An illustration of a man 'burning out' at his work-from-home desk, parodying the popular 'This is fine' meme.
An illustration of a man 'burning out' at his work-from-home desk, parodying the popular 'This is fine' meme.

I’m not sure where to begin with my lockdown woes, so I start by telling Anne Helen Peterson that when lockdown came into effect last year, I used to position my laptop within eyesight while I did the dishes, “just to see if I got any emails or work messages” and… she laughs.

For Peterson, that professional paranoia is a familiar feeling; it’s the one that drove her to writing her new book Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, about the myriad social, economic and political forces that have conspired to make our current working climate – job precarity, economic recessions, a gruelling and underpaid gig economy, school debt, and the conflation of passion and profession all play a role – one of the most taxing in modern history.

For years, in the face of disappearing entry-level positions and AI replacing others, millennials have struggled with securing permanent work. But the pandemic is making it even worse, and it isn’t just millennials having problems: between pandemic-related furloughs and redundancies, there’s an increased sense among those lucky enough to still have jobs that they need to demonstrate why they deserve them.

‘Presenteeism’ – “our need to like we’re always working and present on emails and Slack,” as Petersen calls it – is a symptom of this moment. “Like, ‘Are my colleagues going to think because I didn’t get that message that I’m slacking off?’ When in reality, maybe you’re absorbed by a project, concentrating on some other work. But we’ve internalised this idea that our dedication is signalled by our immediate response.”

Petersen has been the go-to expert on burnout since 2019, when she published the viral longform essay on Buzzfeed that identified the burnout phenomenon and informed her new book. It was a no-brainer, when I started feeling the insistent malaise of lockdown – trying to stay ahead of work and maintain my own well-being – that she was the person to call.

As Petersen attests, burnout can take a variety of forms: ‘errand paralysis’, in which a burned-out individual can finish big, pressing work tasks but find it incredibly difficult to finish smaller errands such as doing laundry or mailing a package; or an inability to make even small choices, such as whether to go for a much-needed walk in the middle of your workday. For me, it was the disappearing line between work and leisure. How do I find rest and respite when ‘work’ is my kitchen table, and ‘rest’ is my sofa, five steps away; when work is my laptop and rest is… the exact same laptop?

“If we weren’t in a pandemic and locked down, people would be trying to show their dedication through hours in the office, but since we can’t do that, it has to be online,” explains Petersen. “The end result is this feeling that you’re always working, but also always kind of not working. You’re always half-on, half off: always checking your email, but also always checking your Instagram. It’s constant, and there’s no delineation between leisure time and work time.”

This eternal state of in-betweenness is disturbing the human need for release, Petersen argues.

“One of the huge feelings that leads to burnout is never feeling done. Working in a way that doesn’t lead to burnout is ‘Okay, I have a task, so I’m going to work on that task, finish it, and then I’m going to rest.’ But we don’t have that feeling of completion right now, and we don’t have that feeling of rest. We just keep going.”

Many of these problems pre-date the pandemic: “Our impulse to work, to be productive, and to be present,” Petersen says, “is often a response to feelings of job insecurity. There’s this great study from this book called Counterproductive, by a researcher named Melissa Gregg, where she traces the rise of different productivity apps and self-help books for being a better employee, and you can see these spikes in the 1980s, during a recession in America when all those books started to be really popular, and then the apps becoming incredibly popular in the aftermath of the great recession in 2008.

“Basically, people are obsessed with improving, and showing that productivity, when their job is under threat. How do you distinguish yourself as indispensable, someone who is not going to be subject to redundancies? By working all the time.”

And if my dish-washing shenanigans are any indication, working from home isn’t helping.

“Stress incapacitates us, makes it difficult to do other things in our lives. It overwhelms the brain, and makes it feel like any decision or activity is really difficult; something that might genuinely make you feel better, like taking a walk, feels like too much of a decision. Even though your body is screaming ‘Let me stop working’ in so many ways: the discomfort of sitting at your weird ‘working from home’ desk, your eyes hurting from your screen, maybe a headache. I got gamer’s thumb from working – it’s seriously called gamer’s thumb!”

Petersen’s book claims there’s no ‘cure’ for burnout: it’s a symptom of a number of infrastructural and societal factors. But by this point in our conversation, I’m desperate – surely, I ask, there are things we can do to minimise the struggle?

“I think there is. Keeping that idea in your head is really important: not just that the system is failing us generally, but also we’re in a pandemic. We have this tendency to really individualise whatever’s happening, feeling like you are failing. It’s not just you; it’s systemic. Embracing that is a first step.”

Petersen points to a general lack of New Year’s resolutions this January – a feeling that there’s ‘no need to sparkle’ at a time when sparkling seems out of the question anyway – as a “silver lining” of the pandemic.

“It has deadened that capitalist impulse to always at least be self-improving. The whole idea of ‘dry January’, of getting in shape, getting more organised are all aimed at making you more a productive, more optimised body. There’s something pretty compelling about letting go of that impulse and that opportunity to be like ‘What can I do to make myself better?’; now it’s ‘What can I do to get through this?’”

Petersen has some suggestions.

“Get on the phone. The other day, a friend of mine called me out of the blue, and we talked for an hour like it was high school. It was an actual, spontaneous connection with someone – something we’ve stopped cultivating in our lives. It’s also useful – and I fail at this all the time – to try to figure out the boundary to not allow work into some spaces of my life. One thing I do is when I take my dogs for a walk, I don’t take my phone. Otherwise, work will be there with me.”

I mention my 7 p.m. cocktail to Petersen, a not-quite-daily-but-certainly-more-than-weekly routine that has helped draw a much-needed line between work and leisure – a burnout safeguard, surely?

“I totally think that’s fine. When the pandemic is over, certainly let’s check back in and see if that behaviour is ongoing and still suits us – maybe we shouldn’t have a drink like that for the rest of our lives, but it’s something that makes this moment a bit more bearable. It’s not dulling your senses; in this case, it’s adding something dynamic, a new and different moment to your day. There has to be context; this is how people are surviving in this moment. Making people feel bad about their survival doesn’t have to be the way we talk about things.”

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin, inspired by the work of KC Green

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