Done With Work in 2023? Burnout, Business, and Mental Health

Published: Mar 2, 2023  |  

Strategic Director at New Thinking magazine

Burnout, mental health

Recently, an older friend of mine demonstrated the disconnect many of us have in our understanding of what “work” actually means. The fact that I work from home and that most of my work is online seems to most of my friends like I have “more freedom.” They’ve treated it like some kind of utopian concept; but anyone who started to work remotely during the pandemic knows this is the antithesis to the truth.

Multiple studies have revealed remote working as worse for people’s mental and physical health—particularly impacting their sense of isolation and the inability to “leave it at the office.” But mainstream perceptions of the benefits of working from home don’t seem to match these findings.

Many credit it with lower stress-levels due to the lack of commute times and costs, healthier (and cheaper!) food options, and greater perceived freedoms; an October 2022 Linked In survey revealed that 52% of applicants went for remote working options, despite the number of remote work ads reducing significantly. Yet as the research has shown, remote work clearly has its drawbacks.

It was late Wednesday afternoon when my friend asked, “Are you done with your online work?” Utterly baffled, I asked, “What do you mean by done?”

I tried to explain it more visually: imagine a bag of grain with a hole in it. You need to keep catching the grain, milling it, sorting it and converting it in order to stay on top. If you don’t, you are constantly playing a reactionary game of catch-up, in which some of it will fall by the wayside and be forgotten or trampled underfoot, and other bits will inevitably be sorted in a substandard way you’re not proud of. 

Of course, we have to step away from the grain pile sometimes, and the hole tends to pour less effusively in the evenings and weekends. But—and this especially applies to the self-employed or entrepreneurs—if you’re not grinding and converting, those grains of business will not be feeding you tomorrow, or in the coming months. 

It made me question: What must it be like to stop work at the end of the day? Who are these people that stop working? How do they function? Why do they not live in a constant state of worry, panic, paranoia, and embarrassment from their lack of professionalism?

The first fifteen years of my adult working life was in education. As a secondary school teacher (ages 11-18 in the UK), I led a department for a few of those, and even dropped to part time for a spell in order to take advantage of my pre-children glory days and travel more. No one believes teachers have it easy: whether they are working at private schools or comprehensives, it’s a slog. And there is no respect for your “free” time.

So when can we allow ourselves to say: “For today, it’s enough”? (Please note the total absence of the idea that the work could actually be “done.”) I admit to feeling somewhat perplexed with popularization of the term “quiet quitting”—and that brought me to question both sides of the equation: 

Firstly, I’ve worked with teachers who taught boring lessons, marked substandardly and did the bare minimum for over a decade… they have always been looked down upon by their more motivated peers and were generally considered to be “taking the piss.” But no matter how knackered and drained I became over the course of an 8-week term, I couldn’t let the care slide. 

This is why they say teaching is a vocation, I guess—if you don’t love it, it kills you or makes you cynical. (Sometimes the admin and bureaucracy does a little of both, no matter how much you enjoy the actual teaching part.)

Which brings me to the second side of the quiet quitting question: since when is doing the job you’re being paid to do simply not enough? I mean, if you’re not emotionally invested in the outcome of the company that employs you—and let’s be honest, many companies are soul-sucking holes of self-serving ethically-questionable depression—then why would you work yourself silly? 

Surely that’s the remit of entrepreneurs, or people desperately clawing their way up the corporate ladder. And I know you’ll ask, (as myself and many other privileged folks who have the fabulous good fortune of enjoying their jobs do): Then why not just quit? 

Pick your excuse: Because the education systems of most countries leave tragic swathes of the population wholly unprepared for the world of work. Because there are a lot of people who don’t enjoy working, full stop. Because the state of the economy is so frightening that it’s better the devil you know than no devil at all. Because the childhood promise that “you can be anything you set your mind to” is as elusive—and more accurately illusive—as to cripple people into giving up altogether. Because: what’s the point?

I know my perspective comes from a place of extraordinary luck—I grew up with a strong sense of “do your homework before you have fun” and was guaranteed support from two parents if I got stuck.

I’ve never been truly hungry (foodwise that is—careerwise, I’ve been the wolf, for sure). And I’ve always enjoyed studying and reading and upskilling. But anyone will tell you that boundaries are necessary to prevent burnout. We need to look after ourselves to remove the pressure, to understand the need for a psychological release—and to seize it. Sometimes, it’s okay to be done for now

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