In defense of (modern) burn-out

It’s becoming more and more common to complain via Twitter/Instagram about how burnt-out we are all feeling during these difficult times from the commodity of a sofa while waiting on your Uber Eats to arrive. But are we ready to take some ownership of this self-induced problem?

Of course, I’m talking about people who’ve clearly met the basic needs set by Maslow and still continue to complain and use fancy words about how unfair life is.

The objective of this article is not to further prove how overall emotional exhaustion and burnout is increasing and physical and mental well-being declining. There is already a good chunk of literature around this topic. Unsurprinsingly, most of the common advice around it is getting to a point which is just funny. Some companies had the guts to push even further the envelope and propose a “60-second panic button”:

After a particularly difficult time, employees can hit a button that lets others know they are taking a mindfulness break. In that 60 seconds, employees practice some aspect of mindfulness.

I had to re-read the previous sentence 3 times to determine that the Good Idea Factory has also fell victim to the global supply shortages.

Holding ourselves accountable

It’s hard to overcome difficult situations if we don’t assume part of the responsibility. We blame our employer for not providing more Paid Time Off, we blame Social Media for creating engaging algorithms, we blame our partners for creating toxic relationships, we blame our colleagues for sending 3 hour long meetings. Worst of all, we not only blame, but expect for them (!!!) to come up with solutions to this injust series of things that they force upon us.

It’s time we take matters into our own hands, don’t you think?

To understand the root cause of this burn-out feeling, we need to address the fundamentals of dopamine, a chemical in our brains which plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It’s a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. When secreted in discrete levels, dopamine helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting.

But,

We’re living in a time of unprecedented access to high-reward, high-dopamine stimuli: drugs, food, news, gambling, shopping, gaming, texting, sexting, Facebooking, Instagramming, YouTubing, tweeting… The increased numbers, variety, and potency is staggering. The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation. As such we’ve all become vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption.

And as everything good in this life, dopamine also comes with it’s own downside. To counter-balance this chemical reaction, our brain releases a series of molecules which are the enablers fear, pain and other unpleasant feelings related to the symptoms mentioned around the modern burn-out1*. No wonder why the higher our addiction to work, information, media, news feeds and so on, the higher the drop in our overall state of mind and well-being.

Enough with the chemistry class, what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, there is no simple over-the-counter cure. Why? Because the solution relies solely on our willpower.

  • Our willpower to say no more often.
  • Our willpower to just have 1 cup of coffee.
  • Our willpower to create a healthy relationship with social media.
  • Our willpower to take long breaks after hard work.
  • Our willpower to sit and do nothing for a long period of time.
  • Our willpower to stop eating when we feel satisfied.
  • Our willpower to cut toxic relationships.

This isn’t something we can change overnight, in fact, discipline is something that happens gradually, we need to take one step at a time into the direction of the person we want to become. Small increments of effort will amount to huge yields in the future. As Jocko Willink put it; “Discipline is the pathway to freedom”. We have the right to take ownership for our actions and prioritize our own well being over everything else.

As Seneca writes in his Moral letters to Lucilius:

“You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”

Head of Retail Operations @ Uber