One morning in late September, I woke up just before dawn still at my computer. I had been attempting an all-nighter, my fourth or fifth in six months. As the sky started to lighten I went to bed, setting an alarm for two hours’ time; then I started up again, racing to meet a noon deadline. By then I had been working most of the last 24 hours, and most of the last six weeks.
The crash, when it inevitably came, was more of a hard stop. At around 11.30am my hands froze on the keyboard: I simply could not type another word. Trying to will myself on was a surprisingly physical sensation. I was pushing on a pedal that had got me this far – and finding, with mounting distress, that the tank was bone dry. Closing my laptop felt like a failure.
I have always loved to work. My job as a journalist permeates my life in a way that is highly rewarding, but occasionally destructive: in 10 years I have burned out three times, from taking on too much and not asking for help. I have learned to guard against these instincts by making plans away from my computer. With lockdown, those external checks were suddenly gone.
Work quickly expanded to fill the gaps – partly in the absence of anything else worthwhile to do, and partly because of the fear – as my peers were made redundant and budgets shrank – that every commission would be my last. I said yes to everything I was offered, and pitched to do more. My mantra, when friends expressed concern or I let myself feel daunted, was: “The only way out is through.” But there were clues that I was on a collision course.
When the lockdown lifted, my friend and her boyfriend, a doctor, came round for dinner. I made a comment about my lack of sleep, and the fact that I had another story to finish once they’d gone. What’s the worst that can happen, I said flippantly. “Well – cancer,” he said . Yet still I kept pushing.
I am sure that my editors would have happily extended my deadlines, had I only told them I was struggling. But all my energy was spent keeping myself in motion, as if to pause for a moment would cause me to finally crash.
It is telling of how little I understood the idea of “self-care” – and the disservice I was doing myself as a consequence – that my only concessions were superficial and consumerist. One day I set out from my flat with the explicit intent – I don’t know where it came from – of buying a scented candle. Any attempt to create balance was overshadowed by looming deadlines: I rushed to finish a story before a massage appointment, only to then spend the hour thrumming with anxiety about how much I still had to do.
While I can laugh now, it’s revealing of my loss of perspective that the 12pm deadline I finally gave up trying to meet was entirely self-imposed; and the piece was a 15-year retrospective on Twilight. If work addiction was real, as my desperate Googling that day suggested, this was surely rock bottom. But for the first time in my experience of burnout, in among the usual panic, exhaustion, misery and self-loathing, there was a steely centre of clarity, and even resolve: I didn’t want to live this way any more.
My breakthrough came while I was interviewing a psychologist about self-compassion. She mentioned that some people’s response to feeling stressed, anxious or powerless was to lean harder on their brain’s “drive” system, governing accomplishment and acquisition – ironically further triggering the “threat” system.
For the first time I understood why, when I felt overwhelmed with work, I would often let off steam by pitching for more of it. The way to break the cycle, the psychologist said, was to train up the “soothing” system to intervene with self-compassion: denying that you were struggling only made it worse.
I am sharing my story not because it is exceptional, but because I’m convinced it isn’t. Many people are labouring in prisons of their own making, downplaying very real suffering because it is not a matter of life or death and others have it worse. For all the discussion of burnout at a societal level, we don’t often talk about individual experiences of it – perhaps because it seems self-indulgent or shameful.
It certainly struck me as faintly ludicrous that I could burn out at home while in complete control of my schedule and doing highly non-essential work. But as I continued to research compassion-focused therapy, pioneered by Prof Paul Gilbert, an unexpected link emerged between my dysfunctional relationship with work and wider society.
Gilbert explained how the same competitive mindset that pushed me towards overwork also underpinned a culture that equated work with identity and self-worth, not as a means to an end; and an economy that says more is better. It was what I needed to hear to join the dots between personal and political.
One of the pieces I had written in the thick of my overwhelming schedule was, ironically, about the history of work. The anthropologist James Suzman had told me that instead of taking advantage of efficiency gains from technology to increase leisure time, in the early 20th century western society had opted to double down on supposedly infinite growth – and work more. The present-day understanding of work as a source of personal satisfaction, by which I’d organised most of my adult life, had in fact begun as a management principle to justify extending the working day.
The more I learned about the capitalist imperatives underpinning my own drive to work, the angrier I got – not least at myself for buying into them. But by understanding how I fit into a broader system I feel more able to resist it. Getting eight hours of sleep and cultivating self-compassion suddenly registered as important not just for my own wellbeing, but for modelling a more sustainable way of working.
The sea change against “hustle culture” this year has been striking. Billboards have been put up calling for a four-day week, arguing that we should respond to the economic fallout of Covid-19 by working less, not more. The paradigm shift of the pandemic seems to have focused people on the substance of their lives – what really matters – revealing workaholism as a shabby substitute for meaning. Even work you enjoy “will not disguise its lack”, wrote Zadie Smith from quarantine: “There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do.”
My lesson this year was that work alone would not sustain me, no matter how much I gave over to it – that I cannot love what I do, and treat myself with blatant disregard. My hope for next year and beyond is to find value, and meaning, in balance. The only way out is through, I’d told myself – but the same can be said of life.