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Why overwork and burnout have become part of our lives
Why overwork and burnout have become part of our lives

We figure out whether the modern way of life is to blame for everything or physical and mental exhaustion is a much more ancient phenomenon.

Why overwork and burnout have become part of our lives
Why overwork and burnout have become part of our lives

Several years ago, Anna Katharina Schaffner became another victim of the burnout epidemic.

It all started with mental and physical fatigue, a feeling of heaviness. Even the simplest things took up all energy, and it was incredibly difficult to focus on the task at hand. Trying to relax, Anna could spend hours doing repetitive and useless activities, such as checking email.

Despair came with fatigue. “I was overwhelmed, disappointed and hopeless,” she recalls.

According to the media, overwork is a modern problem. On television, they often talk about the stress that we experience from the excess of information, the constant involvement in the flow of news and notifications. Many believe that our century is a real apocalypse for energy reserves.

But is it true? Or periods of exhaustion and energy recessions are as integral part of our life as a runny nose? Schaffner decided to find out. Her book Exhaustion: A History explored how doctors and philosophers of the past determined the limits of the human body and mind.

Burnout or depression

The most striking examples of burnout can be observed in places where emotional stress reigns, for example, in healthcare. German scientists have found that about 50% of doctors in Germany suffer from burnout. They feel tired throughout the day, and in the morning, the thought of work spoils the mood.

Interestingly, members of different genders fight burnout in different ways. Finnish researchers found that men were more likely to take long sick leave than women.

Because depression is often associated with lethargy and withdrawal, some believe burnout is just another name for the disorder.

In his book, Schaffner cites an article from a German newspaper in which burnout is called the "elite version of depression" among high-class professionals. “Only losers get depression. The fate of the winners, or rather the former winners, is emotional burnout,”the author of the article says.

And yet, these two states are usually separated.

Anna Schaffner

Theorists agree that depression leads to a loss of confidence or even hate and contempt for oneself, which is not typical of burnout, in which thoughts about oneself remain unchanged. In burnout, the anger is not directed at oneself, but rather at the organization in which the person works, or at the clients, or at the sociopolitical or economic system.

Burnout should not be confused with another disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome. A person suffering from it experiences long periods of decrease in physical and mental strength - for at least 6 months. In addition, many patients complain of pain at the slightest activity.

Our brains are not ready for modern lifestyles

It is believed that our brains are not adapted to the long periods of stress that are so natural in the modern world. We are constantly striving to increase productivity, do more and better, prove our worth and meet expectations.

We are constantly faced with pressure from bosses, customers and our thoughts about careers and money. The pressure does not ease day by day, and the level of stress hormones gradually increases. It turns out that our body is constantly in a struggle mode.

Cities are filled with technology, life in them never stops. During the day we are busy with work, at night we watch movies, correspond on social networks, read the news, and receive notifications endlessly. And, not being able to fully rest, we lose energy.

Everything seems to be logical: the modern lifestyle is too harsh for our untrained brain. But it turns out burnout cases have occurred before, long before gadgets, offices and notifications appeared.

Burnout history

When Schaffner researched historical documents, she discovered that people suffered from extreme fatigue long before the rise of modern metropolitan areas with a hectic pace of life.

One of the earliest works on overwork came from the Roman physician Galen. Like Hippocrates, he believed that all physical and mental disorders are associated with an imbalance in the four body fluids: blood, mucus, yellow and black bile. So, the predominance of black bile slows down blood circulation and clogs the pathways in the brain, causing lethargy, weakness, fatigue and melancholy.

Yes, this theory has no scientific basis. But the idea that the brain is filled with a black viscous fluid is quite consistent with the feelings of tired people.

When Christianity became part of Western culture, overwork was seen as a sign of spiritual weakness. Schaffner cites the example of the work of Evagrius of Pontic, written in the 4th century. The theologian describes the "midday demon" who makes the monk listlessly look out the window and do nothing. This disorder was considered a lack of faith and willpower.

Religious and astrological explanations prevailed until the birth of modern medicine, when doctors began to define symptoms of fatigue as neurasthenia.

At that time, doctors already knew that nerve cells conduct electrical impulses, and they assumed that in people with weak nerves, signals may dissipate.

Many prominent personalities - Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin, Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf - have been diagnosed with neurasthenia. Doctors blamed the social changes associated with the industrial revolution for everything. But a weak nervous system was considered a sign of sophistication and developed intelligence, and therefore many patients were even proud of their illness.

In some countries, neurasthenia is still diagnosed. This term is used in China and Japan, and again, it is often accepted as a softer name for depression.

But if the problem isn't new, are overwork and burnout just parts of human nature?

Anna Schaffner

Overwork has always existed. Only its causes and consequences changed.

In the Middle Ages, the cause was attributed to the "midday demon", in the 19th century - the education of women, in the 1970s - capitalism and the ruthless exploitation of employees.

Physical or mental disorder

We still do not understand what provides a surge of energy and how you can quickly spend it without physical exertion. We do not know what the nature of the symptoms of overwork is (physical or mental), whether they are the result of environmental influences or a consequence of our behavior.

Probably, the truth is somewhere in between. Body and mind are inextricably linked, which means that our feelings and beliefs affect the state of the body. We know that emotional problems can exacerbate inflammation and pain, and in some cases even cause seizures or blindness.

This is not to say that overwork is only a physical or only mental disorder. Circumstances can cloud our minds and shackle our bodies with fatigue. And these are not imaginary symptoms, they can be as real as the temperature of a cold.

Good time management as a cure for burnout

Schaffner does not deny that there is too much stress in modern life. But she believes that our freedom and flexible schedule are partly to blame. Now representatives of many professions can work when it is more convenient for them and manage their time.

Without a clear framework, many people overestimate their strength. Basically, they are afraid that they will not live up to expectations, they will not get what they want, and they will not satisfy their ambitions. And this makes them work hard.

Schaffner also believes that email and social media can undermine our strength.

Anna Schaffner

Technologies that were designed to conserve our energy only add stress to us.

If history has taught us anything, it is that there is no universal cure for overwork. In the past, patients with neurasthenia were prescribed prolonged bed rest, but boredom only made it worse.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is now offered to people suffering from overwork and burnout to help them manage their emotional state and find ways to recharge.

Anna Schaffner

Each person has their own way of dealing with emotional exhaustion. You should know what restores your strength and what provokes an energy decline.

Some people need extreme sports, others recover through reading. The main thing is to establish the boundaries between work and play.

Schaffner herself found that the study of overwork, paradoxically, energized her. “It was interesting for me to do this, and the fact that many people in different periods of history experienced something similar calmed me down,” she says.