Avoid Burnout By Scheduling Time For Self-Care

Photographed by Anna Jay
The following is an extract from The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live by Elizabeth Uviebinené.
Satisfaction often isn’t a result of what job you do, but instead how you do that job. When I started investigating burnout in order to write The Reset, I found a poll by Gallup that identified five factors which lead to it: unfair treatment, an unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication or support from a manager and unreasonable time pressure. These concepts aren’t unique to one industry or role. They’re challenges faced by lawyers, retail assistants, consultants, dentists – and probably you, too. The fact that it’s a theme across all ways of work should tell us that this is more than a set of specific issues. This is about how we allow work to define every part of our life, and the fallout from that.
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So, if we start from a place of understanding that anyone can suffer from burnout, what steps can we take to understand our limitations and cultivate a healthy attitude towards work? The first, I believe, is identifying the parts we get wrong.
There are very real reasons that millennial women, as a generation, all feel so deeply fixated on work. We’ve come into a working world recovering from recessions, trying to make enough to survive amid rising living costs and greater competition for roles as certain industries become more automated. It’s made us desperate to hustle hard. In that environment, we simply don’t know how to take proper breaks, and we’ve been applauded for coming into the office when we’re ill and soldiering on. We’ve rebranded second jobs as ‘side hustles’ in our attempt to catch up economically. We frame it as: who wants to be one thing these days? But more often than not the reality is: who can afford to just do one thing these days? No wonder 32 is now the average age of reaching burnout and 37% of Millennials don’t feel empowered enough to take a lunch break. That lack of empowerment is a very real issue that needs to be addressed. 
The last two decades have seen burnout become an epidemic in offices throughout the UK and half a million people in the UK suffer from work-related stress to the point of being unable to continue. In 2019, I wrote an article for the Financial Times entitled ‘How to avoid burnout and thrive at work’. Some comments on my article said I should ‘stop being a Millennial snowflake’, but they missed the point entirely. Burnout isn’t a Millennial affliction. It’s a twenty-first century one. 
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If we start from a place of understanding that anyone can suffer from burnout, what steps can we take to understand our limitations and cultivate a healthy attitude towards work?

Burnout goes deeper than the economic reality of living in the early twenty-first century too. It’s psychological. It’s tied up in how we view work, and what we think it says about us. For a long time, I let work define my identity and I became trapped by this identity that was supposed to give me freedom. Many of us think being successful at work is essential to who we are. Success at work means being the most productive, most dedicated, most machine-like version of yourself.
And whether you’re working in an office, or you’re working at home, self-employed or not – if you feel that way then nothing’s going to change.
It’s an intergenerational truth that we see work as a status symbol. In particular, it’s how hard we work that’s considered the status symbol. We’re clocking more hours than ever, and research shows that employees with higher social status have more job satisfaction and increased perceived performance.
However, what makes Millennials different is that we increasingly see burnout as a mark of that status. We seek to wear this burnout as a badge of honour, like a work of art we’ve spent months painting, admiring it whenever we have a spare moment. We relish ‘the cult of being busy’. In the past, wearing a fancy piece of jewellery was how you let friends and rivals know you’d made it; these days, the currency of social position is time. Busyness is the new status symbol and we wear it with pride. And we all do it to various degrees. The more I’ve read about burnout, the more it feels like something we’re not only expected to feel, but encouraged to.
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We say we wish we had more time to ourselves, but I’ve come to realise it’s not what we actually want. A study by Silvia Bellezza, from Columbia Business School, looking into how we signal status through our use of time, showed that we aspire to have a busy schedule over having more leisure time. When we look busy, we get our ego stroked. But it doesn’t have to be like this. 
The pandemic changed the world. What happened in 2020 was a catalyst for testing our networks and our relationships. Everyone faced the same situation – albeit at different levels – and this enabled us to form and strengthen our relationships to support each other. The relationships either sank or swam. It’s clear to me that we have to look to build communities. That we have to ask ourselves what we actually want, seek out support and, above all, schedule self-care in the same way that we would schedule a meeting.
If someone puts a meeting in during your lunch break – regardless of whether you're working from home or in the office – you have to push back. Is that when you go to the gym? Take a walk? Meet someone in your community for lunch? Take self care as seriously as you take your career. Make time for it. Carve out space for it. Be clear about how you are and are not prepared to work moving forward. This might mean moving to the countryside, it might mean more flexible hours. This is about establishing boundaries. Safeguard the things that are important to you. Say: “I can’t do this meeting because I have to leave on time today for X activity that I have booked in and blocked out the time for.” Be clear about what is important to you beyond work. If you constantly feel burned out, you won’t be able to do the work. Send calendar invites to yourself, make them visible to your colleagues. This keeps you accountable to yourself and makes your boundaries clear to them. Be active and communicate to the people you work with. 
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Not everyone can demand change at work, but we can only create a cultural shift if we ask for choice and freedom where we can. If it’s not possible, at least you asked, and at least you are part of the conversation.

