We can all feel burnt out. Here’s some advice on how to slow down

No one wants to be the hamster running round and round in circles

I’ve sunk into the corner of my sofa. It’s twilight, but to find the energy to reach over and switch on the lamp feels utterly impossible. I feel like my body is broken. My inner spark, the pilot light of my being, has run out of fuel. There are no ideas left. No space for joy or craic. Only a tearful exhaustion lives here. I’ve been running on empty, pushing myself through deadline after deadline, working too many jobs while carrying the burden of Aunt Linda (my Inner Critic) on my back and leaving no room for recovery time.

This is beyond tired. This is burnout territory.

But what is burnout? How do we get there, and how do we get out of there?

Anecdotally, you and I both know that burnout is prevalent.


If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’ve experienced it, perhaps multiple times. Worldwide, studies have been collecting data on the epidemic of burnout, such as one in the US which found that 95 per cent of human-resources managers see burnout as a major problem at work, and point to it as a cause of high staff turnover.

"What we refer to as burnout today is what used to be more commonly known as a nervous breakdown," Fiona Brennan, a hypnotherapist who specialises in the subconscious, tells me. "What most people mean when they say burnout is actually the process of burning out. You haven't come to a complete stop yet, but you are like a piece of frayed thread holding everything together, close to breaking point. That's where we need to focus our attention so that we can prevent a complete burnout."

It's the norm to push yourself so hard that your first day of rest feels more like the first opportunity for collapse

Apart from common signs like exhaustion, insomnia, anxiety and depression, Brennan notes that an early symptom of burnout is when a person becomes ill as soon as they go on holiday. “The body has taken over. The body already knows you are burning out.”

I don’t know about you, but the idea of being sick on the first couple of days of a holiday has become part of the vacation itinerary for myself and my peers. It’s the norm to have pushed yourself so hard that your first day of rest feels more like the first opportunity for collapse. Maybe we shouldn’t be normalising it so much.

Similarly, Johanna Fullerton, a business psychologist, compares our work culture to a situation where we're moving so fast that we don't even have time to ask why we're running. "A trend we've noticed is an 'always on' culture and a 'work hard' culture," she says. "One of the challenges for people is not even realising they don't have enough recovery time. It's almost like a hamster wheel, where they're running hard and fast and they're dedicated, but they haven't even taken enough space to ask themselves if they should be on this hamster wheel."

I have been that wrecked hamster, spinning plates and pies, running as fast as I can, trying to keep up, going round and round in circles on a wheel. I really don’t want to be that wrecked hamster any more.

The cult of busyness

Perhaps one of the reasons it’s so easy to remain on the hamster wheel is because everyone else around us seems to be on one too.

Are we running to keep up with everyone else? And just when did the word “busy” become an adjective to describe our emotional wellbeing?

Consider this:

“How are you?”

(Deep exaggerated inhale) “I’m busy. How are you? Busy?”

(Equally dramatic exhale) “Yeah, so busy.”

How many times have you had this conversation, or something along the lines of it, with a friend or work pal?

As an experiment, I did my best to forget the word “busy” and temporarily remove it from my vocabulary bank while I was working on my new book. When people asked me if I was “busy”, I would reply, “No, I’m trying not to take on too much this year,” or, “I’m working on lots of fun stuff, and I’m doing well.”

The answer was so off-script in the cult of busyness that people would sometimes do a visible double take when I said I wasn’t “busy”.

In a piece for Image magazine about "burnout syndrome", the writer and magazine publisher Róisín Agnew wrote: "The use of 'stressed' as a suitable replacement for 'fine' in answer to questions about your wellbeing seems to have given linguistic licence to be openly and permanently sick in public."

Are we stuck in a cult of busyness? When did being busy become such a status symbol? Is there any real value in the pang of pride one gets when sending a pre-7am email (I just had to get up super super early because I’m so busy)?

The secret of the truly successful is that they learned very early in life how not to be busy

Does busyness equal success?

The cult of busyness and the macho element of boasting about how busy we are is not a new idea. Back in 1985 the New York Times high-society lifestyle columnist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a witty rebuttal against the "cult of conspicuous busyness".

Ehrenreich argues that those who are truly successful are not “the kind of people who keep glancing shiftily at their watches or making small lists entitled: ‘To Do.’ The secret of the truly successful . . . is that they learned very early in life how not to be busy.

“They saw through that adage, repeated to me so often in childhood, that anything worth doing is worth doing well. The truth is, many things are worth doing only in the most slovenly, half-hearted fashion possible, and many other things are not worth doing at all.”


1) Don't get wrapped up in the cult of busyness. Being busy doesn't equal being efficient
If you find yourself saying how busy you are with a sense of pride, you might be trapped in the cult of busyness. Busy does not equal success. It doesn't even equal productive a lot of the time. Try focusing more on how productive you're being rather than how busy you are.

2) Seek out some leaning-on-the-gate time
Carve out time to reflect on your work. Even if it's five minutes to contemplate what you are doing and what your next steps should be, that time to reflect, to lean on the gate and have a good think is too important not to be prioritised.

3) What is the framework of your life?
Figure out if work is part of the framework of your life, or whether work is the framework that your life fits into. Work should not be the governing structure that you build your life around.

4) Embrace your capacity
Develop boundaries between your life and your work that can be flexible when necessary. Learn to distinguish between truly urgent, important and not important. Embrace your capacity.

5) Figure out what you need to feel good and develop healthy habits that support your wellbeing
Whether it's diet, exercise, sleep, a meditation practice, a hobby or medication, or all of the above, prioritise these actions, because they are crucial to your ability to perform at work.

This is an edited extract from Aoife McElwaim's Slow at Work (Gill Books, €14.99), published on January 5th

Aoife McElwain

Aoife McElwain

Aoife McElwain, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a food writer