I recently had an experience where I found myself headed toward burnout FAST, and I had to recalculate my life. If I didn’t, I was headed for a mental health break and that is not something a mom of 6, freelance writer, and wife can manage discretely. A breakdown would have destroyed our reality, especially our finances, for quite some time. My problem was burnout caused by a very toxic work environment, and I could not see it coming.
Burnout is not something that black people are accustomed to claiming. Everything is a struggle for us. This is especially true for first-generation college students (and first gen. professionals) like me. We don’t know what’s the norm! How would we? Ain’t nobody in the family been in our spot before. This makes the phenomenon of burnout more damaging for us.
My Burnout Story
Think about it from my perspective. I am the first person in my family to EVAH see the inside of a college, much less complete two degrees. Then, I eventually go on to work for an unstable startup. Things are disorganized, informal. I use my experience to stabilize things and rebuild relationships with clients — even adding new ones along with more skilled employees and more interesting projects. Things are fun and going well on the surface.
However, underneath, the cracks began to show. Suddenly, upper management swoops in and want to micromanage things, adding unnecessary processes and rigid accountability standards. They implement the type of systems that companies turn to after a major fraud…but remember how I said things were stable and growing? I go to look for a reason for the oversight and I am told that the problem is me.
How many of you read the first line after “cracks began to show” and thought, “well, time to look for another job!” Show of hands.
You only quit a job when you got another to replace it, though. And, I was not ready to leave. I was learning so much and meeting so many great people in the industry. I was also working myself to exhaustion every day to meet the new demands. I began to resent my bosses and blame myself for small errors that began to pop up everywhere. I didn’t realize until months later that these were the first signs of burnout. I should have left when I noticed them. I just didn’t know what burnout was and that I should have left then.
Burnout and Black (and POC) Professionals
“Black folks know they need to quit. How we [sic] look getting some burnout when we lucky to have a job in the first place!”
“Honey, you too black and broke to be talking about some ‘burnout’.”
“Burnout? That’s some white folks sh*t, ain’t it?”
Where I come from, the notion of “burnout” was as privileged as a mortgage. We can’t afford it even if we knew what it was, as my mother would say. I was raised to accept any job that paid me to be there every day and to thank God if they kept me longer than a few months. Bonuses and promotions meant that they would have to carry me out in a casket or cuffs to get rid of me. People who owed rent and had mouths to feed didn’t have choices.
This is why anyone with our upbringing would scoff at the idea of burnout symptoms. The World Health Organization recently designated burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” and several publications have reported on its hazards to young workers and even parents. They described the symptoms as:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy
Unfair compensation (41 percent), unreasonable workload (32 percent), and too much overtime / after-hours work (32 percent) are the top three contributors to burnout, per this study.
I could have sworn that all of these were signs of a tired working parent. Looking back, I think every adult I knew as a kid was burned out. They all wore exhaustion on their faces like a permanent tattoo. My uncles made jokes about the jobs, which sounded fun despite how evil the boss was and how broke-down the equipment was that they had to work with. Working in unfair, usually racist, environments with too much to do and not enough time, money, or equipment to complete it IS the definition of a job, or that’s how I learned it.
The Power Element
I am not alone. Millions of kids of color, black kids, and children of immigrants grew up with this as a model of what WORK and the WORKPLACE looks like. You just had to deal with it, because the boss is more connected and more powerful and had more money. You can’t fight them. This is ingrained into our DNA from slavery. You fight the master, you better be ready to die from your choices. So, we keep going. And endure and feel like we are being model employees.
Meanwhile, my workplace was even more toxic. Emails were being tracked by unseen sources, decisions were being undercut and revised without notice, microaggressions became personal as management began offering “criticism to improve my performance”. It became a chore to go to work each day. By the time I couldn’t mentally take anymore, management announces it was cutting my already low wage to something beneath that a teenager mowing lawns makes in a week. It was time to leave.
Refining Burnout for Our Generation
Starting over is the scariest thing a child of working/poverty class people can do. For the first time, you have no job to fall back on and no paycheck waiting in the wings or “coming to you.” You only have ideas, plenty of stuff gleaned from the last job and years of experience. But the confidence to start something new—something that’s yours—is sorely lacking. Then, if you have a particular kind of toxic boss, they may try to block your movements. It’s a small fight, but one that seems like a mountain of trouble when you come from people who tried to live life avoiding job problems at all costs.
The thing is, starting over is the healthiest, smartest thing I could have done. It was also the only way to heal the burnout that I was succumbing to. But, we shouldn’t have to get so far under that we barely have the energy to save ourselves. Our generation needs a definition of burnout of our own. We need a definition that goes along with our experience but also uses that knowledge to help map out some of the signs and symptoms we should look out for. Some writers have started the work. Check out my “for more information” section below to see some of the work being done right now.
As for me, I am happy, healthy, and working hard on making my own mark in the industry. I am also committed to helping others, so don’t hesitate to email me if you have a question. I am here to help, or even to commiserate. Burnout is a bitch and no one should face it down alone.
For more reading: