When you’re burned out on your work, nothing seems satisfying. You’re working long hours, and you start to disassociate; you feel as if you’re watching someone else do your job. You’re cynical, and even when you’re succeeding professionally, you’re not able to appreciate your accomplishments. Psychologists typically associate these symptoms with burnout syndrome, which is recognized by the World Health Organization as a diagnosable mental health disorder and is included in the 10th International Classification of Diseases (ICD 10) as an undefined additional diagnostic term. Although it isn’t yet recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), several countries (including Sweden) consider it to be a legitimate reason for taking sick leave. The good news—and yes, there is good news—is that you’re not alone. According to one Swedish study (remember, Sweden has acknowledged burnout as a significant problem, so they’re decades ahead in terms of research), about 13 percent of workers suffer from burnout, and women tend to have higher burnout rates than men. Why the discrepancy? To some degree, that’s still up for debate, but some psychologists believe that women might provide more emotional support in the office than their male colleagues. For instance, if a co-worker is feeling stressed out, you might feel responsible for consoling them, but your male co-workers might not feel the same responsibility. Institutional sexism, we meet again. Successful, career-driven women are especially vulnerable to burnout. When Emilie Aries was only 21, she’d accomplished some incredible things; she was the youngest state director in the nation working on behalf of President Obama’s Organizing for America campaign, and she was in a leadership position in the midst of the Great Recession. “For all intents and purposes, I was doing well—on paper,” Aries tells HealthyWay. “I was doing work I cared about. And who was I to complain? I’d achieved everything I wanted, straight out of graduation.” Behind the scenes, however, Aries was suffering. She was exhausted from work, but there’s more to burnout than just working long hours. The Stanford Social Innovation Review lists lack of rest, feeling a loss of control, and not having a strong community in your life as contributors to burnout, too—and Aries was experiencing all of these. Today, Aries runs Bossed Up, an organization that raises awareness for occupational burnout while providing supportive resources for professional women. Her goal is to promote sustainable careers, and yes, she’s as awesome as she sounds. We spoke with Aries to learn more about her experience and to find out how we can recognize—and deal with—the symptoms of burnout.
HealthyWay: Before we discuss burnout, could you briefly explain what Bossed Up does?
Aries: We’re a training company that helps women navigate career transitions. We have a special eye towards preventing burnout so that women can craft happy, healthy, sustainable career paths. I started it back in 2013 after burning myself out in the world of organizing and advocacy. And it was ironic, because I got very good at helping people make their voices heard and advocating on behalf of the causes and campaigns that I believed in, but I really had trouble advocating on my own behalf. I couldn’t draw the healthy boundaries I needed to be sustainable. I had to bottom out to recognize that this is something a lot of women face. We’re living in a world that’s not quite sure it likes women who advocate on their own behalf. So I set out to really understand that problem better, and in doing so, I learned so much about how to sit in the driver’s seat in my own career that I had to share it with other people. We have a ton of free resources online and a very active community of women who are doing just that through online and in-person training programs.
When you experienced burnout, what was it like? What were some of the signs you noticed?
Well, I think burnout is so troubling in that it really afflicts the highest achievers in an organization. That was certainly true in my case. I was sad, and I felt like I dreaded going to work. I didn’t know how to turn off. I was working all the time. I was glued to my Blackberry and iPhone before my feet hit the ground every morning. It made me realize that even though I care a lot about this work, it makes the people who are the most passionate—well, it makes them become not passionate. It dims the light of the people who were once so ambitious.
Was there a tipping point, or a single event, where your occupational burnout became overwhelming?
I distinctly remember driving through campus at my alma mater, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and I was bone-tired. It was one of those days where I had events all night, up and down the state. I was rushing from one thing to the next, and I stopped at a crosswalk and saw these young students who were only three years younger than me. They were rolling their bags home for Thanksgiving break. Something in me just snapped; I felt so jealous of those students—even though I was supposedly ahead of them in life. I paid attention to that jealousy. I caught myself feeling bad for feeling sad. That meta-level of emotions—I should not feel ungrateful, I should not feel unhappy, I should be grateful for any job—helped me realize that [I was burned out]. I was jealous of these students because, in my professional life, I’d been waiting for permission to take a break. I was waiting for someone to tell me that it was the end of a semester. You know, life doesn’t work that way after graduation, and that’s when I realized I needed to make a change.
