July 21, 2024


Exexhaustion can threaten the core of our being. When everything costs energy we don’t have, our world shrinks. We can become alienated from our emotions, desires and loved ones. But what can we do about it?

Encourage appreciation
In my work as a burnout coach, I’ve found that the cause that stands out above all others doesn’t feel appreciated. Not giving or receiving appreciation at work increases our chances of burnout by 45% and 48%, respectively, according to A 2019 study by the OC Tanner Institute. In the long run, this absence of positive feedback diminishes and devalues ​​us. The good news is that the appreciation curve works both ways. We can be nourished by the act of appreciating others, which also increases our chances of receiving it.

Perspective is everything
We may think we live in the age of exhaustion par excellence. The 2023 Deloitte Wellbeing at Work survey found that around half of the UK and US workforce state that they are always or often exhausted or stressed. But ours is far from the only generation to struggle with the demons of exhaustion. In the Middle Ages, exhaustion was defined as “acedia” – a sinful mental malaise that manifested as apathy, depravity and ingratitude. Renaissance scholars associated exhaustion with scientific activity and the alignment of the planets. In the 19th century, it was the central symptom of a condition called “neurasthenia”, defined as a weakness of the nerves and understood as the result of a faster pace of life and overstimulation. I found it comforting to learn that these fears have always been with us. Worries about exhaustion are what make us human. They relate to more deep-seated fears about the consequences of social change, the gradual decline of energy as we age, and death.

The gospel of work is not our friend
In the past, seasons, tasks and the dying of the light determined our work patterns. But industrialization required a different attitude to work and time. Time management, punctuality and efficiency have become new virtues. Theological ideas from the 16th century turned into a “gospel of work”, revolving around discipline, productivity and success. Sociologist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant Work Ethic”, where success and worldly achievements were seen as a sign of being among the elect – those predestined for salvation. Even further back, laziness was considered one of the deadly Seven Sins.

While the Protestant work ethic has fueled progress, it may not serve us well personally. Many of us have deeply internalized these old religious values ​​and become our own taskmasters, believing that we are nothing without success, and worthless without our work. We have the idea that “time is money”, as Benjamin Franklin famously put it. We feel a constant pressure to use our time to work and achieve because deep down we still believe that this is the only path to salvation.

Take up a hobby
One of the most powerful antidotes to exhaustion is a hobby. Hobbies ensure that we have other things in our lives besides work that give us meaning, joy and even community. Gardening, dancing, knitting etc allow us to become what burnout researcher Nick Petrie called “multi-layered people”, those who haven’t put all their eggs in the basket of work. Nourishing opposite worlds are essential to flourishing. Hobbies serve no purpose other than to make the person doing them happy. Like child’s play, their unapologeticness is the very opposite of work. If you don’t know whether to grow rare succulents, climb mountains, or collect photos of hot Victorian men with funny mustaches, ask yourself: when was the last time I felt fully alive?

Manage your inner critic
Many of us will be familiar with a negative voice in our head that constantly judges us. It is the voice that tells us we are not smart enough, that we are too fat, too thin, too short, too tall, that we are not good at our job. Our inner critic magnifies the negative and spreads discontent in our lives. It can also drain our energy from within and be a major cause of our exhaustion.

As a coach, I have found that acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) offers particularly powerful tools for managing our inner critic. ACT can teach us to treat it as mind-chatter and to shift attention away from the content (what it has to say) to the form (insignificant noise in our head). ACT teaches us one of the most precious insights there is, namely that we are not our thoughts.

Instead of thinking, “I’m useless at my job,” or “I’m stupid and I mess up,” ACT encourages us to add, “I notice that I have the thought that I’m useless at my job,” and , “I notice that I have the thought that I’m stupid and messing everything up.” This creates a crucial and powerful distance between ourselves and our useless thoughts.

Work out your “cost of living”.
In his best-selling book Walden, 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau introduced the compelling notion of “cost of living”—the amount of time, energy, health, and mental well-being we sacrifice to achieve our goals and objectives. Many of us thoughtlessly try to acquire as much money as possible, or to accumulate possessions. Or else we chase status in the form of grades, awards, promotion or fame. We willingly pay for these things with our time and often with our health or our relationships.

So we must always ask ourselves: what are the real life costs of our choices? If we find that the price we pay is too high, we may want to make adjustments, prioritizing time and health over money or status.

How to say no
When we are exhausted, a simple but effective strategy is to look at our commitments, both large and small, and place them on our core values. Which of our commitments support what is truly important and meaningful? What is irrelevant or even contrary to our values? What matters in this exercise is the sense of having a choice – consciously reflecting on what we want to spend our time on, rather than being on autopilot, or at the mercy of other people’s desires.

We can begin to practice saying no to small requests in safe environments, thereby building our ability to say no. In this way, we can gradually feel more confident and prepared for more important situations.

Apply the 80/20 principle
Are you working all the time but still feel behind on everything? Is there a gap between your input and output? The Pareto law, also known as the 80/20 principle, may help you. Based on the research of Vilfredo Pareto, who looked at patterns of wealth and income distribution in 19th century England, the ratio that was always predictable and consistent was 80/20 – ie 80% of the wealth was owned by 20% of the population. It also surfaces in our own work activities and our personal lives. The 80/20 ration indicates that a surprisingly small part of our efforts lead to a large part of our achievements. So the question to ask is: what are the 20% of our activities – in any sphere of life – that produce the most important results?

Prioritize rest
Exhaustion is a warning sign. By breaking down, our body and mind say no. Looking to protect us from further harm, they tell us to rest. But often we do the opposite. Because we find ourselves falling further and further behind, we don’t allow ourselves to rest. We feel that we must use every available moment to catch up. It is essential to take proper breaks every day, especially when we feel overwhelmed. We need to allow ourselves guilt-free breaks in which we disconnect from our work and give our minds and bodies a chance to restore themselves. It is not easy because many of us have unlearned the ancient art of rest. As Vincent Deary put it: “Work needs rest and rest needs work.”

Be more Stoic
The ancient Stoics believed that our suffering is not caused by external circumstances, but by our reactions to those circumstances—a combination of faulty judgments and unrealistic expectations. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius also had impressively pragmatic views on how we should spend our mental energy. They considered most external events beyond our control and believed it useless to worry about them. Our evaluations of these events, on the other hand, are completely within our control. Consequently, everyone our mental energies must be directed to our inner life, with a view to controlling our thoughts.

A powerful Stoic technique that we can use at home is the “Circle of Control” exercise. Make a list of your core stressors. Then draw two concentric circles nesting inside each other. The outer one is “what I can’t control”. The inner circle houses “what I can control”. Place your stressors in the relevant circles. Seneca and co will encourage you to accept whatever is in the outer circle and to focus on addressing what is within the inner circle. Finally, the Stoics advise us radically to control our expectations. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “Only a madman looks for figs in winter.”

Exhausted: An A–Z for the Tired by Anna Katharina Schaffner is published by Profile Books at £15.99. Buy a copy for £13.91 guardianbookshop.com



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