We’re living in a world with no off switches and our burnout is at a boiling point. Powered Down explores how the system has failed us and what we can do to find our way off the hamster wheel — for good.
Ana Lydia Ochoa-Monaco knows what burnout feels like: crushing fatigue that seems to get worse at the very moments she’s supposed to be most productive. She knows what it looks like, too: clumps of hair caught in the shower drain, breakouts on her chest and belly. "And the funny thing about it, I recognize all of this as burnout, and yet I continue to run in that pattern," she says.
Even when her burnout is staring her in the face, a persistent, piercing voice in her head won't stop listing all the reasons she doesn't actually deserve to feel this way. How can she be burned out when she doesn't work as hard as her first-generation immigrant parents did to even give her the opportunities that she has today? How can she afford to be burned out when her filmmaking career is light years behind her peers (never mind that she came to the industry later in life)? Really, it's all the same reason: She hasn't done enough, not really.
The feeling that she could be doing more is always on her mind, especially when she tries to rest. She took out student loans when starting her second career in filmmaking, loans which now total $120,000. "You have that sense of like, 'I better perform, so I can pay at least the bare minimum, which is so ridiculous,” adds Ochoa-Monaco, who now works as a script coordinator on an Emmy-nominated TV show.
"I go circles in my head. Have I accomplished enough today to go to sleep at a decent hour? Have I checked in with my supervisors to make sure that there is nothing else happening?" She feels the need to answer emails immediately and always be on call; last year, she cut short her own birthday plans to come home and work. For her, self-worth is directly linked to productivity. "I have to stay active and productive, to prove my worth and show the world that I can accomplish things with excellence despite being a fat Latina woman with health issues."
Why can it feel so difficult to rest? Why do we feel compelled to justify and explain ourselves when we take a break? Why does it only feel acceptable to do so when we’re dangerously burned out — a benchmark that is so vaguely defined as to always seem just out of reach but at the same time is an omnipresent exhausting reality?
In a way, it’s been ingrained into us. The American Dream we’ve been sold has always been based on doing more, although the side hustle and start-up culture of the past decade have made things a hell of a lot worse. Socio-cultural American attitudes value working hard and going above and beyond — no matter the personal cost.
"Most of the time, hard work gets rewarded, and this starts when you are young in school and getting good grades. Your teacher and your parents praise you. You perform well on a sports team, and again, you get praise from teammates, coaches and family," explains Rachel Cavallaro (PsyD), a licensed psychologist with Thriveworks in Boston. When you are consistently praised for being good at something, being hardworking, being dedicated, you learn that you have to excel to be worthy. And to excel, you must constantly be working harder.
Billie Katz (PsyD), licensed psychologist and assistant professor in psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, notes, "Since self-worth is defined as how we value ourselves, and work productivity and accomplishments hold significant weight in how we view ourselves, it makes sense that the two concepts are linked together."
And we’re conditioned to hustle at all costs. “We don't really learn how to stop and be in the moment and truly honor what we've accomplished. We've had this message drilled into us that resting is not good. You have to hustle to be productive,” says Erica Cuni, (LMFT), The Burnout Professor. This causes further guilt about taking a break. When people have so much to achieve, how can they slow down?
This can also extend to familial and societal pressure to perform. Consider higher-achieving students, who may feel pressure to achieve from their families, themselves, or both. If they fail, they are letting everyone down. When self-worth is conditional, one constantly has to do something to maintain it.
These societal pressures to conflate self-worth and productivity is a product of capitalism. It places immense value on always doing more, to always be striving to reach the next benchmark. “At the core, it's a system based on investment, for the purpose of profit-making. And then when profits are made, there's another cycle of reinvestment for the purpose of profit-making. And there's no end to that cycle,” explains Anders Hayden, (PhD), associate professor in the department of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS.
Why can it feel so difficult to rest? Why do we feel compelled to justify and explain ourselves when we take a break?
“It's a system that doesn't have a sense of there's ever enough.” It's not that people can get to a certain point of wealth, and think, Okay, now we've made it, we can relax. The pressures are still there. Think of everyone feeling like they should have used the time at home during the pandemic to pick up a new skill or better themselves somehow, even though there is a literal pandemic raging.
This capitalist concept of "more" is an elusive and abstract concept. No matter what you've achieved, there's always "more" to do, and it's a standard that's constantly escaping grasp. And when people have difficulty maintaining a certain amount of productivity, their self-esteem may decline.
We’ve seen this over and over these past two years. Burnout has climbed — a survey by Indeed found that more than half (52%) of respondents are feeling burned out, compared to 43% pre-COVID. People working from home find that they don't have the resources needed to do their job effectively or are falling into the trap of not taking time away from work to recharge adequately. Working from home has also blurred the line between work and home life, making it difficult to differentiate between when a person is on-call and when one isn't.
