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We Are All Burnt Out

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more, with host Avery Trufelman.

This week, host Avery Trufelman discusses her — and, it seems, everyone’s — experiences with burnout during the pandemic. Why are we all so tired? Are we too invested in our jobs? Is it even possible to not care about your job right now? In a year where everyone is feeling fried and everything has been more difficult, is burnout inescapable? Psychotherapist and fellow podcaster Esther Perel, Kikuko Tsumura (the author of There Is No Such Thing As an Easy Job) and Tara Jefferson (founder of the Self Care Suite), provide insight.

To hear more about the symptoms of burnout and how you can practice the right self care to avoid it, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.

JAZMÍN: Labor Day is coming up and it couldn’t come sooner, because — like many of you — we’re in need of some good rest. So we here at The Cut are going to spotlight an episode from a few months back about burnout and why exactly we work ourselves to the bone. So take a break, enjoy the episode, and work smart, not hard. Here’s Avery Trufelman.

AVERY: Test came back negative, but why am I so tired? Ugghhhh!

That was the sound of me, last fall, canceling yet another hangout in the park. I just couldn’t do it. I could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t sit down for more than ten minutes without nodding off to sleep. Surely, I thought, this must be COVID. I must finally have it. This is what it must feel like. When the tests came back negative, I thought maybe it was anemia or narcolepsy or an allergy of some sort. But it turned out it was another ailment spreading around.

I was burnt out.

VOICE 1: I’m really burned out.

VOICE 2: I’m definitely burnt out.

VOICE 3: I am beyond burnt out.

VOICE 4: It’s absolutely coming from my job.

VOICE 5: Working in a really, really intense school setting is quite challenging for students.

VOICE 6: I am burnt out looking for a job. I’ve lost all desire to do anything.

VOICE 7: It just feels insurmountable.

VOICE 8: If you’ve ever lifted weights and you’ve done a bunch of repetitions, and all of a sudden your muscles lock and you cannot move, that’s kinda what I feel like mentally happens. This entire year has shown us that when you take everything else away, your life is just reduced to work. And when that’s all you’ve got it, it burns you out.

AVERY: Even though I understand burnout intellectually and hear a lot of people talking about it, I had a very hard time recognizing it in myself. Because I am the luckiest person in the world. I have a job. And it’s a job I love, and it’s a job where I sit in front of a computer all day. I had no reason to be burned out, I reasoned. I didn’t get it — how could I have every privilege in the world and still be that thoroughly fried?

ESTHER PEREL: Burnout is what we experience today as a result of the intense meaning that work has for us. That is true. If work was less essential, the concept of burnout would be different.

AVERY: That is, the one, the only …

ESTHER: I’m Esther Perel. I’m a psychotherapist and the host of the podcasts Where Should We Begin and How Is Work? 

AVERY: Esther is most well-known for talking about romantic relationships, but one relationship we don’t talk about like a relationship is the relationship we have with work.

ESTHER: There is a parallel revolution taking place between the importance of our romantic relationships and the importance of work. We have never brought this kind of unprecedented expectations to our romantic relationships. And the same is true for work.

AVERY: Esther says a lot of this has to do with secularization and the rise of the individual.

ESTHER: We look to work today for belonging, for identity growth, self-development, for purpose, for meaning, for community.

AVERY: Where do we get meaning in our lives today? Where do we look for self-worth? Support once might have come from a village full of neighbors. Higher purpose and community might have come from religion. But Esther finds a lot of her clients now look to a partner to be every kind of support they could possibly need. And they gain a higher sense of purpose and community from their jobs.

ESTHER: Love and work have become the hubs where we actually go to fulfill some of our most important existential needs. We want passion in both, we want to become the best versions of ourselves in both.

AVERY: In work, like in romance, we’ve come to desire what Esther calls “eros”

ESTHER: I use the word “eros” as an expression of aliveness, of vibrancy, of vitality. I don’t think of it just in the sexual sense of the word as modernity has kind of narrowed it.

AVERY: Eros, like erotic.

ESTHER: Yes. Some people experience an erotic connection to their work, not because it’s sexy, but because work gives them that sense of aliveness, that sense of energy, that sense of vitality. That whole side of our life that we call the side of eros lives side-by-side with the parts of our lives that demand stability, safety, security. This year in particular, we have had to hone in so much on our security needs that the hinge got snapped off from our erotic needs. We “flattened the curve” and we flattened ourselves in the course of it.

