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31 January 2023

We’re talking about “burnout” wrong

Through overuse and misuse, the term has lost all meaning.

By Sarah Manavis

In the last decade on social media, few trends have persisted as much as the pathologisation of common behaviours and phenomena. Online, scientific-sounding terms such as “productivity dysmorphia” and “gaslighting” abound – used to describe a whole host of issues of varying severity in work and relationships. The same labels can be used to describe two completely different experiences: both an abusive relationship and a friend seeking emotional support could be described as “toxic”; both being exploited at work and spending too much money in social situations could be signs of “impostor syndrome”. Having been spread as thinly as humanly possible, these terms have lost all meaning, with their true definitions obscured by overuse and misuse. And though some terms have questionable origins, others described very real, often serious phenomena.

Of all these, none has had quite the same level of use and abuse as the term “burnout”. Defined as an “occupational phenomenon” in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases and coined to describe the severe stress experienced by people such as doctors and nurses, “burnout” has now become a loaded term, lazily attached to almost any fatigue. On social media there is little distinction between medically-endorsed signs of burnout, such as the exhaustion experienced by intensive care doctors regularly enduring emotionally devastating 24-hour shifts, and those assigned on social media, such as the tendency to procrastinate or poor performance. Over the last five years this once useful term has had been drained of its value and meaning.

In January 2019 the journalist Anne Helen Petersen, then on staff at BuzzFeed, wrote a viral piece headlined “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” in which she detailed how small tasks became insurmountable for her because of burnout – caused by late stage capitalism and millennials’ unique misfortune of being the first generation worse off than the last. This problem was not only hers but something she saw as happening on a mass scale for young people. “Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further,” she wrote, “burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.”

While “burnout” is usually identified by psychologists through three key traits – emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation or cynicism, and a sense of personal ineffectiveness – in Petersen’s piece the word was frequently attached to any problem that could be loosely described as a “millennial” one. The article, and her subsequent book on the subject, saw signs of “burnout” in everything from an aversion to gardening to spending lots of time on Instagram. Now, suggested “symptoms” of burnout on social media are farcically wide-ranging – from the obvious extremes (constant exhaustion and detachment from daily life) to minor everyday experiences (feeling tired even after drinking extra coffee, a lack of motivation to exercise and eating junk food). These subtle signs are proliferated by productivity influencers and wellness gurus, who now operate in their own cottage industry of burnout content creators: educating, diagnosing and providing (typically paid-for) solutions. The popularity of this content can’t be overstated: today, the hashtag for #burnout yields more than 4 million Instagram posts and 3.5 billion views on TikTok.

Though, of course, you might be experiencing burnout while exhibiting these traits, wanting to have a snack in lieu of going for a run seems more commonplace than the opposite. Yet these are now the things that much of the internet most closely associates with burnout. This doesn’t just make “burnout” meaningless: the dilution of the word has also had the knock-on effect of obscuring the fact that burnout is a real problem. The confluence of many different socio-economic “crises”, be it the cost of living or housing, or the lingering impacts of the pandemic, has left much of the under-40 population broke, shaken, and with an uncertain future. Feeling exhausted by work and life is a natural and understandable response. But if everyone is “burnt out”, no one is.

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How then are we supposed to have an honest discussion about what true burnout looks like, and the available solutions? Professor Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist at Yale University, believes that the frequent and sometimes “flippant” use of the term online has as many downsides as benefits. “In some ways, social media is great because we’re all talking about what’s going on psychologically, and it’s important to be able to share things like the fact that we might be feeling depressed or that we might be feeling anxious,” she says. “But the problem is, when we get clinical syndromes wrong, that can allow us to mistake some of the most critical symptoms that we need to be paying attention to.”

The solutions available to help someone deal with extreme burnout are not necessarily going to help someone who is a bit rundown, physically exhausted, or experiencing another serious mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. If we continue to categorise all kinds of common bad feelings as symptoms of burnout, many could be sent down a useless recovery path – missing out on treatment plans and medication. “We need to be accurate in how we’re talking about these syndromes, so that people can recognise when they’re really going through something and when they really need to make changes,” Santos says.

There are many social impacts of the mass misdiagnosis of mental health issues online – as well as the widespread impulse to dress up all manner of societal and interpersonal problems with medical-sounding language. But burnout’s misrepresentation on social media has palpable, immediate consequences for those truly suffering from it. The continued watering down of the term means everyone loses, with real symptoms and solutions lost in the flattened rhetoric of relatable content. If we are going to seriously address burnout we don’t need new information, or even new terminology, but a clearer and better way of talking about it.

[See also: Are you mentally ill, or very unhappy? Psychiatrists can’t agree]

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