What is Burnout, and Who's at Risk?
You hear a lot lately about the concept of “burnout”. Some of you may be most familiar with the topic from a recent episode of the Pen Addict Podcast (Episode 211: Running Out of Coal), in which Brad and Ed Jelley discussed how they cope with burnout in the context of writing a blog. Blogger burnout was actually the subject of a profile in the New York Times a couple years ago, and it makes for an interesting read because the ideas discussed in the piece are applicable to everyone. (Links at the bottom of the newsletter.)
So what is burnout? Clinically speaking, it's a type of job-related stress characterized by "physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work." In terms of who's at risk, the short answer is that everyone probably is susceptible to some degree. The type of burnout that gets the most attention is job/employment burnout, which is a recognized medical condition with symptoms similar to depression. Job burnout is becoming increasingly common - and even endemic - especially as our work culture places an increasing emphasis on 24-7 availability and an "always on, always ready to go mentality", enabled by our increasing reliance on digital devices and an internet of things.
I'd venture that the burnout most people deal with doesn't rise to the clinical level (though it can if left unchecked). What I'm most interested in, for purposes of this newsletter, is "burnout" in the more colloquial sense of what happens to a passion when it starts becoming a slog. Personally, I battle the consequences of taking an "offline" passion - pens and analogue writing tools - online. If I'm not careful, I run the risk of losing sight of what attracted me to the hobby in the first place.
Does an Overreliance on Digital Devices Really Cause Burnout?
There’s not an easy answer to this question, and I want to keep this personal and avoid medical conclusions I'm not qualified to make. Drawing on my own personal experience, and the experience of those close to me, however, I would say that “it can.” Throughout my own career (the "day job"), I’ve felt my stress levels gradually rise as mobile communications technology becomes increasingly sophisticated. While there’s a certain convenience associated with being able to easily check your e-mail from your pocket, or to work from home on a Friday when you don’t have any scheduled meetings, the ability to do these things is coupled with the expectation that you will (even after hours or on weekends).
My "side gig" is susceptible to the same pressures. If I want to make it anything more than a hobby, and have it be economically viable at all, it necessarily involves spending a pretty significant amount of time online and on social media. Social media is far from my favorite activity - you may notice that apart from Instagram, I'm far less active than other bloggers. I'd much rather be spending my time actually using the products I review and generating ideas for new content. But I can't have it both ways - promotion and staying up on the latest industry news are both necessary evils. For someone who's introverted like me, being "on" all the time, either "in real life" or on the internet, is exhausting, and I have to consciously try to counterbalance it with something else.
So How Do You Avoid Burnout?
This brings me to the point of this little article: the way things currently are today, with the pervasive always-on, always-plugged-in mentality, I don't think you CAN avoid burnout altogether, and everyone feels burnt out to some degree or another. It's becoming the new normal. Expectations in the workplace and society are such that the best you can hope for is to minimize it. I'd also draw a distinction between two degrees of burnout: (1) the kind that you feel when you’re doing something that you might still enjoy, but it’s becoming a burden; or (2) the kind that you feel when you’re doing something that you no longer take any pleasure in doing at all.
I’d venture to say that #1 is pretty common in today’s society/economy, where most people are starting to feel worn out. One way you can try to get around it is keeping things in perspective and your mind on the reason why you are doing something in the first place. In my case, I try to carve out some time when I'm not constantly “plugged in” or available, and to give myself a daily opportunity to use my analog tools in the way they were intended to be used - to write and create. In short, it gives me a chance to remember why I love this stuff.
This past weekend, I attended the 2016 D.C. Pen Show in Tyson's Corner, Virginia. I had to work some remotely, sure, and I was spending 9 or so hours per day on my feet and ended up absolutely exhausted each night, but the experience ended up being rejuvenating. Meeting people in an offline setting and seeing how deeply everyone shares a common passion reminded me of why I started the blog in the first place, and why I continue to write the blog nearly two years later and doubled down by starting this newsletter.
But #2 is a different animal. If you're at the point where you no longer take any pleasure at all in whatever it is you're doing, it may be time to consider more drastic measures. I think this is what Brad and Ed were talking about on the podcast: when something becomes exclusively a burden and the best thing you can do is walk away, whether for a brief break or forever, until you can come back to it (if at all) with a different mindset. This is easier to do, however, with a side gig or a hobby business. The insidious thing about job burnout is that it's often impossible to just "walk away" from a truly terrible and unfulfilling day job, which contributes to what many people describe as an epidemic of clinical burnout in the workplace. I also get irritated with people who advocate "just turning off your phone after 5pm and on the weekends." While I'm certainly a believer in carving out offline time, the realities of the modern service economy and employer/client demands offer little flexibility to do this for significant stretches of time (and don't get me started on my parents' tendency to call me 6 times at home, work, and on my cell if I don't respond to a text within 30 minutes). If we really want to do something to actually eliminate burnout as a major problem, then our expectations of people as a society need to change. Otherwise, I'm afraid the problem is just going to get worse.