AVERY: So even if you’re lucky enough to have a job that gives you a sense of eros, it might have soured over the past year. Doctors to essential workers to podcasters are working longer hours in the pandemic. And day-to-day in my life, there’s nothing else going on but work. So on weeks where I think I did a good job, it’s a great week. On week’s where I feel like I was off, I get really depressed. This is usually kind of the case, but especially now, my mood is inextricably bound to my work, which is bound to my ability to eat and pay rent.

ESTHER: When work is the place where you outdo yourself, where you search for self-worth, it becomes unrelenting. If work structures your life to that extent, then the inability to meet the demands will translate into burnout.

AVERY: Which is why sometimes I have a fantasy like, what if I just … took my heart out of the equation and just … did a job I don’t feel so attached to? Something that just pays well or well-enough and I won’t care about it and I won’t pin all of my self-worth to it. But that is exactly what the protagonist decides to do in the Japanese novel There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura.

KIKUKO TSUMURA (TRANSLATED BY POLLY BARTON): Hi. My name is Kikuko Tsumura and I’m a Japanese writer. I am currently 43 years old.

AVERY: That is, of course, Kikuko Tsumura. And our conversation was fully interpreted by the very generous Polly Barton, the West London-based translator of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job.

KIKUKO: It seemed, to me, quite obvious that… the more that you feel for a particular job, the more you put yourself into it, the more you give to it, and then the more exhausted you get.

AVERY: In the novel, the main character suffers from extreme burnout. And we never learn her name, so we’ll call her “the narrator.”

THE NARRATOR: I’d left my last job because it sucked every scrap of energy I had until there was not a shred left, but at the same time, I sensed that hanging around doing nothing forever probably wasn’t the answer either.

AVERY: The narrator goes to a recruiter and asks for the most boring, the most easy job possible. Something she couldn’t get emotionally attached to.

THE NARRATOR: I didn’t really think she’d be able to oblige, but I figured I had nothing to lose by asking.

AVERY: So the narrator tries a series of very easy jobs. One job writing copy for advertisements on a local bus. A job researching fun facts that will be printed on packets of crackers. She does a stint hanging up posters. But the most boring job of all is a one where she’s watching surveillance footage. Just watching a man go about his life. As he cooks, watches TV, and types on his computer. She’s not allowed to fast forward through the footage. She can’t zone out. And so our narrator just ends up watching him do his boring work.

THE NARRATOR: Just when I would think he’d given up on the idea of ever moving again, he’d reach out for the keyboard without warning and hammer away furiously for 30 seconds before sinking back into repose, or open up his browser and sit scrolling with grim focus for the next hour.

AVERY: She sits all day watching a screen where some guy is also watching a screen. But, over the course of the many weeks the narrator spends observing her subject, she starts to get weirdly invested in him. She starts to wonder about the movies she’s watching him watch. And the products she’s watching him buy. And the recipes she’s watching him cook.

KIKUKO: She starts to be influenced by his eating habits and wants to eat the same things as him. And it’s a kind of trap in a way. And it’s that exactly sort of trap I wanted to write about.

AVERY: With each job — each increasingly low maintenance — the narrator starts to get intrigued by it, starts to feel good at it, and starts to feel kinship or connection to her colleagues or to the work itself. Each time she starts to get attached and has to move on to the next job.

KIKUKO: Whatever she’s doing, she ends up feeling like she’s really suited to it and therefore that she loves it. That’s her tragedy.

AVERY: And you know, thinking back, I think that might be my tragedy too. I’ve never not loved my jobs, or at least found parts to like. When I worked as a babysitter, I loved the kids. When I worked at an Italian restaurant or in a cafe, I loved my coworkers. We’d spend all day shooting the shit and teasing each other and covering each other’s shifts. As a retail worker, I tried to get interested in the products I was selling. After all, I was spending so many hours at work, I always wanted to try to make it as good as it could be. So are we doomed to invest in what depletes us? Or is there another way out of burnout?

By this point I’m pretty well-versed in all the tips around burnout because they all do help. But sometimes, if I don’t remember to take a walk, take a bath, take a nap, drink water, make a boundary, call a therapist, take a breath, buy a plant, or do a new face mask, it just feels like I’m failing at another thing. I’m burnt out on trying to manage my own burnout.