What did you do to deal with burnout once you realized this was affecting you?
It started with getting help, frankly. I was dealing with a lot. I wasn’t just dealing with work stress—in many cases, burnout is not just a product of overwork. I was also dealing with a partner at the time whom I cared for deeply, whom I lived with, who was struggling with alcoholism. Anyone whose life has ever been touched by addiction knows that they call it a family disease for a reason. It’s extremely excruciating to watch someone you care about slowly harm themselves. So I was juggling, in a sense. I was trying to look like I had it all together, and so I was isolated at work and at home. There were a couple things that really changed the game for me. One was getting help, professional help. I’d never been to therapy before—nobody I knew had been to therapy before—and I ended up talking to my primary care physician about the burnout. That felt good, to finally confide in someone else. She said, “Let’s get you into therapy, and then we’ll deal with your boyfriend, who clearly needs therapy.” I couldn’t refuse, and that was a game changer. The other variable that really changed was that I applied the products of therapy; I now have the time and space to actually think about myself. It’s socially acceptable for me to think about myself—what I want, where I’m going. For the first time in three years, I took my nose off the grindstone for a second and didn’t just focus on doing well for others. I had permission to spend some time in that mental space, that headspace. From that mindfulness, I started creating rituals in my life. I started walking more—I had gone from being a college athlete to avoiding the gym entirely, so I changed that. Finally, I received support from my community. That’s huge. I had professional help, I had time and space to think about what I wanted for the first time, and I connected with close friends in a really meaningful way. Right after graduation, we’d all scattered across the country, and I felt really detached. I started to change that. Once you reconnect with the people who really trust and love you, who really see you for the courageous person you are—even if you don’t see that in yourself—that’s a game changer. So those are the things that I recognize now, and the research shows that those things are a huge part of what leads people to burnout: a lack of community, a lack of a sense of agency in your life, a lack of rest and renewal.
It sounds like dealing with burnout was a long process. I wouldn’t think it was easy to realize you were burned out on your career.
It’s sad that you have to learn it this way. That’s the irony. I was a budding political rockstar in the state of Rhode Island, and I had to make this decision: Can I be this fierce of a woman with so much ambition while taking care of myself? Like actually fully embracing sustainability? And the answer is yes. You have to. Otherwise, you’ll burn out, then you’ll bottom out. Obviously, I didn’t know that, so I was more focused on working more and more. How can I get more done? How can I outperform everyone around me? How can I continue to get straight As? And that’s not how life works after graduation, right? There’s no syllabus to follow. So I think it was a hard lesson to learn, but it reminded me that I’m the main character in my life, in my career, and I’m the one who’s going to decide what I do with it.
Tell me about how you overcame occupational burnout. I’m guessing it wasn’t easy.
For me, it was a series of very hard decisions. I had to walk away from the career I’d started to build. I left my relationship, which was extremely difficult and dangerous, and that was a very scary thing to do. That also left me with thousands of dollars of debt, just because of how ugly things became. On top of everything, I chose to move to Washington, D.C.
Because I wanted to. [laughs] That’s the thing, there was no good reason. There was no right answer. I’ve been waiting for all these people to give me permission to just pursue a career, and I was done with that. I decided that I wanted to live in D.C., and I knew I could find a way to make that work given my political background. That meant getting a one-bedroom apartment and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. I found myself rebuilding everything when I was 24 years old. I got another job, but it wasn’t another state director job—I could clock in at 9, clock out at 6, and pay the bills. I got out of credit card debt. I got in the best shape of my life. I spent more time on myself. And that physical strength gave me a ton of mental strength, which helped me really reflect on what I’d overcome and how I could help other women overcome it with less isolation.
One of the things I’ve seen that Bossed Up does is kind of fight back against the culture that doesn’t accept that burnout exists. You also tackle the gender discrepancies that make it a common problem for women.
There’s not a ton of great, widely cited research that highlight gender discrepancies, and I think that more research [needs to be] done. What we do know is that stress, in general, absolutely hits women and people of color in different ways than white, male-identifying folks. It has much more to do, in my opinion, with how life looks outside of work than it does inside the workplace. We know that full-time working women are still doing twice the amount of housework that full-time working men are doing. Sadly, that’s the best that ratio has ever been. I guess the good news is that men are doing more around the house than ever before, but the disparity is so enormous to me. It’s just no wonder that it feels like a very radical act to embrace self-care as a part of your daily or weekly routine, especially after kids arrive.
