Beyond Burnout

Illustration: By Blacksneakers

This year full of calamity and grief has driven many Americans to a point of exhaustion and anxiety that has left them completely frayed. People are now living — and working! And parenting! — through the interlocking crises of a pandemic, an unprecedented economic disaster, and a summer aflame with uprisings against police brutality and systemic racism, on top of the stressors of daily life. This critical period has, however, freed us to admit an absolute truth to one another: We are all burnt the hell out. Many of us have been for a long time.

Millennials are the so-called Burnout Generation. We are “obsessed with our jobs,” work more hours for less pay than previous generations, and exhibit more work stress than any other group of Americans. As Anne Helen Peterson’s landmark essay on the topic notes, “Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition.” And while the concept is not new, and everyone is susceptible to tiring out from work, how it affects Black women at work — many of whom are in roles that overwork, underpay, and belittle them — can be more dire for their mental and physical health than many let on.

Women are more likely to experience burnout from work than men because — shocking — they have less authority in the workplace. And Black women, a recent study found, experience “accelerated biological aging” as a result of repeated or prolonged stress, like, for example, the kind brought on by poverty or trying to prove one’s worth in a discriminatory workplace. Black women frequently struggle with microaggressions, a lack of opportunities, and the pressure to be constantly “on.” Throw in long hours, endless Slack messages, and a culture that prioritizes the go, go, go, and burnout becomes an almost unavoidable condition. As Britni Danielle wrote for Zora, “The pressure is a lot, and it’s wearing many of us down.”

The Cut spoke to five Black women about the jobs that were burning them out, what their bodies were telling them about the stress they were under, and how they coped.

“Burnout is something that is inculcated into the way that Black women live life.” —Kelly Pierre-Louis, 37, Connecticut, marketing executive and entrepreneur

From 2016 onward, burnout resulted in physical issues with my body. During that time period I fell into a depression, became severely anemic, developed a heart murmur (which required me to wear a heart device), and underwent extensive surgery for it. I was in this space in my life where I felt like I was going backward. After that surgery I threw myself into planning a work conference, which left me completely depleted. I had no energy to also run a company and fulfill all these obligations that I had signed up for. Right after that conference, I wanted nothing to do with work. I wanted nothing to do with anything. I just wanted to regain my breath.

Then at the top of this year, I woke up in the middle of the night with these extreme brain aches. It was like nothing that I’d ever felt before. I was going back and forth to the doctor for weeks trying to explain the pain I was feeling, but they were reducing it to just a headache. Months later, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I really had to have a talk with myself and ask: What part of you is all this work fulfilling? Is it ego-based? What’s the psychology behind you wanting this particular thing in your life? So I really had to do an audit of my entire life, because mortality was staring me in my face. My anxiety was on a hundred thousand. It really forced me to listen to my body. I literally cannot do anything that stresses me out. That was a really enlightening moment because it caused me to halt everything that I was doing.

I think burnout is something that is inculcated into the way that Black women live life. We don’t even realize that we’re burnt out and that we’re burning both ends of the candle. Even the concept of living an easier life and learning to give ourselves grace, especially as Black women, is imperative for growth. A lot of Black women, because we have so much on our shoulders, push our personal well-being to the back of our minds. We haven’t given ourselves, or we haven’t even been provided with, the intentional space to give ourselves grace. And that’s something that I personally had to learn to be able to work effectively and in a healthy way.

“The irony was, I was a mental-health professional, and I was not mentally okay.” —Brandy Nunez, 24, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, research psychologist

I had been working in a research lab, focused on a topic (adolescents who experienced depression and suicide) that I was very passionate about. But then a lot of things started to spiral in my personal life; namely, my fiancé and I broke up after being together for eight years. I continued going to work for about three months and my work performance was dropping. My boss knew what was going on — we had multiple conversations — but it was getting to the point where I would wake up every morning hating my job. Sometimes I was working 10- to 11-hour days, having trouble focusing, and it all kept piling up. I just didn’t know how to speak up for myself because I didn’t even know where to start. At first I considered short-term disability to take a break or even moving to a different position within the company, but neither panned out.

