13 Jan 2024

Dr Josh Cohen: The way out of burnout for a healthy 2024

From The Weekend , 9:07 am on 13 January 2024
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Fear of whether you are doing enough to maximise your potential and undervaluing doing nothing are contributing to burnout, a psychoanalyst says.

Burnout did not become a recognised diagnosis until 1974, when German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger was encountering people he described as having "a physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress".

Dr Josh Cohen, professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London and a professional psychoanalyst, told The Weekend the first studies on burnout were done surveying people in the caring profession, such as medicine, nursing and social work.

"What emerged from that was these people who had gone into their profession with high ideals, wanting to take care of people, wanting to do something for the good of individuals and society, because of the demands of work, the bureaucratic demands and because they felt like their own lives had been squeezed out, all their idealism had inverted and become cynicism.

"So you get a situation where burnout for some people is characterised by a sort of resentful getting on with it."

Whereas others quite literally, just burn out.

"I've seen people who woke up one morning, intending to go to work but suddenly realising they just couldn't ... and they didn't go to work that day. One or two people I've seen didn't go to work the next day and the next day either.

"It becomes a kind of inertial state where you're just not able to muster the will and purpose to face the world."

Burnout vs exhaustion

So what is actually the difference between normal exhaustion and burnout?

Cohen explained that exhaustion is what we feel when our mind and body are tired and have run out of energy juice.

However you can feel a sort of "deep, transcendental bliss" if you're exhausted, he said.

"You can feel like you're sort of at one with yourself, that you've achieved a lot and that you're now enjoying the rewards of rest, both of your body but also of your whole nervous system and your mind."

But burnout is different. Cohen explained that with burnout, the body collapses, so it is an involuntary rest.

"You feel you can't move or do anything anymore but actually it's accompanied by ... a kind of overstimulation of the nervous system.

"So in burnout you often get that very frustrating phenomena of feeling exhausted but [being] unable to sleep. Your whole body is telling you to switch the lights out but your mind has the lights on full."

Insomnia and sleepless concept. Man unable to sleep. Exhausted and tired. Covering face with hand. Alarm clock on nightstand and bed in bedroom.

File photo: Even though your whole body wants to sleep and shut off, your mind won't during burn out, says Dr Josh Cohen. Photo: 123rf

Cohen said noticeable symptoms of burnout included when someone finds themselves fighting an internal war over undertaking the basic tasks of life.

That could be getting out of bed but feeling a "deep resentment" and a "mounting dread" at what you have to face in your day.

"[There's] a kind of wish to do absolutely nothing, but not in a state of pleasurable rest ... in the sense of just almost wanting to wipe yourself out.

"People often talk about ... finding themselves in a state of zombie nothingness, just wanting to empty their minds of all thoughts."

'Heightened anxiety about whether you're doing enough'

The world has a culture now where there are so many demands put on people, Cohen said.

There was pressure to be working and visible not just in workplaces, but on social media channels, and side hustles  - like making a podcast or starting a band.

"These should be pleasurable things but they become projects that enhance the CV or just give younger workers a sense that they're maximising their potential to get on in the world.

"Instead of a pleasure and passion in work, it often leads to a kind of heightened anxiety about whether you're doing enough, whether you could be doing more."

Cohen said this especially affected people who were in their 20s or 30s who have to "work much harder to get into the labour market" and who are likely to spend many more years struggling to get any kind of rewarding work and when they do, they are often very poorly paid.

He believed that current culture did not value the dimension of rest, contemplation and reflection.

"Those inactivities kind of get steeped in shame. People feel consistently guilty, or as if some sort of very judgemental pair of eyes is staring at them wondering why they're not using their time more productively."

While work was important, Cohen explained that humans were also born to rest and we are "wired to retreat sometimes from the realm of activity".

"We internalise a notion that we should always be doing something and ... when you're doing nothing, you're not doing anything. 

"That actually isn't true, paradoxically when you're doing nothing, you're not only letting your mind and body recharge ... you're letting your imagination have a licence to roam."