On the Brink: Should We Really Be Glorifying Burnout?

‘I stayed up working until 4am three nights in a row. I am so freaking tired, but at least the essay is done!’

We have all heard the pride in the voice and seen the slightly smug smile on the face of somebody ‘complaining’ about their exhaustion. Why the inverted commas? Because in a sense the ability to push oneself into and through exhaustion has become a point of pride, a skill you would love to put on your CV to prove yourself competitive in the job market, to show to the world just how successful you are at life. But this constant drive towards exhaustion is not a symptom of success. It is a move towards burnout. And we are getting dangerously close to glorifying it.

You may think that I am exaggerating. But the simple fact is that burnout and stress-related disorders are on the rise. I believe that our attitude, especially when related to achievements, is a major factor increasing the pressure we feel to be constantly productive. And ironically, this often leads to less productivity.

When we are talking about achievements, whether it is handing in a fantastic essay, getting money from a job or having a great gym session, we inherently link it to exhaustion. It is almost as if we are only qualified to enjoy our successes if we have worked ourselves to our utter limits. All that does is push us to continually and unnecessarily revel in exhaustion. And it’s a vicious circle: the more people do it and talk about it, the more pressure is put on others to live a similarly unhealthy lifestyle, all under the pretense of success.

There is a growing sense that only if you are exhausted, because you are managing to push yourself to achieve your greatest potential, that you are ‘doing life properly’. The phrases we use imply a sense of competition. By glorifying in the many symptoms of burnout people may be experiencing, we are implying that those who are looking after themselves and are not tired are doing too little. It imbues our lives with neoliberal conceptions of self-worth, in which success is completely your individual responsibility. Therefore, the less you work, the less worth you have. In that sense, burnout becomes an expectation and slowly, but terrifyingly, a norm.

This has incredibly far-reaching implications. As students, we are surrounded by peers telling us how much they are doing. You hear of the stars who only get the top marks, those achieving at the highest levels in sport, some who appear to be creative geniuses and others who are politically engaged and seem to be changing the world already. This may seem somewhat superlative, but fact is we are surrounded by success stories.

Meanwhile, we hear people moan in libraries and lectures how they didn’t get any sleep because they were working. They revel in tales of how they are surviving on a combination of coffee and sugar-rushes. With the pressure of success stories and everybody around you seeming to be on the brink of collapse, feeling healthy and energized seems wrong. By comparing ourselves to this norm that others eschew, we jump to conclusions that we must be less productive, less ‘good’ at life than others. And maybe, just maybe, we too fall into the trap of finding ways to be ‘better’ and more exhausted. Just so that we, too, can ‘complain’ about how exhausted we are.

This probably won’t stop after university. Once we hit the real world and are confronted with the prospects of finding a job, having a family, staying fit, I can only imagine that the pressure to always do more increases. It thus doesn’t come as a surprise that over 50% of UK workers claim to have experienced anxiety or burnout.

But rather than living a better life, this constant pressure to be efficient and busy at all times means that even those things we enjoy become imbued in ideas of having to achieve something. Our free time, hobbies, family and friends might no longer resemble an unpressured part of life, but rather yet another structured space where we must perform.

I have painted a somewhat dystopian and bleak picture for our future (and present?). But my point is that we are on the brink of something that could be dangerous to our health and our general enjoyment of life. We are in the centre of a spiralling trend in which we glorify burnout. But I don’t think it’s too late to change the tide. So the next time you find yourself about to boast of your exhaustion, consider whether it really is something to be proud of.

[Kirsty Campbell]

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