The irony of working as a mental-health professional is that I was not mentally okay going to that job. When you’re working in research, specifically mental-health research, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by your findings. So when working with a depressing topic, you at least need to be in an environment that you feel happy and supported in. Research generally is predominantly white, and I grew very tired of the politics and the fakeness. All of that discomfort coupled with being overworked, and what was going on in my personal life, led me to feel burnt out pretty quickly and eventually leave the job.

“I wouldn’t go to sleep until I worked on my dreams, but that was a lot on my body.” —Brittney Oliver, 30, Nashville, Tennessee, branded content strategist

Two weeks after I started a new job, I found out the company was subject to a lawsuit. The next week, I found out that they were beginning the process of massive layoffs. They were just calling people in one by one. And typically, when you’re the last one hired, you’re the first one to go. I was in this weird limbo place because I had just gone through layoffs at my previous job, but luckily I was spared. However, from that day on, I always felt like I had one foot out the door. I couldn’t relax because I never knew when I could be laid off.

To prepare for the possible financial loss, I took on contributing writing opportunities, which often meant I was writing three to four articles a day. My own job also started getting more demanding as more people were laid off and duties were distributed among remaining team members. When my manager took a vacation for close to six weeks, I had to oversee the entire marketing department by myself. Throughout this time I was overloaded, disliking the work environment and searching for a job. Also in the middle of all that, I started a networking series because I just didn’t feel passion for the work that I was doing. I wouldn’t go to sleep until I worked on my dreams, but that was a lot on my body.

I developed stress-related sleep paralysis. One day I was asleep and I had this sharp pain in my shoulder, and it just wouldn’t go away. So I went and got it checked out, and the doctor said I had rheumatoid arthritis, most likely from stress. I also gained 30-35 pounds and even started growing gray hair at the top of my head. Despite all the signals my body was sending me, I still felt like I needed to make side money in case I ended up unemployed. Continuing to work was my only option. I think a lot of times, we as Black women take on more than we can handle, but what else can you do when you’re working in a system that doesn’t take you seriously or provide you with opportunities the same way it does others?

“There’s this extra pressure to not be viewed as unproductive.” —Blake Banner, 28, Washington D.C. area, physical therapist

I feel like the burnout in this profession is at a high rate. As a physical therapist, you’re expected to see X number of patients per day, based on how many hours you’re working. I feel like there is an unrealistic expectation that we should be able to provide patient care on a grand scale. And sometimes it’s just not realistic — there are cancellations, or patients go for imaging, or they’re just unavailable — there’s nothing you can really do about it, but [your superiors] still end up turning it on you as the clinician. I can’t see 50-plus patients a day and do all the documentation the way that a machine would. I feel a lot of younger professionals are faced with this pressure because they don’t want to seem unproductive.

Additionally, the physical-therapy profession itself is about 3 percent minority, and a little less than 2 percent Black. So no matter where you are, you possibly will be the only Black person on staff. So, of course, there’s this extra pressure. Sometimes you stick out and feel like you’re under a microscope.

“When you’re a Black woman, you always have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” —Abena Anim-Somuah, 23, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, business development representative

I realized that quarantine has contributed to a lot of my burnout. Sales is a very competitive environment, and working from home only makes it more stressful. I started doing a lot of extracurriculars — starting a baking Instagram account, writing articles, a lot of different things — on top of work stuff. And basically, one day I hit this wall at like 12:30 in the morning and realized I was burning out. I don’t enjoy working from my apartment, and it has consistently made me feel like I was working even harder. Then when the Black Lives Matter protests came up, I began to feel this exhaustion from working at a predominantly white company, being one of the few Black people or people of color, and having to sit through meetings, knowing that people who looked like me and my family are being mercilessly killed. I told myself, No, I’m going to take some time off to recoup and rejuvenate.

I think when you’re a Black woman, you always feel like you have to work twice as hard to get half as far. So you constantly put things on your plate because you say, Oh, if I take on this project, when my performance review comes up, they’ll see I’m a valuable asset to the company, and maybe that will lead to something more.

Beyond Burnout