How to avoid burnout this Christmas

Many of you reading this will be anticipating your Christmas holiday. Perhaps you’re reminding yourself how much you deserve it, after all the expense and unpaid labour you’ve invested in preparing over the past few weeks: all that gift buying, wrapping, tree-trimming, food shopping, cooking, cleaning.

Those demands will likely have been piled on top of others. Perhaps your job required you to put in the odd extra shift, tie up loose ends before you could leave the office for a few days, especially if you’re covering for the colleague in Mauritius who booked her annual leave 11 months ago.

Perhaps you’ve just spent the first week of school holidays trying to stave off the deadly virus of child boredom; you probably needed a haircut or a root canal and, presumably, you remembered to drop the car in for servicing before that Boxing Day trek to the in-laws in North Wales? It’s not the ideal day to break down on the A5, mechanically or emotionally.

Hopefully, the demands will abate when you sit down to lunch on Tuesday. Unless you’re hosting, in which case you may spend much of the day in enervated transit between kitchen and dining table, fetching dishes, pouring drinks, remembering as your buttocks are hitting the chair to switch the stove off, get the bird out and the pudding in, all the while ensuring your gracious smile betrays none of your coiled resentment.

And so the break away from work ends up feeling dismayingly like work, only that bit more thankless and exhausting. Still, perhaps eventually you find a way to sit at the table without getting up every few minutes. That’s when we tend to succumb to blowout levels of food and drink that leave us less pleasurably satiated than catatonically sluggish.

The more stress and tension that we have accumulated over weeks and months, the more prone we are to extreme ways of discharging it, overloading our digestive and central nervous systems to the point that they (and we) crash. We act as though we don’t know the difference between relaxation and insensibility.

But then, relaxation is difficult when there’s so much on our minds. Insensibility, on the other hand, is sure to help us forget, at least for a while, all those anxieties hovering at the edge of our consciousness — the report that hasn’t been written, the unanswered emails or the profit squeeze that’s menacing our job security. Then there are the nagging family tensions, stoked by their complaints that even when we’re at home, we’re at work.

When it’s all over and done with, we might railroad ourselves into the usual resolutions to improve our physical and mental fitness next year, to be more organised and efficient and punctual. But too often we take these up not in a spirit of genuine self-care, but in shamed and resentful obligation. It is difficult to feel renewed for action when our few days off have only left us feeling more depleted than before.

If this generalised sketch of the coming holiday season seems to you gratuitously miserable, my apologies. Of course, not everyone will feel like this — and some may feel it only fleetingly. It nonetheless chimes with a sense from the patients in my psychoanalytic consulting room of a double predicament: the yearning for — and incapacity to find — respite from work.

We often see the impulse not to work, to stop, as an embarrassing accident of our make-up. I am a substantial being in so far as I achieve some definite, objectively useful end, not in how I doodle or invent a private scheme of rhyming slang. But what if we have this wrong? What if not working is at least as fundamental as working to who and what we are?

We are physical entities like any other, subject to the burden of our own weight. We can only move so far and do so much before we are forced to stop. Trying to override the law of inertia guarantees only that it asserts itself more implacably.

We are nervous of pressing the off switch on our machines and minds, as though fearing the void that might be made visible. Yet this wariness coexists with a hunger for silence and reclusion, a break in the unremitting flow of noise.

Andy Warhol, slave to an intensely punitive work ethic despite the cultivated languor of his public persona, described this feeling acutely in his Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975): “People are working every minute. The machinery is always going. Even when they sleep.” Warhol’s words evoke a patient of mine, a compulsively conscientious civil servant, who spoke of waking in the middle of the night to find her fingers hovering over her bedspread, typing on an imaginary keyboard. Today, our inability to switch work off has found physical embodiment in the form of smartphones, external devices that have become a prosthetic extension of our hands.

Work colonises our inner space when we have it and when we seek it, whether we perform it with passionate dedication or resentful disdain. This troubled relationship is anything but new but, as a host of recent books and articles attest, our age is witnessing a fresh crisis of work.

Overwork is one of its most glaring symptoms; the looming threat of job scarcity is another. The robots assembling cars and computers, the retail stores manned by machines and the spread of self-driving cars and trains are all signs of the eventual automation of large sectors of the labour market.

At some point, AI may take over higher-level intellectual work as well. The threat of being replaced by a rival human or machine intensifies pressure on the job while closing all escape routes from it, giving rise to feelings of resignation, despair and entrapment.

The rise of robotics and AI raises the urgent question of how to live without work. What makes this prospect so daunting is that we’ve come to equate our humanity with the capacity for productivit y and purposeful action. The idea that the worth and meaning of our existence is only validated by what we achieve is what makes it so difficult to experience a real sense of peace. We feel embarrassed and self-conscious to be seen doing nothing. And yet, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world.”

© Lucas Varela

The German-American psychologist Herbert J Freudenberger employed the term “burnout” in 1974 to describe the growing phenomenon of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. Freudenberger observed workers drained of positive commitment to their own role and to those around them, running on empty and depleted of all but the most minimal internal resources. Burnout is the ultimate experience of that impossible bind: a yearning for a state of rest alongside the sense that it cannot be attained, a sense that some demand or anxiety or distraction won’t let us go.

