Why Our Work Culture Makes Burnout Inevitable

It’s very unusual, as an American (or United States-ian, if you prefer) that I find myself culturally alone in a group. Probably because I live in the States, and so, you know, we’re pretty ubiquitous.

But even when I lived in Spain many, many moons (and gyrations around the sun) ago, I mostly found myself amongst a relatively large group of other Americans. We had Spanish friends, of course, but typically I had at least one and often up to ten or fifteen fellow country-people around me to reinforce cultural norms.

Not that I was aware of this dynamic at the time, of course.

These past two weeks found me once more in bright sun of Andalusia, only this time I constituted a distinct minority of one in a group of about forty people. Not a single other person came from the States.

And this was a fantastic opportunity because, in reality, Spain wasn’t the only available location for completing this specific training. My motivation for traversing the globe in the name of education was a compilation of several things, but up toward the top of the list? Was the environment.

Environment is key. You know that pile of junk that’s been camping in the corner of your spare bedroom for the past three years? The one that’s become all but invisible to you because it’s been there so long?

You don’t notice it anymore because you’ve become desensitized to it — it’s normal. There are roughly a zillion triggers like these in your everyday life, triggers that shape your daily behavior but exist completely below your conscious awareness.

Maybe every time you see that pile of junk, your shoulders tighten almost imperceptibly because you hate clutter, or you sigh a deep huff of resentment at your teenager who refuses to get rid of stuff she doesn’t use anymore.

But you don’t notice these reactions, because they’re habituated.

You can become so conditioned to regular triggers, normalized beliefs and the pace of life that you simply cease to notice them at all, until they’re removed completely.

And that’s why I went to Spain — to get out of my normal, everyday environment. To look back at my life through a defogged lens, like standing outside the forest to get a clear view of those trees.

And this is what I saw in Spain: a culture that takes actual coffee breaks, that looks each other in the eyes when they’re eating at the same table, a culture that has no trouble closing their stores for several hours in the afternoon to eat some lunch and take a siesta even though — horror of horrors! — they’re losing sales by doing so.

I saw a culture that builds restoration into their lives. And by contrast, I also saw my own culture in the starkest of clarity — a culture that belittles those who dare to slow down.

Our complete absence of triggers to settle, let down and relax in our daily lives has been an observation of mine for a long time. There are infinite stimuli spurring us into activation and movement, but nothing has been built into our fast-paced lives that helps us come back to center.

Which is a problem.

It’s a basic law of nature that if something swings one direction for a while, it will return to swing the other way.

This pendulum dance is how we maintain what’s called in fancy-schmancy science talk homeostasis.

Homeostasis is a balance. Your body is constantly working to preserve it. But, just like standing on one foot, it’s not a static place. There are millions of tiny micro-adjustments happening in every moment to keep you upright. Balance — or homeostasis – is actually a process of coming into and out of your center, over and over again.

Contracted a virus? Your body will activate a fever to help burn it off. Sprained an ankle? Swelling and inflammation bring healing blood and plasma to the area. Weak bones? Little osteoblast cells get busy laying down calcium.

Problems arise when your body’s own inherent healing processes are either insufficient or disrupted.

And that’s what’s happening in our work culture — a culture that promotes action at all costs in the name of productivity, a culture that frowns on taking lunch breaks that involve eating without working, that promotes opening your laptop after the kids go to bed, that wants you to respond to every text within three minutes, that won’t let you shut off your phone. Even while you’re (supposed to be) sleeping.

Here’s a quick lesson in physiology….

Your nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch has to do with action. You might correlate it with the fight or flight response. When something motivates you to move — run, fight, kill an animal for food — this is the branch of the nervous system that takes care of all that.

On the flip side, your parasympathetic system is responsible for rest and relaxation. It’s related to processes in your body that aren’t under your control, like digestion.

A healthy person naturally swings between these two systems. Something — anything — motivates you to take action. It can be as simple as the phone ringing. You pick it up (action) and talk to the person on the other end. The conversation is over and you hang up.

This is a micro-example. You typically hear about this pendulum swing in a much bigger context, usually centered around a traumatic or life threatening experience.

A bear comes out of the woods and moves to swipe at you, so you turn tail and run. Fortunately, you dropped your backpack and the bear is now happily picnicking on your lunch while you’re safely catching your breath several miles down the trail.

All of this is a normal swing of stimulus motivating action followed by rest and recovery.

Only, we’re not swinging.