TARA JEFFERSON: I think people tend to personalize what is a societal issue: they chose the wrong job or they chose the wrong partner or they didn’t save enough money. A lot of times, we are working within this system that limits what choices we have.

AVERY: Tara Jefferson is founder of the Self Care Suite, a wellness community for women of color.

TARA: I think burnout is an accumulation of stress that has no place to go. There’s this need to figure out, what do I do with the stress that I’m carrying? Because it’s past exhaustion. It’s really deeply settled. And I think that’s a hallmark of burnout. It’s not just something that you can take a nap and just fix.

And if you want to think of it in another way, say you broke your leg. You would change certain things about your life to help you in that healing process. So you might take some pillows down to make yourself more comfortable on the couch. You might try to eliminate how many times you go up and down the stairs each day. You would make those types of adjustments if you had some type of physical issue. Burnout can be physical, but I think because it’s more of an emotional state of being, people don’t give it that same type of care and concern.

The first thing is recognizing that you have been burnt out and then thinking about what are the things that have contributed to it? Is it mainly work? Is it that you’re feeling like you don’t have enough time to breathe between assignments? Are you taking on the job responsibilities of someone else?

AVERY: Or is it the unpaid labor of caretaking? Caregiving? Cleaning? Tutoring? Protesting? Organizing? Surviving? You can’t just walk away from that work. So how do you manage it?

TARA: When I coach women, one of the things that I always recommend that they do, whenever they’re facing really stressful situations, whether it’s personal or professional, relational, is just to stop and ask themselves, What can I do that would make this easier for me? And, Who can I reach out to? Those two questions, I think we can ask ourselves that. And that opens the door to more community because we can’t necessarily solve these problems by ourselves. People say that that old saying it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village regardless. Everybody needs a village. We all need support and we all need help. Whenever I’m trying to handle something on my own, and I’m getting overwhelmed by it, I have to practice what I preach. I’ll stop and I’ll pause and then I’ll reach out to a couple of my trusted friends who understand what my life is like and what I’m going through. They know who I am. They can really give me good guidance. And I think the reason that works is that we have that reciprocity. I can reach out to them, they can reach out to me. And I think that’s the definition of community.

One of the biggest shackles of capitalism is that everything is individualistic. We feel like we are going through everything ourselves a lot of times becausewe don’t have those communities. This capitalist society has robbed us of that and we’re not able to see that as our first line of defense.

AVERY: That’s such a beautiful solution, but it ultimately makes me so sad. Do you have hope for actual reasonable change, or do you just think we’re going to be destined to always have to try to find workarounds outside of the system?

TARA: So for me, what I try to do is remind myself that this isn’t the end-all-be-all. Talking about all of this stress management and collective healing, all of this stuff isn’t the end-all-be-all. We definitely want to have a society that is rooted in justice and equality and equity. That’s not what we have currently. So what do I do? What do other Black women and other women of color and other people who are feeling crunched by society, what do we do in the meantime? What am I going to do today, here, in 2021? My role within my community is to remind women that your first responsibility is to yourself. Once you have been able to activate that within yourself, then I think, help whoever you can.

I think that’s part of the reason why I do the work that I do is because I firmly believe it’s always easier to tackle these problems when you tackle them together.

AVERY: This really resonates. Forming deep, lasting friendships both in and outside of work have really gotten me through my darkest days. But I must admit, sometimes I second guess it or worry about it, because it’s kind of fraught. It’s become this trope now that so many businesses are like “we’re a family” or “we’re a community.” Work is not your family. Work is work.

AVERY: You know, I’m always scared every time I turn to my colleagues and say “I love you guys.” I’m like, Oh, I shouldn’t do that. That’s bad. How do we protect ourselves from that blurring line?

ESTHER: If work is essential in people’s lives as it is, growing close to your coworkers isn’t a problem, it is essential. The people who show up at work and how they relate to each other — that, ultimately, will determine the kind of day you will have had.

AVERY: But isn’t the well already poisoned? I mean, there’s hierarchy, there’s power differentials, there’s money exchange. These aren’t, whatever the word “purity” means, these aren’t pure relationships. How much of a non-toxic work environment can one reasonably expect?

ESTHER: I do not believe that there are relationships that don’t have that. There are no relationships that do not have a power dynamic. Every relationship has a power dynamic. Power is intrinsic to attachment. Anybody who has a 2-year-old also understands that power doesn’t always come from the top down.

