Recently, Apple announced a timely new iPhone update: Focus mode. It will stop devices from sending notifications from certain contacts or apps outside of working hours. Work emails, office chat services and other means by which your boss can trouble you in your downtime will be more easily filtered out. Ignored, even.
If your first thought is "what if I miss something crucial?" and your second thought is "what if I lose my job as a result?" read on. The innovation comes in response to the growing phenomenon of burnout – fuelled by precisely this inability to switch off. As ever with tech, it is canny at providing the solutions to the problems it has helped create: in this case our ‘always on’ culture. But as we reach the second summer of the pandemic, the increasing recognition that permanent connectivity could actually be bad for us extends beyond this.
Burnout was attracting attention before Covid, but experts agree that the shift to working from home – which is being embraced as a long-term model by many employers – is a major driver of the apparently soaring numbers suffering from it. Research has shown that when we work from home, many of us toil for longer hours and struggle to maintain work-life boundaries. Add to this the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Covid and our exit from lockdown, and the fact many have gone months without a proper holiday and are still struggling to make plans for a break, and it’s no surprise we find ourselves feeling overloaded, overwhelmed – and yes, a little burned out.
Work and life, all the same
Adam Grant, the leading organisational psychologist, whose 2020 TED talk Burnout is Everyone’s Problem helped ignite an ongoing debate, warns the merging of work and life can be problematic. "If I think about the big reasons why people are burning out during Covid I would say lack of boundaries is a huge factor," he says. "Being overworked is a major problem. Empirically, people seem to be working two to three hours longer on average [than pre-pandemic] and some of that is because they’re not commuting so they’ve shifted that time to work, but also because no one’s going anywhere, everybody’s available all the time and it’s easier to schedule unwanted meetings early and late and you don’t really have an excuse to say no."
The unsettled economic climate, meanwhile, fuels fear among many about the safety of their roles if they don’t make themselves permanently at their employer’s disposal.
"For a lot of people in precarious jobs, there’s concern they may lose their jobs if they don’t prove they’re working all the time," says Grant. "That’s also contributing to the ‘always on’ issue."
Even when we’re not working, we can’t switch off. Experts say our slavish relationship with screens, using them for everything from shopping to dating, perpetuates feelings of exhaustion.
In a recent New Yorker article on burnout, the American historian Jill Lepore wrote: "You can suffer from marriage burnout and parent burnout and pandemic burnout partly because, although burnout is supposed to be mainly about working too much, people now talk about all sorts of things that aren’t work as if they were: you have to work on your marriage, work in your garden, work out, work harder on raising your kids..."
For many of us, our sense of identity has become bound up in frenetic, goal-oriented activity, both at work and outside of it. "There’s a badge of honour in being busy," says Simon Shattock, family and couples psychotherapist at Clinical Partners. "What’s it all about? Who are we doing it for?"
Burned out of just stressed out
How do you know if you’re burned out rather than simply stressed? According to the World Health Organisation, burnout results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, and is characterised by the following: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. It is defined as an occupational phenomenon rather than a health condition. But if left unchecked, it can be detrimental to health.
"We know burnout predicts a cascade of physical health problems," says Grant, author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. "We know burnout is a predictor of depression, not surprisingly. Exhaustion often leads people to become really sad and the loss of energy is a big part of that. There’s evidence burnout also contributes to memory loss. When we’re exhausted we don’t commit things to memory as well as we did before."
Research has also linked burnout to sleep disturbances, weakened immune systems and a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, says Grant, "burnout for a lot of people causes these meta-anxieties, like ‘I’m worried I’m not going to be able to keep up’ and then ‘I’m worried I’m going to get more anxious and even more distracted by that’, and that becomes a loop."
Some will seek harmful ways to cope, such as by abusing alcohol.
Lola Borg, a psychotherapist, says a number of her clients are flagging during this pandemic. Their burnout is manifesting in a range of physical symptoms: aches, pains, backache, headache and disturbed sleep. "Stress comes and goes but burnout stays," she says. "It isn’t going to be fixed by a weekend away, it’s more prolonged than that."
Women more at risk
As for who is at greatest risk of burnout, Grant says it is not limited to any particular groups of people, but that burnout rates are slightly higher among women. One reason is that, because of the way they are socialised, and the persisting gender stereotypes that influence their behaviour, women are more likely to "feel pressure to be selfless and sacrifice themselves for other people, or their team or organisation".
Grant says: "We have evidence that when women are asked to pitch in or help out or even do office housework they feel more pressure to say yes and are more likely to get penalised by others for saying no."
A version of this happens in the home as well. "Even in dual career households, women still do the majority of the childcare and the housework and so that’s obviously a risk factor for burnout too," says Grant.
Quantity over quality
At work, it’s clear corporate culture plays a big part. Burnout appears to be more common in countries that equate success with long hours, says Grant. And the presenteeism so many fall victim to – the fetishisation of busyness – may be damaging us more than we realise.
"Hustle culture, where you prove your worth by working all the time, I don’t think is good for anyone," says Grant. From an employer’s perspective it is equally counterproductive. "We know the quality of work suffers as people take on more hours."
Grant recommends speaking to colleagues about the problem and collectively raising it with your employer. "As an individual you may not have that much power [to change the working culture] but as a group you have a voice," he points out. "Talk [to your employer] about the cost for motivation, performance and productivity if burnout is there."
Shattock advises that on a personal level we try ourselves to strengthen the distinction between work and life. "Establish your own cut-offs and say ‘I’m not going to be working past [such and such an hour]’, and let your employers know that," he says. "You could say ‘I will respond to emails between this hour and that hour’. Stick to it. Be clear with yourself, your family and your employers."
Me time is important
We must ensure we build in downtime, which is crucial for our brain to properly function, he says. Instead of feeling under pressure to spend our spare time being somehow productive, we should allow ourselves to spend time with friends and family, go for a walk, or undertake charitable endeavours. "Things that make us happy," says Shattock.
Activities we may want to limit include endless swiping down our screens, searching for the next minor buzz; responding instantaneously every time our phone pings; and receiving notifications at all.
"The reason we have religious holidays is for us to stop and think and reflect, and not necessarily be ‘doing’," Shattock adds. "Those religious contexts are helpful – they create a punctuation in people’s lives."
A happier, healthier existence, then, does not lie beyond our reach. We may find it by slowing down, it seems, and giving ourselves permission to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.