We’re not allowed to swing.

We’re boxed in by a rigid culture that prioritizes productivity over well-being.

I’ll sleep when I’m dead, and all that.

But here’s the thing…. if you don’t have a normal activation-deactivation cycle of the nervous system, the systems themselves become disregulated. Normally the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system have an inverse response. The more active one branch becomes, the less active the other one can be.

However, in neural disregulation, both branches can be active at the same time. Have you ever met someone who seemed super chill, but randomly flew off the handle at the smallest thing?

That’s a symptom of this kind of disregulation. In fact, this might sound really familiar. You might recognize it as a very common trait of soldiers who return from war suffering the effects of PTSD.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many of us feel like the walking dead?

Because your phone is pinging constantly, email alerts are flying all over your screen, you’ve got seventeen meetings on the calendar today and twice as many tomorrow, you’ve got to pick up your kids from swim practice and remember to feed them (and yourself) and somehow also get work done.

Enter burnout.

And something psychologists call dissociation. Basically, everything feels like too much all the time, you’re overwhelmed, time is racing past and you just. can’t. handle. it.

But you have to. Bills gotta get paid. Kids have to eat.

And so you galvanize. You soldier on. You suck it up, work harder and “get real” about life. Because you just have to get through this, you know?

And maybe things will get better when. When you get that dream client, when your company goes public, when you can finally buy that vacation home on the beach. You keep hoping that, someday, you’re going to reach that magical level where you can finally exhale.

So you’re making it through life, getting the dishes done, making the bed and maybe even winning at work.

Only, underneath it all, you feel empty and anxious and terribly fearful because this can’t really be all there is to life.

Can it?

And maybe sometimes you even feel a tad guilty about your dissatisfaction. Because, on paper, life looks damn skippy. You’re making the dollar bills, you’ve got a great place to live, you even took a sun-drenched vacation last fall and have the Instagram likes to prove it.

So why all the emptiness?

First of all, let me just tell you that you’re not broken, greedy or a bad person. In fact, you’re not dysfunctional at all. With high levels of stimulation, it’s entirely normal to feel chronic, low-grade anxiety or unease.

Dissociation is, like I said, a state of detachment. Part of detachment is not feeling yourself — not your emotions, but also not your sensations.

When you can’t feel yourself, you can’t self locate. This is neurological fact.* You require ever increasing stimulus in order to feel anything at all.

This produces anxiety, because you’re sensorially lost to yourself. And because your system is incapable of normalizing, you follow the externally guided urge to fill that hole.

You might shop. Or engage in causal sex. Or overeat. Or get addicted to extreme sports. Or become a workaholic, letting perfectionism ru(i)n your life.

In some way, you keep pushing into extremity in order to feel alive again.

So who is this burnout really serving? It’s serving corporations who profit from wringing the maximum labor out of you.

It serves shareholders who reap the financial rewards of your sleepless nights.

It profits marketers who want to sell you shiny objects to fix that gaping hole inside your guts.

It profits a diet industry that’s making bank off of telling you that your inherent urge to self regulate is a moral flaw.

And this is what I noticed when I was in Spain — the slow unwinding of my own nervous system. The space that was created for respiration and inspiration. The broadening of focus, the ability to step back and see the bigger picture.

I noticed I wasn’t on my phone. That I went to dinner and hours flew by. That the waiters were shooing us out of the restaurant half an hour past closing, ushering us over to the bar where we continued chatting over chamomile tea (we party hard, I know).

I don’t know what we’re going to do about toxic work culture, but I do know this: success and achievement don’t have to be dependent on workaholism and burnout.

In fact, I’d argue that you can never achieve true success from the mentality of grinding harder because eventually you’re going to get to the place of grinding yourself away.

And you are your own greatest resource. Without you, you’ve got nothing.

Ending overwhelm and dissociation aren’t optional if you want to finally land in that place of centered fulfillment — living the kind of rich life that’s not just about money in the bank, but also personal satisfaction.

And I’m not talking about the fleeting and effervescent hit of happy that comes from buying a new outfit or eating at the trendiest restaurant.

I’m talking Yoda-esque existentialism, happy no matter what, able to handle whatever the world throws at you, confident that you’ve got what it takes to change the world kind of fulfillment.

All it takes? Is finding your way back to yourself. The only (and best) way I know to do this is by working through the body.

You can start right now.

*Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks details this in his story titled The Disembodied Lady, from the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

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