This Is Why So Many Of Us Are Suffering From Burnout

by Annie Reneau
Getty Images / Christoph Hetzmannseder

Working Americans, we need to talk.

When is the last time you took a vacation? Like, an actual, away-from-work, not-tethered-to-your-phone, no-monitoring-email, no-checking-in-with-your-boss vacation?

Do you often stay late at work? Do you work weekends? Do you skip breaks or eat lunch at your desk?

A study done by Project: Time Off found that more than half of American workers they studied left vacation time unused in 2015 because their heavy workload made them feel they didn’t have time to take off. And a CareerBuilder survey found that 61% of people—3 in 5—say they are burned out in their jobs.

This is not okay, America.

Some of this problem is undoubtedly linked to the slow recovery from the largest recession since the Great Depression. We’ve all heard the stories of millennials graduating from college deeply in debt, unable to find jobs, and forced to live in their parents’ basements. Americans who do have jobs are afraid of losing any steady employment they have, so perhaps they feel like they need to perform at superhuman levels in order to keep from being replaced by an eager youngster willing to do the same work for less money.

A solid work ethic is one thing. But work-life balance is important. Smart employers recognize that a healthy, rested employee is a productive employee.

But the problem is not always the employer. Some modern companies have begun offering unlimited vacation time as a benefit to full-time employees, only to find that their employees actually take less time off than those with a specified number of days. Some of those companies have actually started requiring that employees take a minimum number of days off.

Is it America’s rugged individualism and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that perpetuates this idea that hard work has no upper limit? European nations don’t seem to have the same issues with balancing work and relaxation. In fact, by law, every country in the European Union requires workers to take a minimum of four weeks of paid time off.

That’s right. Four weeks minimum. Austria ensures a minimum of 22 days of paid vacation plus 13 paid holidays. The average American worker receives 16 days of paid time off total—vacation and holidays combined. And that’s just out of the goodness of the employers’ heart (or the wisdom of the employer who understand humans need breaks). America has no legal minimums for paid leave—and we’re the only developed economy with that claim to fame. And as mentioned above, even when it’s offered, many Americans don’t take it.

This all-work-no-play approach comes at a cost. Much like kids perform better in school when they are given adequate time for recess, adults tend to be happier—and therefore more loyal and productive—when they have time for their brains and bodies to recharge. Working harder and longer may produce results in the short-term, but over the long haul the stress of it all can lead to fatigue, job-related errors, and illness.

Many of us are so used to feeling burned out that we may not even recognize when we need to take a break. Here are some signs to look for:

– You’re tired all the time.

– You can’t sleep well at night.

– You experience aches and pains in your body.

– You feel anxious or depressed.

– You’re gaining weight (or losing in an unhealthy way).

– You can’t think straight.

– You feel angry and short-tempered a lot.

– You get sick a lot.

I know, a lot of this list just sounds like par for the course for parenthood. But it’s not normal to be overwhelmed all the time. Yes, life isn’t a picnic and there is value in hard work; however, burning out isn’t good for anyone—not you, not your family, and not your employer.

If you have vacation time, take it. Clock out and check out, and let people know you will be off the grid. Delegate “unexpected and urgent” work to coworkers and direct people to contact them in an emergency. (Setting up a reciprocal agreement with your colleagues ahead of time so you cover for one another during vacations can work well). Temporarily remove your work email from your phone and log out of your email on your computer so you resist the temptation to check in.

Take a real vacation. Take more than one per year. Even if it’s just a “staycation” where you do the things you never have time for at home, shutting off work for a while is healthy. If you get paid time off, take it. No one else is going to take it for you, and most employers aren’t going to push you to take it.

When you start to feel guilty or wonder if you really need it, remember that Americans already get far less paid vacation time than other developed nations. Know the value of your time and energy, and do what it takes to be a healthy human for yourself, your kids, and the people you work for.