About eight months ago, my physical exhaustion and mental deterioration had become so intense that I did something I’d never done before: I lied to an editor about why I couldn’t make a deadline.
You know that kind of old-school excuse like “my cat died”? I had gone through my entire education and professional life without ever resorting to any of those sort-of dire fibs. And yet there it was: a detailed story about a potential surgery — bodily failing being much easier to own up to than naming what I was actually going through: a burnout.
The word burnout was first introduced in the 1970s by German-born U.S. psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, and in 1990 the World Health Organization (WHO) added it to its book of official diagnoses.
Only in 2019 did the WHO add a more complete definition of burnout, calling it a “syndrome” caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Although the word is often used colloquially to refer to all types of exhaustion, the WHO defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition, which “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Besides exhaustion and reduced professional efficacy, burnout can come with increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
During the COVID-19 pandemic — with people confined to their homes, remote working while looking after children and the elderly, with no external support — the rates of burnout spiked, understandably. A March 2021 study of 1,500 U.S. workers by hiring platform Indeed found that 52% of workers were feeling burnt-out, and that 67% believed burnout had increased during the pandemic.
Rates on the rise
But things have not improved much, and rates are on the rise. According to a monthly survey conducted by Future Forum in February 2023, involving 10,243 global workers, 42% reported experiencing burnout — the highest percentage since May 2021.
For me, it manifested in becoming incapable of solving what would otherwise be ordinary tasks in my work day. Its sources may be harder to pin down, though it clearly was driven by a struggle to reconcile my working and non-working lives.
My second son, León, was born in October 2022. I had vowed to take some time off, but my break was definitely not long enough. I began 2023 by taking on too many responsibilities, too fast: traveling to conferences around Europe — and the world — always taking León along, breastfeeding him, while juggling different jobs with different timetables and requirements.
Until one day I got so dizzy I could not get out of bed. My body was on strike, sending signals towards my conscious brain. I was sick, I thought, and I wrote about it. It was when friends, and a lot of you, my regular readers, started reacting to what I had written that I realised. I’m burnt out. If you, and they, can see it, why can’t I?!
In the process, I lied to that editor. When I confessed it to a friend, his reply was very telling: “If you lived in a place like the Netherlands, you wouldn’t have to lie. You could simply say, ‘I am burnt out’, and take leave without further prodding.”
Burnout leave, imagine that. (Germany even takes it one step further and has clinics for burnt-out parents.)
Burnout is higher among remote workers (tick), freelancers (tick), and women (tick). However practical it may seem to take a call in your pyjamas, the healthy boundaries of the work space vs the home environment are blurred for remote workers like me. Add to that the uncertainty of freelance life, and the lack of support when it comes to childcare policies, and you get a terrible combo.
I was lucky enough because I could step back from some work while retaining some part-time income. And I was lucky that all my employers were understanding and supportive, and I could go back when I was ready.
I was also lucky that your messages, as readers of The First 1,000 Days, were very encouraging. I know that I have been away for a large part of this year, but I also know that many of you have written to say you have my back.
I won’t lie to you: I’m still trying to find the balance. I have learnt to say no more often. I have learnt to check in better how my physical reactions are to certain situations: Does my heart rate go up? Do I feel pressure and stress? I am trying to step back.
But guess what?
The end of the year is a time to draw conclusions on the past 12 months, and set intentions for the next 12. What have I really achieved? Why did I not write more? Why did I not record more of my baby’s first year of life? Why did I not pitch this and that reportage to this or that magazine? And where is my book proposal or business plan following the fellowship I got in Spain?
When I shared some of these self-flagellating questions with a friend in Colombia over WhatsApp, she offered some context that went beyond the details of my own particular situation: “That’s OK — the nudge to get stuff done is capitalism, and you know what I say to that….?”
The follow-up text was a sticker of a red dinosaur with a hammer and sickle, saying “Fuck Capitalism”.
There is nothing like social network chatter, GIFs and memes to get a sense of how the younger generations (and us millennials too!) feel about such real-life issues. With the climate emergency looming, the economic crisis, and the struggle to find a work-life balance, the growing interest in socialist ideas is quite understandable.
Just check out this viral video, by comedian Fareeha Khan: “Capitalism has colonized chill mode”.
“Capitalism has ingrained in us that we have to be productive all the time, and if you’re trying to chill and you’re not productive, you feel bad about yourself,” Khan says. “But when you’re being too productive, and you can’t chill, you’re burned out.”
There is more wisdom in those words than I would like to admit. How do we define work and success in this economy? Does it depend on the likes we get on our publications, on how many members our newsletters have, or on us feeling that we did our best without putting our health at risk? My resolution for 2024 is to question my ideas a little bit more and avoid the productivity trap.
Also one more thing: no more lying to editors — and to myself, if I can manage that!
I wish you a lovely end to this year, and thanks for sticking around.
With love and care,
A version of this essay also appeared in Worldcrunch.