July 26, 2021

Burned out? What we need is a new bank holiday | Eva Wiseman

After an endless year of WFH and juggling home schooling with caring responsibilities, is it...

After an endless year of WFH and juggling home schooling with caring responsibilities, is it any wonder most of us feel like a pile of smouldering ashes? What we need is a break

I was trying to describe to my daughter what it feels like when your eye twitches. “Like a very tiny harpist is plucking on your lashes. How did he get so tiny? Possibly an evil curse.” She was becoming visibly horrified. “OK, not that then. Like your face is a lake and up in the corner a duckling is paddling very fast but getting nowhere, possibly stuck in weeds, or the plastic six-pack ring left behind by an irresponsible picnicker. No, no, OK, scrap that – imagine your brain is trying to get your attention by spitting rhythmically on the inside of your eyeball. It is angry and forgotten and trying finally to escape its hard white shell.” She was rocking by now, her hands over her ears, the low moan of a child praying for a snack and an exit, and as I looked back at my computer, where Zoom was asking me to give feedback on the quality of my most recent meeting, a word resurfaced from the wreck of my brain: burnout.

Burnout. The image of a candle puddled in its own wax; the smell of burned hair. A banker, stumbling through the city at dawn, his eyes blank and round like coins. A doctor at the end of a shift, the lines from their face mask now dark as stage makeup. And then, us, everyone else who has picked their way through the litter of the past year, trying desperately to find something of value. Everyone else who has tried to hold on to jobs while trying to look after their families and trying to stay physically healthy in ways that didn’t make them mentally unhealthy, and trying to manage their anger. Burnout was added to the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases) in 2019, and is defined by the World Health Organisation as an occupational phenomenon that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. People suffering from it report “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion”, “feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job” and “reduced professional efficacy, or ability to be effective at their jobs”. Familiar?

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