AVERY: And to that point, caring for your work or your workplace or your coworkers doesn’t always just lead to burnout. It might lead to sharing salary information and sharing negotiation strategies. It might lead to new ideas for an improved workplace for everyone. It might be the first step to your union. Or, some steps to just to put one foot in front of the other to get through.

KIKUKO: It’s not that she wants to find this kind of attachment to the job that she’s doing. It ends up somehow finding her.

AVERY: Kikuko Tsumura wrote There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job based on her own experiences with burnout. And she was as mystified by her burnout as I was with mine.

KIKUKO: I knew that in theory being a writer was what I really wanted to do, and so I couldn’t understand why it felt so hard for me. It was just this constant feeling of like, I can’t do this anymore. I want to stop. I want to stop. 

AVERY: Did you find your passion for writing again, and if so, how?

KIKUKO: If I’m not working, I don’t have the money to eat and live, and that became clear to me. Essentially, what I did was to forget about this particular job that I found so difficult and which hurt me, and little by little started work on a different job. In my case, still writing, but a different project. I didn’t immediately feel the passion again. Gradually, I was able to kind of overcome this burnout that I felt. That’s also in a way what happens to the character in the book, right? I mean, I don’t want to give away the ending or anything like that, but the book is about that process. 

AVERY: I’m not going to give away the ending either. But I will say, the book doesn’t have a quick fix. There isn’t one. Which is another way work relationships are like romantic relationships: even the best ones have really rough patches. And when confronted with a problem, you can either make a change, or find a way to keep on going. And that’s what the narrator learns.

THE NARRATOR: The time had come to embrace the ups and downs again. I had no way of knowing what pitfalls might be lying in wait for me, but what I’d discovered by doing five jobs in such a short span of time was this: the same was true of everything. You never knew what was going to happen, whatever you did. You just had to give it your all, and hope for the best.

AVERY: How do we sustain the passion in what we do?

ESTHER: My question to you will be, why do you want to constantly bring passion to work? Why don’t you diversify? If I talked about romantic love, I would say one of the most important features for a healthy relationship is to diversify, to not expect everything from one person. You want other relationships. You want people who value you even not by what you are accomplishing, but maybe by who you are, by how caring you are, by how generous you are, by how musical you are, by your other talents.

AVERY: It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me if I want to dedicate all my time to the thing that also makes me money. I don’t know, I’m not going to take up knitting because I feel like I should do something else.

ESTHER: When I say did you need other sources of meaning, you kind of say to me, “I’m not going to take up knitting.” As if knitting is this little pathetic thing that you’re going to do just to prove to yourself that you can make work less meaningful. I’m not asking you to make less meaningful work, but it doesn’t only come through what you do at work. Art, nature, community volunteerism, activism, all of those. There’s lots of ways to connect to something bigger than you

AVERY: But this is so not a part of our culture. If someone asks you, “What do you do?” It’s hard to say you are a poet or a runner or an actor or an activist unless that’s the thing that earns you money.

ESTHER: It’s a very American thing also to ask people first and foremost, “What do you do?” It has this notion that you could come here from another country and start from scratch and be defined solely by the merits of your own efforts. Nobody’s asking you whose son you are and whose daughter you are. You are much more encapsulated into the legacies of your families in other parts of the world. But at the same time, what does it tell you? What does it really tell you when you ask people, “What do you do?” And then what does it mean when, at that moment, you’re not doing it? Can you still present yourself as an actor when you’re not in the midst of acting? Can you present yourself as an artist? So this idea that I am what I do versus what I do is a part of who I am? Can I suggest an alternative question to this one?

If you didn’t do what you do, what would you be doing? It’s a fabulous question about the paths not chosen. About the passions relinquished, about the hopes for a different future, about the facets of a person you will never know, because all you’ve seen is the engineer or the artist or the podcaster or the therapist. If you didn’t do what you do, what would you be doing?

AVERY: Okay. I always thought I’d be a gynecologist. What about you?

ESTHER: That is amazing. Nobody would guess this! Of course. If I was not a therapist, I would have loved to be a singer.

AVERY: That makes sense. Hard life, though.

ESTHER: Well, that’s a reason why I didn’t become a singer!

We Are All Burnt Out