I was going to ask about that. Pursuing a career while being a mother—it’s not like your responsibilities as a parent disappear when you get to your workplace.
I think that being childless is an often invisible privilege. Folks like myself can take that for granted, especially when it comes to having agency of your own. And having agency is a really important thing for warding off burnout. That’s even if you have the privilege of having a partner. Maybe you’re a single parent, maybe you’re doing this whole thing on your own, or maybe you’re just a single person who doesn’t have someone else to help with the laundry or make dinner when you’re having a crazy week. So there’s also some burden there on single folks that can be overlooked. It’s just that the basic mechanics of our workplaces are designed for a traditional family unit that’s not really all that prevalent anymore. Work is designed for someone who has a wife at home, who’s taking care of the home front. If we were all so lucky! That’s just not how things work anymore.
Yeah, that’s a great point. The work day, expectations of work, career paths—those things haven’t really changed that much since the 1950s.
Exactly! So we have to start to look at the structural assumptions we’re making about where employees’ lives happen. We’re long past the time in which workplace flexibility should’ve been a basic part of the worker’s experience. I also want to make sure we acknowledge racial disparity. There’s a term in the research called racial battle fatigue, and it really points to this added layer of stress that minority folks [experience] in a majority environment. That’s any type of minority group, by the way. The “minority” might be men in nursing, for example, or it might mean people of color on a predominantly white college campus. More often, this affects racial minorities, but anyone in a minority–majority environment experiences this added layer of stress due to everyday microaggressions.
How might those microaggressions contribute to burnout among women?
Let’s say there’s only one woman in the office in the board meeting. [And there’s] a seemingly innocuous comment: “Hey Suzie, would you mind taking notes?” The assumption that Suzie is the note-taker can feel like a microaggression. It makes her pause and think, “Am I being judged based on my gender here?” These types of comments don’t seem to be a big deal, but they can chip away at your sense of belonging, adding to your stress and adding to that feeling of detachment. The point is that, yes, it’s important to recognize that happier and healthier workers are more productive and that we can craft sustainable workplaces. But the way that burnout manifests for women and people of color—and especially for women of color—is different, as they encounter additional burdens or stressors in a [workplace culture] that’s chronically stressful.
In other words, we shouldn’t assume two people with the same job are experiencing the same amount of stress from that job.
I think that’s a really important point. What can we do—either as employees or employers—to fight for a more flexible workplace where burnout is less of a problem?
That’s a good question. I think every workplace is different. Every career path is different. From the employer’s standpoint, it requires having courageous conversations with employees about stress. More importantly, it’s about setting expectations for rest and renewal. If a company says, “We really believe in taking vacation,” but then the CEO and all the managers are sending emails when they’re supposed to be on vacation—you know, they’re not practicing what they’re preaching. You need to create a culture where sustainability is actually practiced. For employees, I think it requires ditching the martyrdom mindset—the idea that in order to be successful, you must suffer. It’s so ingrained in the American dream; we pride ourselves on our productivity, but we’ve hit the point of diminishing returns. More hours doesn’t produce better rewards. So instead, we need to recognize our choices. We need to recognize the power we already have in our lives, at every level, and not wait for permission to put our oxygen masks on first in order to help others.
What does that look like? What can a person do if they’re starting to encounter burnout?
Maybe that means meditating a couple of times a day when you’re feeling really stressed. Maybe it’s about refusing to relinquish control of our lives—saying things like, “I can’t,” “You don’t understand,” “My career path is special,” “No.” It’s recognizing that we all have choices. We all have power over how we bring more community and agency into our own lives. Figure out what renewal looks like for you because it can be very different for different kinds of people. It’s hard work. In our culture, we sometimes get this idea that we need to sprint to keep up with the Joneses, or maybe the Instagram of the Joneses, for this era. But it’s about enjoying the ride. It’s about crafting a way to do what you want to do in a sustainable way. When you make it to the finish line, can you really enjoy it if you’re crawling over that finish line? I don’t think so. Success feels so hollow when you’re too burned out to achieve it. Remember, if you’re suffering from occupational burnout syndrome, the safest course of action is to seek professional treatment. To learn more about Emilie Aries and her work, visit Bossed Up. Finally, studies show that environment makes a big difference in workplace stress levels, so support your co-workers while demanding the same levels of support. We’re all in this together.