COLUMN: Burnout, bureaucracy and bragging, oh my!

Revolving life around work will surely lead to fiery burnout, and death.

Cela is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about daily life for The Maneater.

Burnout is “when you get to a feeling of exhaustion with life,” writer and journalist Anne Helen Petersen said.

Individuals often continue to work and push harder when exhausted and stressed, similar to hitting a wall and proceeding to climb over it. Burnout is a result of prolonged stress. It results in the exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation. According to a College Info Geek article, some symptoms of burnout are “constant exhaustion, lack of motivation, constant frustration, suffering grades, struggle to pay attention and disengagement from friends and colleagues.”

It’s not only work that prompts burnout, but the bureaucracy surrounding work. The adult version of “show your work” comes in the form of communicating your thinking process every step of the way. Notifications from Gmail, GroupMe, Instagram, Slack, Microsoft Teams and countless other apps ensure individuals can do work anytime and anywhere. Discourse on these apps serves to “prove” the work being done, especially when the product is not tangible.

There is no clear step by step to formulating an idea, but work apps require individuals to “perform” their work. They must communicate when they finish any task to prove their productivity. These performances put additional stress on day-to-day lives and serve to mask additional fluff as work.

There is a huge difference between burnout and stress. Stress can be good and improve performance at times, but continuous stress can lead to burnout.

In preparing to enter the workforce, college students hear they must take the right classes, do the right extracurriculars, get the right internships and make the right connections. The common consensus is to simply do the most, and at the very least, do more than a competitor. Great expectations from society and their peers drives students to overload their schedule, generating continuous stress and eventual burnout.

With side hustles and a work hard, play hard mentality, society puts out the message that people should always be working. Perseverance — despite lack of sleep — becomes a bragging point for many.

“Sleep, or how little of it we need, has become a symbol of our prowess,” writer and businesswoman Arianna Huffington said in an article for Medium. “[But] there’s practically no element of our lives that’s not improved by getting adequate sleep. And there is no element of life that’s not diminished by a lack of sleep.”’

Millennials have adopted an appetite for optimization in all aspects of their lives by depriving themselves of sleep and rest. Optimization posits that doing the most and being the best guarantees success, which may be seen in the emerging concept of “adulting.” Each checkmark brings one closer to being “the best adult they can be” on the never-ending adulting to-do list.

Soon to enter adulthood as well, Generation Z should look to Millennials and absorb the lessons the millennials had to learn the hard way. Supported by instant communication via internet and social media, Gen Z seems to be racing at a similar pace to Millennials, bound for burnout.

Bragging about being stressed and having a lack of sleep is toxic. It’s one thing to be proud of resilience and drive. It’s another thing to prolong toxic behavior in an effort to humblebrag and be relatable.

In a viral Buzzfeed article, Petersen wrote on the millennial rearing project, “in which students internalize the need to find employment that reflects well on their parents (steady, decently paying, recognizable as a “good job”) that’s also impressive to their peers (at a “cool” company) and fulfills what they’ve been told has been the end goal of all of this childhood optimization: doing work that you’re passionate about.”

Failure to actively optimize all aspects of one’s life may be perceived as laziness, an adjective commonly thrust upon millennials. Even so, social psychologist Devon Price says laziness, in the way most people think of it, does not exist.

“If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context. It’s that simple,” Price said.

Therefore, a person’s behavior may not be due to laziness, but rather burnout. Time does not need to be optimized to do as many tasks as possible. When abiding by stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, many millennials felt nagging guilt at not optimizing their time to be “productive” and create a physical product. The guilt and shame associated with not working is harmful to the brain and makes it harder to do constructive things.

Writer Derek Thomspon described this as “workism” in an article for The Atlantic: “What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

Workism posits that it is akin to a religion in the way it dictates an individual’s life. If workism is the worship of work, it bears relation to capitalism in its demand for constant productivity. Work finds itself central to many people’s lives, dictating their options and activities. In recent years, work has shifted from being a means to make money to a point of status and identity.

“But our desks were never meant to be our altars,” Thompson said.

Work should not be central to all aspects of life; work to live, don’t live to work. The goal of work is to get money to spend on goods to survive. Time outside of work is meant to be leisure time. However, there is no more strict 9 to 5, as work apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams make everyone available to work at all times. The apps summon us to work, and we must answer.

Today, not only must individuals work to spend on goods to survive, but they must work to pay off debts. One of the biggest crises affecting the millennials — and soon Gen Z — is the student debt crisis. Reaching nearly $1.6 trillion, the crushing weight of student debt generates additional stress for college students throughout college and beyond.

Thompson names student debt and the disturbance of social media as the biggest burdens to millennials. By now, it’s common knowledge that social media operates as a carefully-curated highlight reel of one’s life, but that doesn’t make it any less intimidating. Millennials subject themselves to comparisons and work themselves to the bone to achieve an artificial feed meant to project an idealized — or optimized — image.

As the earliest members of Gen Z attend and graduate from college, burnout seems to be on the horizon for them as well. Their increased use of social media and exposure to Instagram influencers creates an environment that feeds on comparison and working to achieve an “ideal life.”

Social media serves as the bureaucracy of work. It’s no longer acceptable to find joy internally in work. Social media forces individuals to externalize their joy and satisfaction with their work and perform their happiness. Even social media, meant to be an escape, becomes a stressor and contributor to burnout. So how can one escape the escape?

Conquering burnout begins by acknowledging what is happening and actively deciding to make a change. To avoid and halt burnout, learn how to say no. Set strict limits based on ability and availability to avoid constantly working. Burnout, much like work, becomes a part of many people’s lives and infuses itself into their identity.

However, it’s important to recognize the institutions and companies that foster cultures of burnout. These systems encourage individuals to work themselves to the bone for the sake of productivity. People look to Amazon for their wide assortment of goods and 2-day shipping guarantee for prime members, but at what cost? News that UK Amazon warehouse workers peed in bottles because of time and productivity concerns appalled people. Workers should not have to go to great lengths to be able to pee for the sake of productivity.

For college students, climbing the rungs of education into higher education and looking down makes the fall appear that much steeper. Yet conquering burnout is not about letting go and succumbing to the fall. It’s about slowing the ascent, taking time to rest and lightening the load of responsibilities.

In pursuit of racial and social equity, The Maneater encourages its readers to donate to the Black Mental Health Alliance. The Black Mental Health Alliance provides several resources regarding mental health and mental illness to support the health and well-being of Black people and other vulnerable communities. Donate at: https://blackmentalhealth.com/donate/

Edited by Sofi Zeman | szeman@themaneater.com

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