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Personal Identity, Burnout & Quiet-Quitting

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As a professor in organizational communication and leadership, I tell my students that one of the first things people ask you in the United States when they meet you is, “what do you do for a living?” We don’t ask about your family or hobbies when we first meet. 

When you think about it, we ask, “How do you pay your bills?” In many countries, this is considered downright rude, but here in the US, we want to know your occupation since work is a colossal part of our days. Since work has become such a vital part of our personal identities, it’s no surprise that people living in the US are experiencing burnout at epidemic levels.

Burnout

My 16 year old daughter recently told me she was “burned out.” Should that come as any surprise to me? She’s been through 2+ years of Covid (doesn’t it seem like at least five), online school, chaos at her in-person school due to overcrowding, and stress due to so much standardized testing (STAAR, ACT, SAT, AP). She is burned out on thinking about an occupation before she even has a chance to find herself. 

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” 

After dealing with the same things as my daughter, is it surprising that my students have so much self-reported anxiety? I am seeing it more now than ever before.

After dealing with so much over the last few years, is it surprising that my students have so much self-reported anxiety? I see it more now than ever before in them.

I, too, feel burnout—both at work and sometimes at home. As a 6-year esophageal cancer survivor, I am pretty grateful, upbeat, and resilient. I have already been through hell, but I am drained. 

Why am I drained…? Covid, what is going on in US politics, living in Texas, loss of women’s rights in the US (and other parts of the world), the war in Ukraine, our economy, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, pivoting to online teaching, pivoting back to the classroom learning, doing more with fewer resources, all the work we do at home (both emotional and physical labor), watching my child struggle with anxiety, and worrying about her place in this world… 

These things would take a toll on the most resilient of us. 

I also, however, realize I am privileged. I am a professor. I have more flexibility than many people. I have found professional success. Even with these privileges, I typically work 60 hours a week if I am lucky. After feeling worn down by my occupation for the first time, I started researching burnout and all the many terms associated with burnout and occupational identity. 

Many of us may be surprised that “burnout” is not a medical condition, even though it sure feels like it is to those of us dealing with it. While not a medical diagnosis, many researchers agree that burnout is characterized by increased anxiety, sleep issues and fatigue, and lack of interest in work, creative endeavors, and even family life.

Quiet Quitting

We have recently heard terms in the media like “quiet-quitting” (acting your wage) and “quiet firing” (being treated so poorly you leave). I recently read an article that warns us that if we act our wage, we likely will be “let go first” in a recession. These articles, of course, tend to increase our anxiety and pessimism about the future.

Quiet-quitting is a new term, but it is not a new idea. Quiet-quitting can help us prevent, and possibly help us recover from, burnout. 

Rediscovering That Work has a Set Time and Place.

Employers often ask us to not just sell our time but to sell our entire personal identities. At some point during Covid, I believe many people learned how to say “no” to selling their whole selves. Instead, we started practicing quiet quitting. We started working just the hours we were paid to work. We stopped feeling like we had to say “yes” to all those extra requests outside our paid hours or scope.

So, Now What? How Do You Deal with Burnout?

If you work in an organization where you feel burned out, it may be time to assess that relationship. If you have already left your organization and are searching for a new one, remember that work is only one part of your identity. You are more than your occupation. 

If you work for an organization and do not believe in or share its vision, you should leave because you will never be happy there. Likewise, it is time to go if your leaders do not believe in you. If you feel burned out but are financially stuck in place, it is time to create concrete goals to get out. Take action steps to meet those goals, consider when you can say “no,” and finally polish up that resume.

Start a conversation if you’re burned out at home. Your partner may not realize how fatigued you are if you do not communicate. I have learned to say “no” at work if needed, but I am still working on saying “no” and asking for help at home. We all, however, need to stop normalizing working until we are both emotionally and physically exhausted. 

Most of all, please don’t give up. Seek support both at work and at home.

Here are a few of the things I’m doing to help create change:

  • I am honest at work when I do not feel like I can do more.
  • I regularly ask my colleagues how they are doing and try to ensure they do not overdo all the extra committees they can say “yes” to in academia (especially my younger colleagues who are overwhelmed with asks).
  • I ensure our adjunct faculty feel supported and only do the work they are paid to do. 

Cultural change takes time, but we can make it a better world for ourselves and future generations if we commit to helping create that change.

Reimagine Life Without an Identity Assigned by Your Employment

I tell my students to play a game when people ask, “what do you do?” Reply “nothing” and see what happens. It disturbs people. Then take that awkward pause as an opportunity to get into a conversation normalizing that we are more than our work identities.


Editors Notes:

We’re no strangers to burnout here at WPF. In fact, my blog, That Frugal Pharmacist (which I don’t use much these days), was an attempt to fight burnout, and you’ll find burnout themes throughout. One of the earliest posts has burnout in the title! The next is about always being on the clock, and later on, I talked about learning to say no. Early in Covid, I took a leave of absence from work which was really the beginning of the end of any traditional employment for me. There were a number of factors involved there, but burnout, both from my professional life and being the primary caregiver for my son through his cancer treatment as well as life and the pandemic contributed. Had I not already been experiencing burnout I may have been able to weather some of those storms differently.

As we discuss in the this post, one of the strangest parts of this journey since leaving traditional employment has been figuring out who I am when I’m not “a pharmacist.” I am a pharmacist, yes, and spent a decade of my life in the profession and many more years being educated to get there. But I am much more than a pharmacist, and that title does not define me. So who am I? I’m still figuring that all out, but I’m working to define myself through a wider lens – and a more adaptable lens. Who I am can and will change, and almost any way you define yourself can be reimagined based on your needs.

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