Burnout breaks: is extra holiday time the answer for tired, traumatised workers?

The dating app Bumble has given all its staff a paid week off in its battle against burnout. According to Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist based in Paris, and the author of Hustle and Float, this is really the only way to do it. “A couple of years ago, the thing was unlimited paid vacation. It was huge in the UK corporate wellness market, until it was discovered that a lot of people do not take their vacation days, and when they do, they’re still connected to the office by email. The only way that we can get a decent break is when we’re forced into it: when the company says: ‘Guess what, everything’s shutting down, nobody’s allowed to work.’”

But what exactly is burnout, and are businesses right to be worried? The psychotherapist Hilda Burke says it isn’t recognised as a condition but reels off the symptoms that she associates with overwork: “Extreme exhaustion, insomnia, crippling self-doubt, extreme despondency and feeling ‘what’s the point?’” At work, that is often the giveaway for colleagues: that you’re finding it uncharacteristically hard to make decisions, as well as displaying confusion and irritability.

Harfoush is pretty clear on what causes it: “Chronic overwork; being consistently sleep-deprived and hyper-stressed over a period of weeks or months.” Rebecca Seal, who wrote Solo: How to Work Alone (And Not Lose Your Mind), after suffering burnout herself, adds something else to the mix: precariousness. Citing the work of Anne Helen Petersen, author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, she says: “The modern workforce is a constant tension for anybody under 50. There is this sense that it could all go to hell at any moment.” The experience is on a spectrum – some people describe long periods of being basically incapacitated, unable to see a way back to functioning normally, and Harfoush even lost her hair through stress – but to Seal, “the most overwhelming feeling was loneliness, a really profound sense that I had let work take over everything in my life. In this hamster wheel attempt to establish myself [she was and remains a freelance writer], I never said ‘no’ and, as a result, neglected all the good things in my life: relationships, friends, family, wellbeing and self-care.”

Allied to that precariousness, of course, is what drives so many of us to overwork in the first place: the sense that our worth comes from our work, the “productivity propaganda cult”, Harfoush calls it. “It’s screwed at the level of linguistics,” Seal says. “We say: ‘I am a writer’, ‘I am an accountant’. In reality, we’re really not our jobs. We merely do them.”

She also talks about the “commodification of wellness”, so we think we can buy our way out of stress with a massage or a holiday, but “there’s so much that pushes us in the direction of being burnt out, a massage isn’t going to cut it”. While corporate culture has to take some collective responsibility for this, Burke says: “I see codependency as an even bigger driver. At its core, it means putting our own happiness into the hands of others and conversely assuming we are responsible for making those around us happy. What it looks like in practice is letting our boss’s inability to switch off dictate our own working practices or not being able to say no to work when we’re totally exhausted for fear that our boss might think ill of us.”

All companies should take Bumble’s approach, and LinkedIn already has. But some of the answers are at the level of the self. That is my slightly burnt-out way of telling you to chill.

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