So how might we evade this fate, individually and collectively? This question seems especially important for our children, in whom anxiety disorders and feelings of academic and physical inadequacy are reportedly proliferating. If children are under perpetual pressure to achieve learning targets (just as their parents are cajoled into meeting productivity targets), the antidote is surely to cultivate in them — and even in ourselves — the capacity for aimlessness, for letting the mind wander without specific goal or purpose.

Daydreaming clears space in our overactive lives to live without purpose, to embrace the quiet pleasure of an experience that is its own value. In carving out time for ourselves without attaching external demands, we can begin to make space for quietness; to offer our minds respite.

Donald Winnicott, the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, recognised how much our creativity depends on maintaining contact with the “still, silent spot” at the heart of the psyche.

One of the reasons it is hard to cultivate purposelessness of this kind with meaningful regularity is that it is often in direct opposition to the messages we may have imbibed since childhood. By way of an example, I offer a story from my consulting room (disguised to protect patient confidentiality). When I first met him, Chris was a wreck. Slumped in the chair, pulling at his matted hair and oversized sportswear, he said I’d probably be surprised to hear that not long ago he was working 90-hour weeks in an investment bank. He wasn’t wrong — it was very hard to imagine this shambling figure gliding down the corridors of some gleaming corporate palace.

The only child of unhappily married parents who invested all their dreams and emotional energies in their son, Chris had long been gripped by the need to provide them with the pride and pleasure they couldn’t find in each other. He had moved effortlessly from a top university to an elite graduate business programme in Paris, from which he’d been plucked by the bank and plunged into an overdriven working culture. For the next two years, he acquired and merged companies with the same easy mastery he’d once brought to the accumulation of his dazzling academic and sporting achievements.

Then, one morning, his 5.30am alarm failed to trigger the usual reflexive bound out of bed. Instead, he switched it off and lay there, staring into the wall ahead, certain only that he wasn’t going to work. After six hours of drifting between dreamless sleep and blank wakefulness, he pulled on a tracksuit to go to the supermarket, piling his basket high with the boxed doughnuts and ready meals that had since become his diet, largely consumed during box-set binges.

“I used to be a jock, if you can believe it,” he told me with a shy smile, absently rubbing the slack pot belly under his top. “Now I’m a professional slob.” Chris described experiencing himself increasingly as a furious automaton over the course of his bank career; clocking up degrees, promotions, bonuses, driven by some inexorable, inexplicable desire that didn’t even feel like it was his. He was blind, compulsive, unstoppable.

But he’d become increasingly aware of how much time he was spending sunk in strange reveries at his workstation. When his phone or the sound of his name sprang him out of his dreamy retreat, he was gripped by a terrible panic. “One time this guy asked me if I was OK, like he was really weirded out. I looked down and my shirt was soaked in sweat. It was around three weeks later I stopped going to work.”

Limbs loose and eyes shut, he lay on the couch speaking at times in a languid drawl, at others in spurts of seeming urgency. How long could he go on filling his days with sleep and food like some goddamn baby? Starbucks, Tesco, here — that was as far as he’d got for months now. When does this become an emergency? When do I decide I need to do something?

I wondered if it hadn’t occurred to him that the emergency had already happened, that the thing he really needed to do was what he was now doing. He bristled: “Are you serious? What I’m doing? What am I doing? I’m doing NOTHING!” I said nothing in response, and we remained in silence.

Two days later he told me he’d gone further than the supermarket for the first time in months. The plan had been to go to the local running track and start getting back into shape. But suddenly aware of the perfectly crisp January sun, he started walking, and couldn’t seem to stop. He walked across miles of London: Haggerston, Highbury, Bloomsbury, through Camden, Tufnell Park and across the Heath. He just walked and walked until he finally slumped on to a bench in contented exhaustion and watched the sun go down.

“And then I laughed to myself. I am 29 years old. I ran track for high school and college. I’ve covered thousands of miles. And yesterday, for the first time in my entire goddamn life, I took a walk without knowing where I was going.”

Don’t we all need to try walking without knowing where we are going, figuratively if not literally? In today’s accelerated culture, most of daily life is experienced in drive mode, seeking the fastest and most direct route from one task to the next. Psychoanalysis tries to help patients find release from this mode, ushering us into a time of aimlessness, a movement through thoughts and feelings and words directed less towards getting somewhere in particular than to cultivating curiosity about the mind itself. For those who can’t or don’t wish to make the commitments of time and money that psychoanalysis can involve, there are alternatives.

If your metrics are fame and fortune, playing a musical instrument non-professionally will gain you nothing, but that very gratuitousness is also the secret of its pleasure; it is doing something for the scandalous motive of, well, just wanting to. For less effortful options, make space for rambling, agenda-less conversations. Stare out the window with no thought but the view, whether it be a lake or a row of wheelie bins. Create a space for stillness, for time spent without immediate purpose.

Paint or write or sing, for yourself, for a few others, for anybody. Art ushers us into the imaginary world, where the rules and logic and facts governing life in the real world are abolished at a stroke. Doing things in the realm of reality is hard work, for reality presents endless obstacles — the limited capacities of our bodies and minds, the iron laws of the physical and social worlds. But the white page, blank canvas or bare stage invites us to bend, break, remake and unmake the world at will, to inhabit infinite selves, places and times beyond our own.

Embracing aimlessness may be an antidote to the perversely hard work of the holidays — and an appropriate resolution for the coming year.

Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. ‘Not Working: Why We Have to Stop’ is published by Granta on January 3 2019

Illustrations by Lucas Varela

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