We need to talk about burnout

Ashleigh Clark
Written by Ashleigh Clark

In a recent livestream hosted by BetterUp, a US-based wellbeing charity, Prince Harry admitted that he had been experiencing burnout and has been doing “inner work” in order to feel better again. The former royal spoke about taking time for himself and practising meditation every day. Of course, critics were quick to deem his words ridiculous.

I wasn’t surprised at the level of criticism Prince Harry faced for his comments as his lack of popularity in the press is well known. How could a privileged, white male who is worth millions possibly understand what it feels like to be burnt out? How can you possibly compare the level of burnout of a care worker during the pandemic with Prince Harry? But that’s just the thing. We don’t have to.

We need to stop gatekeeping the emotions of others and diminishing how others are feeling, because it often leads to us questioning our own deservedness of the emotions we feel. In the last few years there has been a lot of conversation about burnout in the context of work.

Burnout is more than just that groggy feeling after a bad night’s sleep. It is a complete state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that arises when we try to carry on with nothing left to give. According to Mental Health UK, burnout can show itself as a sense of detachment, a negative outlook on the world, self-doubt, procrastination, feeling drained or defeated or just a sense of being completely overwhelmed with it all. It occurs after a period of long-term stress. After two tumultuous and scary years, expectedly, many of us are burnt out.

When we are in a state of burnout, we can start going through the motions rather than having a true awareness of our everyday actions and this has been amplified even more when our lives very suddenly became a cycle of eat, sleep, work, repeat during the course of the pandemic. We have forgotten what it is like not to live on autopilot and do more than just the bare necessities of what it takes to get through every day.

One of the most common retorts aimed at Prince Harry’s championing of self-care was that many people feel they don’t have the luxury of time for something so unproductive. I think the reason for this is that we have simply lost the true meaning of what self-care is. In a world where ‘wellness influencers’ are everywhere with so many opposing, often time-consuming ideas to share, self-care can seem overwhelming. We forget that the only person that knows what we really need is us. And, dare I say, some ‘inner-work’ may be necessary to recognise exactly what this is, even if all you need is just to stop and breath for five minutes.

In his 2018 book Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes, ‘rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.’ I find this statement an empowering reminder that, while society often dismisses rest in favour of work and responsibilities, it is also the only way that we can show up in the world in the best way that we can and I, like many of us, have forgotten this recently.

But what if this widespread burnout is an opportunity too? Is it time to recognise that the onus should not always fall to us individually? Another insight from Prince Harry, that seems to have flown somewhat under the radar, is his call to businesses to provide their employees with the time they need to prioritise their own wellbeing. Work can no longer be the only thing in our lives. In order to come back from burnout we do need time for quiet and self-reflection. But we also need to do things that bring us joy just for the sake of it and to rekindle relationships that don’t solely exist on a screen.

These elements are equally important parts of self-care and changes in our working practices must reflect these needs going forward or employers face burnout continuing to the great resignation, both in terms of leaving a job, but in how we show up to work too. No matter what you think of Prince Harry, I think it is clear that we need to make space for both inner and outer work if we are ever to escape our current burnout cycle.

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