Burnout is a well-publicized problem in the business world: a recent survey by Blind estimates that almost 60% of technology workers feel burnt out. A recent New York Times interview with notorious Tesla founder Elon Musk noted that he regularly works 120 hours per week and relies on Ambien for the little sleep he does get. One-third of American employees do work between 10pm and 6am, and the average worker checks her phone fifty times per day. Oh, and for what it’s worth, research shows that women are more prone to burnout than men.
As a society, we mostly talk about burnout in the abstract as a societal trend, or in the case of Elon, a good excuse for cocktail chatter about the pervasiveness of Ambien. The truth is, it’s a whole lot easier to talk about other people than it is to take a hard look at ourselves.
Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Katie, and I work too much. This week, I returned to my job as an executive at a tech company after a full month unplugged from emails, phone calls, and meetings. I’ve been at the company six years, and just completed my one month sabbatical, a benefit we offer all of our employees for every five years of service.
I could lie and tell you unplugging was easy, but at first, it wasn’t. When you’re used to a marathon pace of meetings, emails, and obligations, getting off the ride is often the hardest part. But once I committed to taking off, I took my mission seriously. I did a whole lot less work, and a whole lot more reading, family time, and fitness classes.
During one of those classes, a yoga class, the instructor said something simple but profound: you can’t skip Savasana. Savasana, also known as corpse pose, is often used to conclude yoga classes, and requires lying down and fully relaxing your entire body and mind. Typically, I duck out of class just before this window — whether there’s a meeting to get to or a call to talk, lying down for a few minutes feels like a waste of time. But with a full month off of work, I had no excuse to sprint out the door early. So I completed the pose, in silence, with nothing to rush to, no emails to respond to, and nothing on my to-do list.
If life is an equation, I’m used to solving for efficiency, and lying down in silence in a crowded room feels decidedly unproductive. In truth, it’s just the opposite. Savasana lowers your blood pressure, increases the quality of your sleep, and forces you to relax and be in touch with your body and your mind. It’s the true antithesis of the burnout we talk so much about.
But when you’re used to doing everything, doing nothing feels like the hardest possible thing to do. What sounds like the easiest pose on earth (lying down doing nothing) feels impossible and exhausting. But like the very technology our industry has built and made so ubiquitous, humans need time to recharge too.
From Burning Man to Ambien to Ironmans, our habits to avert burnout are as intense as the work many of us do. Luxury and relaxation have unto themselves become supercharged. But if we are truly going to tackle the challenge of American burnout, each of us has to do less, not more. And rather than escaping our lives and medicating our problems, we must face them, one deep breath at a time. This might mean actually getting up from your desk for lunch, taking a few deep breaths every hour, or scheduling time with your friends, family, or workout partner and making it as non-negotiable as your budget meetings. By building restoration into our operating systems, we build more sustainable models that we are less likely to have to escape from and more likely to sustain over time.
I hope you are lucky enough to have a job you love, and to do work you love daily. But I also hope you are courageous enough to recognize that you are not your job, and that your life extends far beyond your work day.
I hope you are lucky enough to have a job you love, and to do work you love daily. But I also hope you are courageous enough to recognize that you are not your job, and that your life extends far beyond your work day. I don’t know what or who you love, or where you are in your life journey, but what I do know is that you’ll understand more about what drives you, what matters to you, and what reignites you if you don’t skip Savasana. It turns out, taking the time for a few deep breaths in the ultimate exercise in efficiency, because breathing, sleeping, and living better is good for your health.
So if you’re looking for me, I’ll still be doing my demanding job and loving it. I love the adrenaline that comes with the pace of my job, and I adore the problems I work on and the people I collaborate with daily. But I’ll be saying “no” a lot more often so that I have more time to do something or nothing, free of my phone, meeting requests, and the endless ding of notifications and expectation. I hope you’ll have the courage and vulnerability to do the same.