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The Burnout Generation: how do we recover from our collective workaholism?

There’s a lot of chatter about performative workaholism, which promotes a hustle-focused and burnout-inducing lifestyle.

Last month, a Buzzfeed essay about how millennials became the ‘burnout generation’ went viral, and was followed by New York Times writer Erin Griffith questioning why young people are pretending to love work.

At some point, performative workaholism became the norm, with expectations for non-stop performance hitting an alltime high. This is fuelled partly by technology, which has extended our working hours and interferes with downtime, and partly by those who capitalise from this always-on working culture.

But performance is not all we should care about in our work lives — resilience is key since we can’t survive the rat race without it. Resilience is how you recharge and take care of yourself, not how you endure and plod along. Indeed, one of the biggest problems is that many organisations and leaders promote resilience the wrong way.

In an excellent Harvard Business Review article, researchers Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan wrote, “We often take a militaristic approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. However, this entire conception is scientifically inaccurate.”

To recover from workaholism we must do away with misconceptions about what it means to be resilient.

Encouraging resilient and growth mindsets in people is great. We should all be able to learn how to deal with obstacles, develop ourselves, aim higher and view mistakes as learning opportunities. However, the Facebook ethos of ‘move fast and break things’ is not how a resilience or growth mindset should be promoted. The ‘fail fast’ mentality is a forced pace and rather than learning from situations to grow and develop, it’s about getting the failing out of the way quickly to reach a commercial outcome as soon as possible.

We must recognise that resilience goes hand in hand with rest and recovery. To applaud employees for staying in the office until midnight to finish a project, is to feed the misconceptions about resilience. As the above Harvard Business Review piece states, a lack of recovery — whether by disrupting sleep thinking about work or constant cognitive arousal by checking our phones — is costing companies $62 billion a year in lost productivity. Having restorative rest away from work, both physically and mentally, is key in becoming more resilient and reducing burnout.

Build recovery times within and outside of your workday

Our brains need as much rest as our bodies do, so as well as taking longer breaks away from work through free time during holidays and weekends, short bursts of relaxation throughout the workday will do us all good. This includes anything that can shift your focus — from a short walk outside to moving onto other work when feeling depleted.

This kind of recovery requires us to put things into perspective, challenge our thoughts and accept when we need to take a break, change course, give up, or even accept when a mistake has been made so we can move on.

Control overworking by working smarter, not harder

While technology is part of the root of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. Use time tracking platforms like Toggl to ensure you don’t get stuck on one task for longer than is necessary, or apps like Offtime to ensure you don’t get distracted by never-ending chats, emails and app notifications.

Try to practice being flexible in your thinking and behaviour by finding new and more effective ways to do things or change course depending on the situation. We could all benefit from being a little less hard on ourselves in a bid to turn destructive workaholism and burnout around.

The idea that you just push yourself through challenges and come out at the other end loving your job, that is not what resilience is about. We must do away with the destructive attitudes to working life like ‘move fast and break things’ and ‘don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re finished’. To continue to thrive, we must build real resilience and in the end, a resilient person is a well-rested one.