A person sitting in a cafe working on a laptop

How to Do Nothing; A Note for the Modern Worker

It’s 8.56pm on a Wednesday night when a message pops up on my screen. It’s my sister asking, pleading, if I can work at her deli tomorrow. This request, while having always been frequent, has become more and more so as she tries to adjust to the reality of managing a business, dealing with staff shortages in the hospitality sector, as well as a toddler and a 6-month-old baby. When I think about her, I often feel claustrophobic and exhausted purely by osmosis.

You can imagine, then, how relieved we all were when she told us she and her partner have bought a bluestone chapel venue space in the country.  She is selling her beloved deli, and is relocating her family to the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. “I just think it’s what we need”, she said, sinking into her chair and sipping her beer. I laughed. “Yes,” I said, “I agree!”

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to consider our lives with new eyes

COVID has provided a shake-up in more ways than one: people are beginning to realise that exhaustion, career stagnation, feeling undervalued, or poorly paid, is not something one should simply put up with. This phenomenon, which experts have coined ‘The Great Resignation’, caused a global re-evaluation of priorities and satisfaction. A study conducted by Microsoft in mid-2021 found that on average, 40% of the global workplace were considering handing in resignation.

The Great Resignation has not surged through Australia to the full extent that was initially expected. However, there has been a nation-wide wave of people reassessing their work/life balance. From front line workers to CEOs to members of government, no sector has been immune to the shift in perspective. Over 1.3 million Australians quit their job last year, and up to another 25% of the workforce are considering, or have recently considered, leaving their job. Experts identify the main cause of The Great Resignation is burnout, which is a term we are becoming well acquainted with in our fast-paced modern world.

Burnout is now recognised by the DSM

In its simplest form, burnout is “a manifestation of chronic, unmitigated stress” explains Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, a physician scientist who studies burnout at the Mayo Clinic. The World Health Organisation links burnout directly to our work role, highlighting the role of work-related stress that can detrimentally impact other aspects of our life. Most research, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, has characterised burnout according to the following three dimensions:

  1. Persistent feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion (both physical and emotional)
  2. Increased psychological distancing from work, or negative, cynical feelings towards one’s work (e.g. feeling less motivated or caring less about work)
  3. Reduced personal and professional efficacy (e.g. feeling you are no longer making a difference)

Our bodies were not designed to cope with this kind of stress

The same Microsoft survey exposed more than half of the Australian respondents have suffered from burnout in the past year. Many of us readily shrug off small stressors, or believe a degree of regular stress is productive, and this is not an entirely unfounded belief. However, small, regular stresses have wear and tear effects on the body over time, as well as an accumulative impact that can become a real problem.

This is because when we experience stress -small or large scale- our stress-response hormones such as adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol elevate to above-normal levels. Short term, this is fine for us, and even helps us cope with what’s causing the stress, as long as we are able to return to equilibrium.

Returning to baseline, however, requires time out, or a period of no new stressors being encountered. This helps us feel like we are once again coping with the situation. For many burnt out individuals though, the absence of these conditions (caused by ongoing work stress, combined with other life stress, for example) means these hormones are constantly elevated. As this is not what our stress-response system is designed for, this can start to cause harm to the body.

What struck me in reading about burnout was how hard it is in our lives to find ‘a period where no new stressors are experienced’. This certainly doesn’t describe my average week! It seems our bodies simply aren’t designed to handle the kind of constant stress the modern career and lifestyle demands of us.

The ‘noble lie’ of contemporary society is the glorification of hard work and a hefty salary

Writer and academic, Jonathan Malesic, recognises that his experience of burnout had everything to do with his beliefs: “I was blinded by my trust in the American promise: if I got the right kind of job, then success and happiness would surely follow”. As Malesic began to experience persistent exhaustion, disillusion, and insomnia, he realised this premise is plainly false.

As a response, he sat himself down to ask the hard questions. He discovered what the philosopher Plato called the ‘noble lie’; a myth that holds together the key arrangement of a society.

Our noble lie, the lie of contemporary hustle, has convinced us of the value of hard work. ‘Hard’ is equated with ‘hours logged’, and how many figures a salary boasts, and we expect happiness as the outcome. We believe the job will deliver on its promise, and this belief and hope sees us put in the extra hours, take on the extra project and continue to live in the hamster wheel driven by our own, often unrecognised, hustle. The scariest part about the phenomenon is that it has become practically ubiquitous in our western culture. From the time we are in school, we are told that there is always something more we can, and should, be doing.

The practice of ‘doing nothing’ can be a tool for repair

After watching Arthur Miller’s 1949 play ‘Death of a Salesman’ one inconspicuous Tuesday night, I was made to see these grievances are not new. It was when Biff recited the lines;

“It’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still — that’s how you build a future”.

I felt the way the audience around me shifted in their seats or murmured something inaudible – a slight constriction of the vocal cords I could only interpret as recognition.

Researchers remark that one of the greatest antidotes (and preventative strategies) for burnout is learning how to do ‘nothing’. The title of this piece, How to do Nothing, is an homage to Jenny Odell’s wonderful book of the same name. It’s a refreshing and decisive interrogation of the modern world, which also teaches the challenging practice of doing nothing. A passage that I particularly love highlights the counter-intuitive need to do nothing, in order to be productive;

‘…“doing nothing” is of utmost importance, because without this we have no way to think, reflect, heal, and sustain ourselves—individually or collectively. There is a kind of nothing that’s necessary for, at the end of the day, doing something.’

The first step lies in small lifestyle changes

If you’re feeling burnt out and blue, don’t ignore these feelings. It’s too easy to blow off burnout symptoms as temporary or trivial, particularly in our culture where we equate hard work and hustle with self-worth.

Equally, while self-care is important, it isn’t as complete solution as popular culture and the wellness industry might want us to believe. The idea that a little self-care will restore us implies it is our responsibility to make ourselves feel better and that we should be doing more to make ourselves feel ‘right’.

Instead, experts say certain lifestyle choices can prevent burnout. Things like:

  • Setting time aside to ‘do nothing’
  • Having strict no-work, no-email evenings, and communicating with work about expectations
  • Engaging in regular social support from friends or professionals
  • Regularly doing something you enjoy, without the goal of ‘being productive’
  • The most obvious, but least honoured, is getting your eight hours (give or take) on the pillow

Investing in and maintaining these strategies early on saves a lot of emotional and financial distress down the track. In the same way most of us wouldn’t wait until our car breaks down on a busy highway to get it serviced, we shouldn’t wait to make some changes until our signs of burnout become a full-blown breakdown.

Further tips on reducing stress in life can be found here. The Mayo Clinic also talks further about how to spot and respond to burnout. Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing can be found here.