This is even seeping into our sick days. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that even when people are sick, they feel guilty about resting and for not recuperating quickly enough.
While many people are caught in the cycle of internalized capitalism, it is especially present for those dealing with additional stressors, marginalized identities, or social barriers.
Children of immigrants can feel highly pressured by parents' expectations of achievement. The stress of living up to these perceived ideal standards, along with the high cost of living in many parts of the United States, can make many feel like they need to do more. For Ingrid Cruz, 35, a first-generation immigrant, this could not be more true. A freelance writer and comedian, she lost her anchor clients early on in the pandemic. She had to rebuild her business from scratch, with no safety net to fall back on.
"First-generation immigrants are taught to always be working," says Cruz, who was born in the middle of the civil war in El Salvador. Coming to the US was like starting all over again, she adds. “For immigrants and children of immigrants, the idea that their parents made so many sacrifices for them is ingrained at an early age. You are expected to grow up to "just work hard, work hard, work hard," explains Cruz. "You'll be at home, watching Netflix, you've done all your work, your house is clean, there's no trash to take out, but you feel guilty for just sipping a cup of coffee, and doing nothing."
Because of the intense burnout caused by hustle culture, the cost of living, and the US's exploitative, capitalist work culture, Cruz has decided to move to Argentina, where she had previously lived for a short period. “It's more collectivist over there, and people care more about community. It’s a really different way of thinking. For them, it's all about rest, and not about work.” There, she hopes to be able to prioritize her wellbeing, and be encouraged to take breaks without feeling guilty, rather than constantly pushing herself to work more.
Neurodivergence is another factor that can influence burnout, and feelings of guilt about taking time to rest. Ashley Hubbard, 35, a freelance writer, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as an adult at age 33. She now realizes that a large part of her burnout is a result of this. "I often overcommit and overextend, I take on too many assignments and commitments, which leads to fatigue. When I am unable to fulfill all of my obligations, then that leads to even more sense of failure, guilt, and depression."
Even when she schedules time to rest, she still feels guilty about it. This further leads to her feeling overwhelmed at her inability to do so. She believes that growing up with undiagnosed ADHD as a woman (a population that is often underdiagnosed), she always felt that she was lazy or had no real direction in life.
"I think this plays into my feelings of guilt when I do try to relax," she says. When a certain level of productivity is required at the workplace, and ADHD is known to cause executive dysfunction, and poor time management, one is forced to overextend themself in order to meet expectations. Society’s failure to accommodate ADHD at the workplace should not rest on the individual’s shoulder.
Having to play catch-up, and prove that one is as worthy of the job as the next person, or taking a break or resting can feel like the easiest way to fall behind. Part of what's so frustrating for Hubbard is that she knows her attitude towards rest is not logical. "I usually have to reach a point of pure exhaustion and then dissociate with everything else. In reality, I care very, very much, but in order to survive, I have to detach that part of my brain at times."
Long-term burnout, which when not addressed with appropriate rest and care, can reduce productivity and energy, lead to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness, and make people feel resentful and cynical about the world, explains Dr Katz. "Since there is also evidence that high levels of burnout can lead to physical (fatigue, stress, increased risk of heart disease, increased likelihood of high blood pressure) and psychological (anxiety, depression, irritability) problems, it is really important to take burnout seriously and to advocate for oneself when you notice it is creeping in," she says. She suggests that it should be your sign to schedule PTO, take more breaks during the workday, or find ways to engage in stress-reducing activities.
“And I think it is important to build up those places where we can get self-worth, from our friendships, our relationships, from being involved in our communities. Because those pressures to make work our entire identity can be very intense,” adds Dr. Hayden.
Beyond individual efforts to overcome burnout, there is an urgent need for structural changes. We have things we can do to try to navigate burnout and the accompanying guilt, but this is a social issue. “A major solution to burnout is to curb the extreme work hours that unfettered capitalism leads to. Workplaces need to not be overloading people. There's a lot of these workplace wellness programs, but most people don’t have the time to take up what these programs offer,” explains Dr Hayden.
“What we're realizing through research is that true productivity comes from knowing when to rest, when to move, when and how to take care of your body, and how to take care of your mind. It's no longer going hard, 24/7,” says Cuni. Workplaces need to recognize this, and make accommodations accordingly.
And we all need to recognize there’s no overnight fix and cut ourselves, and others, some slack. Ochoa-Monaco still struggles to prioritize herself over work, especially during COVID, when she was doing everything from journaling, daily affirmations, and therapy, to creating schedules and color-coded calendars to feel like she was accomplishing something.
“Looking back, this was completely unhealthy. I should have looked at this period in time like this: If I accomplished something, great. If I didn't, at least I stayed alive,” she says.