Raging revolutionary thoughts aside, we have to work within the matrix of this life, and that means (for the moment anyway) capitalism and paying the bills, and dealing with the tension that comes between wanting to lead a life of purpose within a transactional system marbled with inequality. But these Gen Z protestors are showing us the way. They are opening us up to a conversation where we don’t just accept the status quo, instead we ask what our choices really are.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has always fascinated me. This psychological theory presents a pyramid that should – theoretically – lead to a fulfilling life. It’s structured by how vital those needs are to human life, the base layer being the most, the top the more aspirational. And while the lower layers are made up of factors such as food, water, shelter, health, friendship and self-esteem, you need to make it all the way to the top for self-actualisation. All of which suggests, if we want to feel fulfilled and find work that is purposeful, we need to meet our own mental, physical and emotional health needs – indeed, prioritise them – before we can truly live with purpose.
But what happens if we stop looking at the choices presented to us, and instead consider the choices available to everyone? This is what trend forecaster and ethnogapher Karen Rosenkranz views as the essential shift, taking back true choice. She says, ‘People need to ask for [change], and I think a lot of people will make that shift now. It’s about daring to ask for more flexibility. The idea of hustle culture is very unfair, because it puts all the responsibility on the individual . . . I think we have to push back now as employers or freelancers or people working in the system and say, “I’m not going to continue to work that way.”’
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Not everyone can demand change at work, but we can only create a cultural shift if we ask for choice and freedom where we can. If we assess our lives, work out the choices we need and ask for them. If it’s not possible, at least you asked, and at least you are part of the conversation. While it might not be vital to you, the changes you embrace might make a difference to someone else. This is everybody’s society and so it’s also everybody’s problem.
This is what Anna Whitehouse aka Mother Pukka, who I interviewed for The Reset, understands as the core choice we have to make about work – it’s choosing to challenge norms and ask for more for everybody. She says, ‘The first thing is to know that you have a voice, that it’s not for activists or the government, or, flexible working experts to fix it’s for everybody to fix.’ She also told me about James Clarry at Coutts Bank, who implemented flexible working – something incredibly rare in banks. He went against the grain and when he was asked why said, ‘Well, you know, productivity has gone up 30% and my staff are happier. Why wouldn’t I do it?’ He stepped outside his immediate needs and choices to think about choice for everyone. As Anna says, ‘What we need to do is stop asking permission to change the system. Each and every one of us can do it.’
Is it fanciful to assume that all workers can have a voice?
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Perhaps, but our attitudes to work cannot be policed so easily – en masse, attitudes change structures, and as individuals, the more we speak up the more we empower others to do the same. Asking for change, asserting our needs, resetting our professional lives so that they suit us and work for us, rather than moulding ourselves and our lives to those of an employer. This is also self-care.
And within those needs, the aim to stop annexing our personal lives in our working ones. In dissolving the rigidity of the late-capitalist fervour for work, the personal and the professional can finally cease to be warring factions. Forget corporate blurb. Bringing your whole self to work takes a revolution not an HR pamphlet.
We’re not going to totally break the system of work. But by making conscious choices, and asking for what we want, we might just shift the landscape. Change happens incrementally as well as through an upheaval. This was the core of Indy Johar’s theory of change, and he talked in our conversation about the power of small movement. He said, ‘Most people look to move the 50% in the middle. I’m not interested in the middle, the middle doesn’t move like that. I’m interested in moving 3.5%, because actually that’s all you need to do to be able to shift the trajectory of where the future is going to be made, and how it’ll be made. So the question for me is always how and where do we influence the 3.5%? In order to shift the trajectory where value and new forms of value are being uncovered.’
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It’s up to all of us to try and be the 3.5%. We’re being called upon to work out what is important to us – and then live it. I’d say that despite the navel gazing of the self-help industry we haven’t really had to confront this in such an in your face way before.
Well-being is at the heart of our new world of work. Businesses might not frame it quite like that, but that’s what it is – the curtain has been pulled back on the myth of work as life’s prime meridian. Working from home has revealed the agility of many types of work, this is no longer an unvarnished truth. People of all ages have begun to think about ‘moving to the country’, or elsewhere, and trying out a different pace and style of life. Let’s hope that forward motion is slower, more considered, sustainable and inclusive. And once you’ve worked out how to bring choice into your work, you just need to bring it into your life.
The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live by Elizabeth Uviebinené is published by Hodder on 29th April.

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