Burning out at work in Dublin, I quit and moved to Lisbon

Talking about having suffered from “burnout” or “overachiever’s syndrome” immediately invites a certain type of unwanted scrutiny and some potentially awkward follow-up questions. What exactly were you overachieving at? Where are the fruits of this so-called burnout?

When I think back to my last six months in Dublin it’s hard not to acknowledge that I was burning out at work. Crazy busyness has become a status symbol. Being overstretched, overwhelmed, underslept, stressed, and flat-out have all become part of a language that reassures us we’re on the right path.

From slogan feminism that encourages us to “lean in” to meditations that promise to maximise your energy, “productivity” has become a cultural obsession that Dublin is not immune to. And it turns out it’s making us sick.

Burnout syndrome is on the rise among millennials, particularly women. It’s often described as long-term and unresolvable job stress; symptoms include an inability to take pleasure in things, social isolation, anxiety, apathy, fatigue, poor work performance, cynicism and a sense of hopelessness.

I was pushing myself to advance my career and make me happy, yet any sense of pleasure or accomplishment failed to get through to me

Project: Time Off, a US organisation that promotes work-life balance, found last year that American millennials “shamed” their older colleagues for taking holidays, while 48 per cent admitted wanting their bosses to see them as “work martyrs”.

In another study from 2016, Refinery 29 and Secret found that 74 per cent of millennial women claimed to feel stressed about their jobs. The research is indicative of a pervasive unhealthy work culture, but it’s also evident that millennials collude in its creation.

It’s always a relief to find statistics that turn your personal problems into part of a “phenomenon”, but realising I had burnt out was a jarring experience. I prided myself on my multitasking and didn’t work in some high-powered “profession”: I worked for an Irish TV network, ran my own small magazine, organised events, did talks, and maintained a couple of freelance jobs.

I worked hard at school and college, went straight into internships, then jobs, and then personal projects, all uninterrupted.

I was pushing myself and trying to do all that I thought I ought to do in order to advance my career and make me happy, yet any sense of pleasure or accomplishment failed to get through to me. I felt understimulated, lonely, anxious and tired, yet I continued to go out and function as always. After all, this was simply how I was used to feeling and how everyone else around me seemed to feel too.

As I write this, on a Thursday, it’s 34 degrees in Lisbon, and tomorrow I may just go to the beach and do no work.

Lazy days: People sunbathing at the beach in Carcavelos town, near Lisbon. Photograph: iStock/Getty Images
Enjoying life: People sunbathing at the beach in Carcavelos town, near Lisbon. Photograph: iStock/Getty Images

Since moving here I have freelanced, started a podcast and taken an online course. I am considering taking up a service-industry job, partly out of necessity but also because it looks fun: I’ve done the things here I wasn’t sure I’d ever get around to.

Mainly I’ve met new people and been out for days at a time. I feel uneasy writing about Lisbon: I’m aware that I’m part of the problem that’s drawing growing numbers of foreigners here, driving up rents, increasing the cost of living, and turning the city into a construction site.

But I also feel certain that what’s attracting increasing numbers of (largely anglophone) people to Lisbon is its go-slow pace and the fact that my experience with burnout syndrome is all too common.

‘I’ve done the things here I wasn’t sure I’d ever get around to.’ Photograph: Village Underground Lisboa
‘I’ve done the things here I wasn’t sure I’d ever get around to.’ Photograph: Village Underground Lisboa

I moved to Lisbon in February partially because of a notion that what my friends and I were experiencing wasn’t healthy. I didn’t want to be a part of the culture that normalised it. Lisboans often feel the need to explain, with a degree of defensiveness, that they’re “not lazy” but like to enjoy life.

Lisbon’s relentless beauty, its unconventional grimy spirit and endless appetite for partying are what I enjoy the most

It’s true. The live-to-work attitude is almost entirely absent here – notwithstanding the fact that Portugal’s recovery is in full swing and its economy is growing at twice the average rate for the European Union.

Could it be that an EU country that was so proudly anti-austerity simply does not believe in punishing its workers and that this influences the culture at large?

‘What’s attracting increasing numbers of (largely anglophone) people to Lisbon is its go-slow pace.’ Photograph: iStock/Getty Images
‘What’s attracting increasing numbers of (largely anglophone) people to Lisbon is its go-slow pace.’ Photograph: iStock/Getty Images

The weather is a daily blessing, but the relentless beauty of the city, its unconventional grimy spirit and endless appetite for partying are what I enjoy the most.

Lisbon saved me by being a place that is not governed by a need to keep up or to maximise your productivity.

I have never been particularly evangelical about anything, but since I moved here I have found myself inadvertently spreading the good word of the go-slow. I’ve never felt more creative or capable, in a way that when I was pushing myself hardest I could not feel. And for that I have this city to thank.

Have you experienced burnout at work? Tell us your story. Email features@irishtimes.com  

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