at the end of a year (/years) filled with cascading systemic failures. And as any good social scientist knows, when the individual and the environmental crash, the individual rarely sustains.
Something I was thinking about with this silly tweet is: environments hold so much power, the cause for so much of this, yet we situate solutions on the individual. We diagnose experience at the individual level, but individuals are often sampling the environment. As a researcher, I often work at the intersection of individual and environment. We often find it easier to talk about individuals, and to measure their data. But I often wonder if everything we think is easier, is. The thing we can probably intervene on the best is the environment. So if so many people are experiencing these consequences, we need to ask what put them there. We need to ask what is benefitting from our exhaustion.
Seeing this missing piece, the missing accountability from our environments, is deeply frustrating. I hear that frustration from students who are asked to show up to a school that doesn't care how much they have lost this year. I hear it from friends who feel that the performance expectations in their workplace have promised an understanding that never came. This is what I meant about time off not fixing it: burnout is not solved at the level of the individual. Or maybe the solution will come in a form that an organization won't like: maybe time off from a bad environment can give people an example of another way to live. But vacations are not the same thing as cadences of work that make sense, or policies that let people be parents as well as workers.
Sometimes people say the solution to burnout is becoming more resilient. Well, I dunno, it feels like your brain and body asking for an escape hatch from a terrible environment is pretty darn resilient. We do have a tendency to pathologize an adaptive response to maladaptive circumstances.
When I mentored students in difficult circumstances--in crisis, much of the time--I thought a lot about how at its core, the concept of resilience is about that adaptive moving forward despite adversity. It's not about being stuck, and changing yourself into a person who isn't affected by adversity. It's definitely not about becoming a person who choses terrible adversity. But sometimes that's how people talk about resilience, and sometimes that's their advice about burnout. That the fault and the problem lies with individuals, and that individual people are simply too weak to overcome a bad environment. That can provoke hopelessness. Am I really supposed to just be resilient in the face of unfair things, of terrible environments?
If there's one thing I repeat over and over again in a hundred conversations these days, in my mentoring, in talks to undergrad classrooms, in coffee chats with friends: it's that you responding to an environment is just part of how it works, not something to blame yourself for, and that response is a valuable thing. It's meaningful. Including feelings like burnout. Real resilience is a strategy, not a shield that turns you into something else. It's a set of behaviors that help you to move away from the things that are damaging you.
I'd like to write more about resilience, thinking of all this. This isn't the kind of thing that has easy answers. But at least we're not alone in it. That is where change seems possible; after all, environments may provoke our responses, but it's always individuals who create environments.