Burnout nation: how has breaking point become normal?

For many of us, breaking point is now the default baseline from which we live our day-to-day lives

I first got the idea to write my debut novel, Breaking Point, when I heard a tragic news story about a baby who had been forgotten in a car. As the mother of four very young children at the time, I was completely terrified by the story. I understood instantly how easily it could happen. I was exhausted, juggling a career, marriage, childcare, responsibilities to other family members, shuttling between cities for my job . . . I felt something like this could happen to anyone; I felt it could happen to me. I started counting my children every time we went anywhere in the car.

I had been thinking about writing a book about the pressures of modern life for a while at that point. In 2015, I became a mother for the first time. It was a slightly sharper entry into motherhood than usual as I went overnight from being a woman with no children to being a woman with three children. I had a new baby, and two step-children who were just four and five years old and I was starting a new life with them in Galway. A year later, I had another baby. It was a whirlwind.

I should point out here that I was very used to stress. I dealt with it easily. I have worked as a journalist for most of my adult life. It’s not a laid-back profession. Newsrooms are not relaxing places. Journalists are not chill people. We like to think of what we do as life or death. Live current affairs radio, where I also worked for many years, takes that to another level. It’s as pressurised as it gets and I loved every minute of it. I loved the deadlines. I loved the cut and thrust. I loved the ticking clock. I thrived on the stress. Surely motherhood would be a doddle compared to that?

Unprecedented stress event

Early motherhood, it turned out, was an unprecedented stress event. I seemed to be in a state of emergency at all times. My heart was constantly racing, I could hear my blood throbbing in my ears, I lost so much weight because I barely had time to eat, every time my baby cried my body flooded with adrenaline. But I am a modern woman so I knew I wanted to keep working as well as being a mother. So, once a week, I drove from Galway, where I now lived, to Dublin where I was still working part-time as an editor. I was still breast-feeding, so I brought my three-month-old baby along with me for these weekly check-ins. (Of course I was breastfeeding, because, again, as a modern woman, I truly believed that if I didn’t I would be harming my baby and I would be a Bad Mother™.)

Mornings were intense. Getting everyone fed, washed, dressed and out the door to get the older kids to school on time was like negotiating with four tiny and extremely volatile terrorists. I observed the other mothers calmly arriving at school with their children. How did they make it look so easy? Nobody ever seemed to be struggling to unfold a double buggy. Everyone seemed to have things under control. By the time I got to bed at night, I was too wired to sleep and so I would sit up, tweaking my to-do list, merging today’s unfinished items into a new super-list, which included everything from work deadlines to DIY to children’s vaccinations.

I was (and remain) eternally grateful to be a mother, but a constant underlying question reverberated with every pulse of my racing heartbeat – how could I sustain this? It felt like I was always at breaking point and yet on paper I was living the dream – children, marriage, career.

Was this having it all? Was this really the best we could do in our advanced society? We could surely do better than this?

I felt frustrated enough that I was compelled to write about it. I saw so many people quietly struggling with daily life, and it wasn’t just parents either. The story about the death of the baby in the car became emblematic for me of everything that was wrong with this running-on-empty lifestyle. So I started writing my novel, Breaking Point, as a kind of response to how we were living. And then the pandemic hit and this experience of normalised daily stress, the pressure of the juggle, was suddenly centre stage.

Dr Katriona O'Sullivan is an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology and the Assisted Living and Learning Institute at Maynooth University and she has conducted academic research into how the pandemic was affecting families.

“With the pandemic, what happened was there was a magnifying glass placed on this particular issue whereby we were forced to turn our homes into a workplace, a school place and a place for family life and it brought home what we’d all been experiencing in the background. Being able to work remotely, to be online and check in at different times and utilise technology has been good in some ways as it allows women to re-engage with the workforce. But the flip side is the pressure is there all the time. Ten per cent of the mothers we interviewed and surveyed left their jobs because the pandemic was the final straw,” she says.

O’Sullivan says that remote working, while making life more flexible, might not be as positive as we think. “I know there’s a big push for remote work to be the thing but I would worry about cost to personal life when home becomes the place where work happens. What would that do to family life? Certain women I know are happy they don’t have to get up and get dressed and drive in and drive out, but I worry about how we separate our identities. What’s the cost in the long term?’

Dr Harry Barry is a GP with a special interest in mental health, and is the author of Embracing Change among many other books. "I would regard burnout as almost endemic," he says. "I would say we have low-level burnout in the population. I've said many times on TV and radio that we could not sustain the way we were living with this out-of-control speed we were living at and wondering why young people were struggling. They were falling into the same trap between online stuff taking over so much of our world, commuting, consumerism, all of these factors were having an effect before the pandemic started."

So what does burnout feel like? “Low-level burnout is when we feel totally exhausted and almost become apathetic, like as if you were climbing a mountain and every time you got to what you thought was the peak you realise there is another peak. With burnout we all feel tired, worn out, demotivated, apathetic, irritable, and we don’t sleep well.” Sound familiar?

O’Sullivan says, “There’s been this normalisation of language like mental health. We throw out the terms ‘wellness’ and ‘mental health’ but my experience in the research with families is there is a lot more anxiety in people, there’s less downtime, a lot of people are really tired and it’s never-ending.”

This never-ending, always-on, always-connected, frayed-at-the-edges lifestyle is what I describe in my book as a new normal. And it’s not sustainable.

In April last year, Ireland issued a code of practice for employers on the right to disconnect from work, sounding the opening bell on what will surely culminate in legislation that will allow workers to refuse to carry out work-related requests outside of normal working hours. France has already legislated for this. It's even a punchline in the new series of the Netflix show Emily In Paris. But even with measures like this in place, are we anywhere near addressing the issue?

“There has to be leadership in these areas,” says O’Sullivan. “There are no laws around being ‘on’. I don’t even know how we would respond to that as a society. At the moment, the people who succeed are the ones who sacrifice and then we compare ourselves to those people as if it’s the norm. I’m a manager and I say, act how I act. I’m not calling you after six o’clock. I schedule emails to deliver within work hours. I don’t want to put pressure on anyone. One of the positive things that emerged from the research was [during lockdown] families were forced to do things together and there was a recognition that we don’t spend enough time together. So those things are an important piece of what’s emerged from this shift.”

Pandemic spotlight

In my novel, I happen to be questioning these things that became so magnified under the pandemic spotlight. I wanted Breaking Point to examine how we live now. It’s a novel about burnout. It’s about how having it all is a damaging myth. It’s about how capitalism’s co-opting of feminism has in many ways hamstrung women and men, families and individuals, and left us all with so few choices: how many parents can afford to make the choice to stay at home and look after their children if they want to? How many individuals can hope to be able to afford to buy their own home on a single income?

The modern phenomenon of burnout has become a global issue, and is even more relevant in our post-pandemic world where people have had to endure intolerable stresses, juggling childcare and work, home-schooling and loss of employment, financial problems and relationship issues, which have all led them to re-evaluate what is important to them in their lives and the way they want to live. Through the stories of my characters Susannah, a doctor, and Adelaide, a journalist, both of whom have suffered the worst possible consequences of living life at this break-neck speed, I hope the novel examines how our current way of living has brought us to a breaking point. . . and how we might take a step back from it.

Breaking Point by Edel Coffey is published by Sphere Books.

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