Burnout: The True Nature of Work-Life Balance
September 10, 2023
Work can fulfil, bore, satisfy, and overwhelm us. We may love our jobs, hate them or feel utterly indifferent. They can sometimes take over our lives - either through our own doing or beyond our control. In pursuit of a career progression, we may burn ourselves out, or find ourselves feeling lost, with our true talents criminally squirrelled away. In our anticipation of both career success and a happy and fulfilling personal life, we seek what’s often termed ‘work-life balance’. In this article, we’ll explore some of the themes around balancing work and life, and how a different conception may help us with stress and anxiety around work.
Work and Expectation
One of modernity’s defining features resides in our belief in the virtuous opportunity of self-fulfilment in our work. For centuries, work was toil. Simply a necessary part of life in which we must strap on our boots and mush. In ancient Greece and Rome, work was associated with slavery and servitude. In medieval Europe, it was seen as punishment for original sin; a suffering embedded in humanity’s earthly condition.
Fast forward to today, our expectations placed on work are not just a means to personal security, but a place in which we will hone our skills and develop ourselves. We often speak of jobs being ‘meaningful’, not necessarily with a charitable overtone, but with regard to how they allow us to behave and grow. What we term as ‘good’ jobs are those that help us uncover who we are, and offer a place for us to achieve things, elevating our self-image and worth.
It’s certainly a wonderful vision. And given the historical context, we might even feel lucky to be alive at a time when this is what work can offer. But it’s also an enormous amount of pressure. For with every failure to live up to an ideal, we may also feel disappointment and envy. And considering how rare it is that work offers both complete security and personal enjoyment and fulfilment, our expectations can often get the better of us.
As if the expectation of finding and excelling in one of these jobs wasn’t enough, we are also acutely aware of not letting our personal lives suffer too much because of it. The optimum choice is to be both living a fulfilling life outside of work while still achieving things within your career.
For some, achieving work-life balance is about setting boundaries. People often emphasise things like placing ‘rules’ around not engaging with work-related activities outside of work, no matter how small, as they subconsciously blur the lines between work and life.
While these techniques are undoubtedly helpful, they don’t get to the heart of the problem when it comes to work-life balance. Though it may sound pessimistic, what if truly, work-life balance is an almost unachievable thing?
Consider the fact that we, as human beings, are diverse creatures. We’re not like toasters, lawnmowers or microwaves - which while all are incredibly efficient in their set tasks, are unable to do anything else. In just one day we might run a marketing workshop, review a report, pick the kids up from school, cook dinner, watch a TV show and read a bedtime story.
What should come as no surprise, as it is the price we pay for being so diverse, is that we will not perform brilliantly at all of them. We might review the report well, enjoy the tv show and excite the kids with the story, but we will also mess up the workshop, forget the kids at school and resign to microwave meals that day instead of cooking. Tomorrow perhaps we’ll do the other things better, but almost inevitably at the cost of something else.
True work-life balance is a myth. They will always be in flux in some capacity, where a sacrifice is inescapable. What is important, is that we approach this with a level of acceptance and understanding of where our areas of deepest emotional importance may be.
When we feel that our work-life balance is off in some regard, we might use the term ‘burnout’. A loosely defined phrase might occur in one case when we’re feeling like we’re working too hard to the detriment of other things in our lives. It’s also attributed to another situation, where our lack of meaning, direction and fulfilment in our careers causes us to feel fatigued and unmotivated. This could be because our career path itself lacks what we need, or perhaps the company we’re at doesn’t provide the direction.
Burnout Through Overworking
How should we approach these feelings? Regarding the first case, we should question why we are working so much. It could be that, from a financial point of view, we are forced to overwork in order to make ends meet. Going down the usual roots of financial assistance through government means and other organisations can help with this. And though it may seem unrealistic during times of desperation, making sacrifices for more personal time may be essential for greater emotional well-being.
If financial need is not a driver, it may be one of two things. A feeling that we need to work so much to maintain our position in regard to expectations placed by our peers or other people in life. Or a feeling that we simply can’t personally shut ourselves off to it. To return to our notion of work-life balance, we should ask ourselves whether our current level of sacrifice is something we really feel is sustainable. Does the fact that we feel burnt out indicate our true emotional needs lie elsewhere, perhaps in having more time for pursuits in our personal lives?
The first step towards addressing this requires, however, that we know we shouldn’t expect it all to be possible.
Burnout through lack of meaning or direction
And what about when we feel unfulfilled at work? While the obvious consideration around moving a career in a different direction might be fruitful, we should also remember a couple of other things here.
First is to return to what we looked at first, our expectations around work. Perhaps it sounds defeatist, but knowing that for many people, work never quite lives up to the ideal we set for ourselves in the modern age, we can be free of the stress of expecting it to be. When work becomes about securing your livelihood primarily and not a great deal more, we can begin on a track that appreciates its small pleasures, while focusing our attention towards where our lives really happen.
We may feel virtuous in our achievements beyond the working day. If it continues to allow us to follow a path through life where we feel meaning and purpose in other places, it does in fact serve us well.
Secondly, we might also ask ourselves whether our feeling of sorrow is truly about the work. Ultimately if we know there is a sacrifice at the heart of every ‘work-life balance’, and we are feeling without meaning, then it could be a lack of fulfilment in a personal sense which we are in fact attributing to our careers. In this case, taking time and seeking help from friends and professionals may be a positive step to getting to the true cause of this lack of fulfilment.
If you find yourself struggling with symptoms of burnout or need guidance to create a better work-life balance, visit Mindsum to book your free initial consultation with a qualified mental health professional.