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?
With the pandemic came a merging of home and worklife that meant not only were caring responsibilities increased, as schools closed and childcare evaporated, but so were working hours, with people in the UK reported to have increased their working week by almost 25%, or two hours a day. Even as lockdowns ease, our reliance on screens remains: Ofcom research revealed recently that the British are the biggest “internet addicts” in Europe, our inability to look away perpetuating feelings of exhaustion. And so we have started to burn. Eye twitches, tears, a feeling of empty, aching tiredness that climbs from the knees to the shoulders, then falls asleep there. A new pandemic, measured in stress and cynicism, has followed Covid like a vapour trail.
And some companies are taking note, spraying their workers’ smouldering ashes. Apple has announced a new iPhone update. “Focus mode” will stop devices from sending notifications from certain contacts outside working hours. Last week the dating app Bumble announced it had given its entire global workforce of 700 a week of paid holiday to help tackle “collective burnout”. It was welcome – I can only imagine what it must have been like to work at a dating app through 2020, while Covid prodded humans everywhere with alternate sticks of loneliness and libido. These tech workers held entire relationships in their hands as people met and made love online only. It’s no wonder they burned out – there is only so much heat one person can take.
LinkedIn, Facebook and Google made similar moves, with more surely to follow – . It would not be out of the question, would it, for our government to enforce a new bank holiday along these lines? A column I once wrote that received a disproportionate amount of abuse was a lightly comic suggestion that I do not find bank holidays relaxing. That, actually, I find a day at work more relaxing than the pressure of a day to relax, where I’m responsible for feeding, entertaining and disciplining young children without the bliss of my own company and a bestselling thriller on a morning commute. So I will not make the mistake of sharing that again. Instead, I urge the PM to announce a new bank holiday, a burnoutwardbound day if you will, for those of us who no longer walk from bed to desk to begin another day of trying to do our best, but crawl, whimpering. It can’t hurt, much.
But, what then? What happens the following day, when we return to our desks tanned and ice-creamed, refreshed after a day looking at our phones rather than laptops? Sending emails at dawn to show we are present, that we exist, updating shared docs at midnight to show we are indispensable and really quite clever. Spending spare minutes on our second job, which is uploading memes to various social media accounts that joke about how fabulously, dangerously busy we are. How will we prevent burning out again, when we have become so accustomed to proving our worth by working? Whose responsibility should it be, to hose down our flames?