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  • Writer's pictureRoxy Humphrey

Burnout is NOT an individual problem

Updated: Jun 9

Who isn't exhausted? It seems like most people I engage with lately - with those I work alongside, friends and neighbours in my community, and even with strangers in the grocery line up - I am noticing the signs of collective, cultural exhaustion.  People keep expressing that they feel burnt out - by their work, by the demands of parenting, by challenging relationships, and by cultural expectations.  The felt sense of overwhelm is noticeable.

Burnout, as defined by a quick google search, means “to ruin one's health or become completely exhausted through overwork.”  The problem with this definition, though, is that it implies that burnout is a personal problem, caused by the individual experiencing it, and therefore solved as an individual. The onus is even on the individual to find strategies to avoid becoming burnt out in the first place.  And if one does actually hit burn out, then there is something wrong with the person who experiences it.  People who experience burnout often feel a sense of shame; they feel as if something must be “wrong” with themselves if they cannot function in the way that they used to.  They feel disappointed that they’ve let others down. Many feel obligated to keep pushing on despite the physical and mental impacts, leading to a sense of hopelessness, despair, and isolation. 

However, the idea that burnout is an individual problem overlooks something very important: the systemic issues that place inordinate pressure on individuals.  The idea of burnout as an individual problem benefits the institutions that the person works within (as well as the general culture at large), as the pressure is placed on the individual by suggesting that the problem can be solved with practices of self-care, learning new coping strategies, and asserting better boundaries. While all of those are good things for anyone to incorporate, they overlook the systemic issues at play that allow people to get to this point of exhaustion.  When those systemic issues are overlooked, self care practices (even therapy) can become tools to get an individual “back on course” in order to carry on being productive members of the workforce.  It becomes a tyrannical cycle.

So what is the solution? How does one learn to function better within such an overwhelming work environment?  Well the answer is complex and it wouldn’t do justice to answer it in a short blog post.  However, one thing is clear, until the systems change, the rates of burnout among individuals will remain the same or even increase. 

Pretty bleak, isn’t it? And what is one to do, until such change begins to manifest?  I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do offer below a few points that I often name and express with people I support who are experiencing the impacts of burnout.  Making these facts explicit can alleviate distress and allow people to feel held and supported, even when the problem doesn’t automatically go away.

  • The fact that you are burnt out is not your fault.   In fact, it's incredibly unfair that you are experiencing the impacts of a system that is not supporting you. 

  • Burnout is real.  If you are experiencing overwhelm, exhaustion, physical symptoms as a result of the work you carry out (which includes domestic labour and navigating complex relationships), you are not weak for experiencing them.  In fact, you are normal. You are not meant to constantly be productive. 

  • You are valuable.  You are valuable no matter how much or how little you produce, contribute, or how hard you work.  

  • It’s ok to love the work you do and stay within systems that have inadequate support, even if it costs you or it might be too much at times. Ultimately, you are the one that knows what you can or can not handle and how you navigate your own motives, desires, needs, and values through such complexity.

  • It’s ok to love the work you do and leave it, when there is not sufficient support for you to function well. Ultimately, you are the one that knows what you can or can not handle and how you navigate your own motives, desires, needs, and values through such complexity (sound familiar?).

  • It is ok to ask for what you need in order to more fully thrive.  Asserting your own rights and boundaries is not wrong or selfish. It’s ok to ask for help. 

  • And, finally, it’s ok to be angry if support or help does not come.  It’s ok to allow that anger to energize you towards activism, towards speaking up for what you need and are not getting.

These points I believe wholeheartedly to be true. In my work as a therapist, I often try to hold out hope that each individual I work alongside will begin to embody more and more their own sense of value and worth: You are completely acceptable and good just as you are. In fact, it is my hope that more people will embody that truth, which will in turn ripple out towards a movement of people who know their value and become willing to advocate for it within systems, politics, culture, and relationships. 

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