Understanding burnout, rest and how the sleep industry can help lead the charge
By Elaina Hundley
Though we’ve reached an inflection point in the US when it comes to vaccination, the cry for self-care keeps getting louder as researchers begin to unravel the potential long-term mental health consequences of the pandemic, as well as the necessity of sleep for building immunity. We are also starting to really grasp the impact the pandemic has had on the way we work and live—and how some of the hallmarks of quarantine might have changed us. Feelings of burnout around work and nerves about having social lives again abound. But combating the idea of burnout and understanding how to really rest are not totally new goals; they’ve been becoming a part of the cultural zeitgeist for a while now. Not only have millennials been aptly dubbed the “burnout” generation, but as we evaluate both societal inequity as well as the role of work, many think it’s time for change—change in societal values and change in the way we take care of ourselves and each other. So today we are wondering: What is burnout? What is rest? How might rest be an antidote to burnout? And what can an industry that sells sleep do to support rest that actually heals?
What is burnout?
Jill Lepore recently chronicled a history of burnout in this article for the New Yorker. She characterizes the concept by saying: “To be burned out is to be used up, like a battery so depleted that it can’t be recharged. In people, unlike batteries, it is said to produce the defining symptoms of ‘burnout syndrome’: exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of efficacy.” In this wry article, she also observes there is a secondary pandemic of burnout that is weighing us all down.
According to Lepore’s research, burnout originated with the “free clinic” movement and a man named Herbert Freudenberger. “‘Free’ to the free clinic movement represents a philosophical concept rather than an economic term,’ one of its founders wrote, and the community-based clinics served ‘alienated populations in the United States including hippies, commune dwellers, drug abusers, third world minorities, and other ‘outsiders’ who have been rejected by the more dominant culture.” Mostly staffed by volunteers, the clinics specialized in drug-abuse treatment, drug crisis intervention, and what they called “detoxification.” Many drug addicts described themselves as burnt or hollowed out by their ongoing drug use.
After visiting one such clinic, Freudenberger started his own in New York in 1970. Ironically, in starting the clinic and working from morning until night to manage it, Freudenberger himself began to experience feelings akin to the burnout of an addict. This is, in part, how the word began to morph into a phenomena primarily associated with care work: teaching, social work, counseling and more—emotionally draining work for which professionals are not compensated enough.
However, the term soon went way beyond addiction and care work. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s more and more categories of workers were experiencing burnout; it became an affliction of upper management, housewives and more. Since then, the term has continued to proliferate and stretch across lifestyles and industries to describe the exhaustion of working too hard.
Lepore argues that the reason burnout has become woven into the fabric of our culture, stems from two key causes. First is the “workification” of so many areas of our lives. Everything we do is work: you have to ”do the work” in therapy; you work on your marriage; if you are religious, you work on your relationship with God and the list goes on. But she also talks about another reason burnout has become worse and worse: it started with wage stagnation and declining union membership in the 1970’s. The discussion of burnout was initially meant to relieve some of the problems low-wage workers were experiencing and help care work professionals receive more compensation—but talking about burnout seems to have simply led to more burnout. Throw in a pandemic and we are now exploding with it.
Enter “self-care” and also, a greater emphasis on rest.
What is rest?
Rest is both a literal and figurative concept. Thought of literally, rest means getting proper sleep for physical and mental health. Figuratively, rest is all about taking the space needed to recharge, which is not always actually sleeping. For example, rest can mean taking a break from work, clearing your head, recharging—a seemingly unattainable commodity in a world where we prize productivity and busy-ness overall, and in which our attention is constantly sought.
Apartment Therapy, a popular interior design website, is hosting what it calls a “Restival” this week. A Restival is what it describes as “a series about slowing down, sleeping more, and relaxing however you can…” The media outlet positions rest as the ideal solution to the uncharged battery condition of burnout.
Caroline Dooner, author of ‘The F*ck It Diet’ explains that “Deliberate, unconditional rest is really the only remedy for burnout.” The article goes on to say that what most of us might view as rest are recipes for more burnout. For example, we often have a tendency to turn self-care and rest into work with diets, self-help reading lists or trying to journal every day. And, adding all those “restful” plans to your ever-growing to-do list will likely just make you more stressed.
So what is “deliberate and unconditional rest”? Apartment Therapy has answers for that too. According to Janice Gassam Asare, Ph.D., a DEI consultant, professor, and writer, “rest sometimes means ‘not doing a damn thing.’” She goes on to explain: “When I think of rest, I envision letting go of the desire to constantly be in what I would call performance mode. Oftentimes, there is a war between what we love to do and what we have to do to survive. I love love love to write. I love to speak. But sometimes I don’t feel like doing either. Rest for me means not feeling the need to perform and produce, for the sake of performing and producing.”
What role can the bedding and mattress industry play in encouraging real rest?
While the bedding and mattress industry is of course focused on manufacturing and selling products, it’s important to remember that at their core the products made by this industry are meant to support greater health and wellness. Manufacturers can support this mission by developing genuinely valuable, ethically made and sustainable products. Retailers can do the same by stocking products they believe in and incorporating consultative selling strategies into their stores that emphasize education and awareness of the value of sleep.
While the industry has long focused on the needs of consumers, it can also turn back towards itself to begin the important task of evaluating workplace culture, prioritizing rest for workers of all levels and hearing out employee needs and concerns. For example, manufacturers can begin by making sure the risk factory workers have taken during the pandemic to keep producing is reflected in pay and benefits, if they haven’t already.
What can we do on a more general basis to avoid burnout and achieve better rest?
While Jill Lepore mocks the many lists of burnout coping strategies across the internet, we are still going to include a couple resting tips here:
Change the way you think and talk about work
Oftentimes when you ask someone how their week was, they reply with something like: “Really busy and productive. I worked long hours but got so much done.” Or maybe you are the person who responds this way. What if you tried to stop?
Instead of touting how busy you were this week or how much you accomplished, maybe talk about some of the ways you took care of yourself. Recognize rest and care as productivity or better yet, recognize that rest doesn’t have to be productive to be important.
Start prioritizing feeling good, getting sleep, eating well—whatever it is that makes you feel recharged and share that with others. Taking care of yourself and your family could be your biggest accomplishment of the week and that is something to celebrate. The more we celebrate triumphs in rest, the more normal and guilt-free taking that time can become.
Take time to “not do a damn thing”
It’s important that rest not become a box to check off on our to-do lists. What makes you feel rested might be different from what wellness articles tell you to do. Sometimes rest means doing nothing, putting down technology or putting away the to-do list for a few hours and feeling ok with it. Sometimes it means blowing off the day to sit in a park or taking an actual nap. Figure out what rest means to you—with or without reading an article about it.
It is important to live out values both at home and in the workplace that provide space for rest sans guilt. Our nation prioritizes productivity and production, but neither is sustainable if our entire workforce feels like an uncharged battery. Although none of us can single handedly transform the culture, why shouldn’t an industry that manufactures and sells sleep products model a work culture invested in balance and rest?
As restrictions ease around the pandemic, try to be considerate of not asking too much of others or ourselves. Sliding into the next new normal will be a different process for everyone—one that will require caution, patience and ample time for rest.