I recently listened to an episode of the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast about burnout called “Bossed Up” (Thanks for the podcast recommendation, Grad Gal Sal). In the episode, podcast hosts Cristen and Caroline interview Emilie Aries, founder and CEO of Bossed Up, a company that works to help women and workplaces achieve ‘sustainable success’.
Emilie started the company after experiencing her own burnout from working intense hours as a community organizer in her first job out of college. Emilie describes burnout as a serious physical and emotional state of chronic stress that leads to exhaustion, cynicism, and detachment. I’d heard of burnout before, but one part of her definition really stood out to me: burnout can make you feel less engaged in things that used to set you on fire.
Burnout can make you feel less engaged in things that used to set you on fire.
I am happy to report that I am not experiencing burnout right now; I’m in a fun, exciting phase of my PhD in which I’m excited about my research and really enjoy what I’m doing. I’m working long hours, but I don’t feel burnt out. However – as most PhD students (and all students, probably), the question of what I want to do when I’m done with graduate school is constantly in the back of my mind. When I think about what I want my future career to look like, I often feel that there are two sides of myself that are at odds. One side of me is ambitious, driven, and motivated and wants to find the most interesting, fulfilling, and meaningful work possible. The other side of me finds the idea of always pursuing the biggest challenge or opportunity exhausting!
When I heard these words about burnout leading to detachment from former passions , I instantly recognized two distinct phases of my life when I’ve experienced burnout but didn’t realize at the time what was going on. The first time was during my senior year of high school. I’d just finished applying to college and all of a sudden, I felt like I could stop sprinting. I took a bit of a break from all of my obligations, but then I found it hard to become engaged again in things I once really enjoyed. Instead of my competitive self wanting to be first chair violin in the orchestra, for example, I didn’t even audition my last semester.
The second time was during my senior year of college. I’ve written a bit about that experience here . Although I’d known for a few years that I wanted to pursue a PhD, when it came time to apply, I was so burnt out from classes and research and work that the thought of signing up for 6 more years was overwhelming. It wasn’t until I’d allowed myself to take an easy quarter that the idea of research began to sound appealing again.
I’m so glad I didn’t give up on the idea of graduate school because I was burnt out my senior year of college, but I came really close. Recognizing how burnout can affect my perspective of both the present and the future has helped me to realize how important it will be for me to make sure I’m in a good space, mentally and emotionally, before making any big career decisions. In reflecting on how burnout plays out in my life, I’ve realized that if I’m burnt out, I’m not ambitious. I don’t dream big for myself because the things I’m typically passionate about don’t get me going any more. The goals, dreams, and ambitions I have for myself are bigger and seem more achievable when I’m not burnt out.
So how do we recognize and prevent burnout?
Bossed Up has a quiz you can take to help assess whether you are currently experiencing burnout or are at risk of burning out. The questions that they ask can help you recognize things in your work life that may or may not be contributing to burnout.
Stuff Mom Never Told You compiled a list of articles with some tips and advice:
“How to Set Boundaries.” Oprah.
“The Smartest Career Move: Avoid Burnout.” Refinery 29.
“We’re Not Taking Enough Lunch Breaks: Why That’s Bad for Business.” NPR.
For me, simply being aware that burnout is something that impacts my ambition and abilities is the first step. I now know what to look out for in myself to make sure that I'm not at risk of burnout. The next step is to create work habits that help me maintain productivity and happiness for the long haul.
Want some Bossed Up inspiration? Check out their awesome manifesto below: