“What would you do if you achieved your lifelong dream faster than expected?”
YouTuber Elle Mills asked the question in a video posted to her page last May. She was 19 and a star. Except, as she said in the seven-minute video, it wasn’t quite what she expected. She was constantly alone, under stress, and facing overwhelming pressure to produce. Mills, whose depression and anxiety were only growing, started to have panic attacks.
“It’s starting to scare me,” she said. “I’m literally just waiting for me to hit my breaking point.”
Mills was burnt out.
She wasn’t the only one. Mills’ declaration closely followed one from fellow YouTuber Alisha Marie. In that video, a visibly nervous Marie said, “I used to be so proud of every video that I uploaded… Now, I’m burnt out.”
In November, Lilly Singh, a YouTube comedian known online as “Superwoman,” announced her own break.
“I am mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted,” she told viewers. “I’m not my optimal happiness right now. I could be mentally healthier.”
While some of their experiences have been attributed to the relentless churn of the YouTube content machine, burnout isn’t just a YouTube problem. Chronic stress made headlines repeatedly in 2018.
The family of Swedish DJ Avicii, who killed himself in April, released a statement saying he was struggling, trying to find balance before he died. They remembered him as “an over-achieving perfectionist who travelled and worked hard at a pace that led to extreme stress.”
Indeed, a 2016 study of more than 2,000 musicians found that while many found “solace in the production of music,” they believed the working conditions in the industry were hurting their mental health. More than 70 per cent of those surveyed said they had high levels of anxiety or believed they had experienced panic attacks, with nearly 70 per cent saying they had experienced depression.
In August, researchers from Virginia Tech found the pressure employees face to be on email at all hours of the day and night was hurting not just their health but also the health of their family around them. And in October, the Canadian Medical Association released a study showing an increasing number of doctors are facing burnout and depression.
Despite the proliferation of public cases, burnout doesn’t just suddenly appear.
”Its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it much harder to recognize,” Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, wrote in Psychology Today.
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It’s chronic stress, the kind that builds over time, leaving you exhausted and anxious, less productive and forgetful. But if it’s hard to spot and if you — like most people — don’t have the option to take an extended break to recoup, how can you do your best to guard against developing burnout in the year ahead?
Start learning what to watch for, says Jody Urquhart, an Alberta-based motivational speaker who uses comedy to speak about burnout.
“Awareness is key,” she says. “Burnout is physical, it’s mental and it’s emotional.”
We tend to fixate on the physical, Urquhart says — are we sleeping well, eating well, exercising enough? And while those still require discipline to fix, they’re easier to recognize.
It gets a bit trickier when it comes to your brain, she says, especially given how much of what we think about our lives get filtered through other people’s perspectives.
“You can be influenced by online sources, you’re influenced by your peers… your workplace,” Urquhart says. Is your boss always critical of you? Is the friend you follow on Instagram only posting the photos that make her life look perfect and yours, by comparison, less than?
The Mayo Clinic describes burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
While tracking your exercise and sleep levels can help with the exhaustion, it’s the latter – your sense of self – that Urquhart tries to encourage people to protect.
“Awareness is key,” she says. In other words, you need to be much more conscious about your thoughts since “every thought creates different emotional reactions.”
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In a practical sense, Urquhart says her anti-burnout strategy doesn’t require much of a time commitment, just a commitment to a few moments here and there. Stick an affirmation on your mirror with positive thoughts or think about something uplifting when you brush your teeth or drive to work.
“Just keep filling yourself with that stuff,” she says.
It might not sound like much, but sometimes people hang onto bad emotions, Urquhart says. They get stuck and can’t reach out to friends, can’t take breaks, can’t remember to watch funny videos and laugh.
WATCH: Humour is the best medicine
“The sense of being overwhelmed is a signal, not a long-term sentence,” wrote Monique Valcour in the Harvard Business Review. Valcour, who has helped people recover from burnout in her work as a coach, researcher and educator, echoed Urquhart’s advice.
To ward against burnout you need to shift your perspective and prioritize self-care.
Part of that will mean figuring out the things in your life that “trigger unhealthy stress,” she said, which might mean pushback from friends, family and even your colleagues. “But doubters must know that you’re making these changes to improve your long-term productivity and protect your health.”
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That’s what Mills did, according to her update video on YouTube last September. She spoke about spending more time with family and friends, squeezing some therapy sessions in between watching her brother graduate and celebrating her birthday. She talked about starting to work and travel again – this time with firmer boundaries.
Mills told her viewers she’s making sure to spend more time with friends, take dedicated time off the internet every day, and exercise “a whole lot more.”
“I’ve also been working on reaching out and talking to people when I start to feel bad so it doesn’t build up to what it was a few months ago,” she said.
“I guess you could say that things are going pretty well.”