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29 November 2014 Last updated
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The 30-something burnout

In a desperate bid to find the elusive ‘healthy balance’ of a ‘normal’ life, hard-working, career-driven Aoife Stuart-Madge turned her back on the corporate world and became her own boss – and in doing so she made a shocking discovery…

By Aoife Stuart-Madge
5 Jun 2013 | 01:20 pm
  • Source:Grace Paras/ANM

Waking at 3am, I sat bolt upright in bed. I’d been mentally rereading the cover lines of the magazine I’d just sent to press and, with shivers creeping over my skin, I now feared I’d made a huge mistake in the main headline. I was 28 and the deputy editor of a celebrity weekly magazine. In the editor’s absence I’d just sent the title’s biggest issue of the year to press – and an error on the cover would be catastrophic. With my heart in my throat, I now feared my job could be on the line. In reality, the typo I’d imagined didn’t exist, but it meant I couldn’t sleep until I got up, went to the office and double-checked the file that had been sent to the printers the previous day.

This type of fitful sleep was standard. If it wasn’t grammatical errors keeping me awake at night, it was copy sales, client meetings or the endless to-do list whirring around my head. This frazzled routine continued throughout my 20s and into my 30s, as I climbed the ranks in the high-pressure environment of women’s magazines. Working until midnight, checking news feeds at 3am and going straight from work to an industry event were all part of the package and I thrived on the pressure. I ate three meals a day at my desk, worked most weekends and was constantly glued to my phone checking work emails. And I wasn’t alone. In an office of several hundred employees, predominately women, 60-hour weeks were the norm; it was rare for anyone to leave on time and ordering pizza to your desk at 9pm was de rigueur.

According to recent figures*
one in 10 British women work more than 45 hours a week, and it’s a phenomenon that’s leading to an increase in burn-out among young women. Medical scientist and psychologist Joan Borysenko, author of Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, has lent her voice to a group of leading therapists warning of an increase in career burnout among 20-something workers – typified by stress, insomnia, anxiety and depression.

Dr Annie Crookes, a psychology lecturer at Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai campus, believes today’s have-it-all generation of women put too much pressure on themselves. “Women feel compelled to become more male in the workplace – to set higher goals, be more aggressive and competitive and expect greater success. At the same time, women continue to take on the majority of the responsibility at home too, so young women feel pressure to achieve in both arenas.” She adds, “Moreover, since wanting to have children can stereotype a woman as not ‘career-worthy’, there is the pressure to overachieve, to get as high as possible before – or
in spite of – having children at home.”

As a self-confessed perfectionist, I was worried I was tipping over the edge into an abyss of workaholism. So last year, at the tender age of 32, I decided it was time to claw back some work/life balance. After eight years of tight deadlines and long hours, I quit my job to become a freelance writer. 
By working for myself, I could set my own hours, work when 
I wanted and, best of all, there would be no more 11pm stints in the office. So far, so Zen... What I didn’t bank on was that while I could lose the job, the wired workaholic within me was a little harder to shake off. As a freelancer, I work just as hard as I did in my office job – except now there is no one to force me to break for a coffee in the canteen, or to offer to share some of my workload when I’m pulling my second all-nighter in a row. Now, it’s not demands from my boss keeping me up at night, it’s anxiety about fulfilling all the freelance projects I have committed to. The truth is I can’t say no.

If this sounds like you, Dr Crookes advises examining where this urge to work 24/7 is coming from. “It is important to consider why you are working so hard – is it genuinely because you enjoy what you do? Or is it that you enjoy trying your hardest? Or perhaps it’s because you are trying to fulfil goals someone else has set for you – or worse, your own unrealistic assumption of their expectations?”

In fact, the compulsion to take on too much could actually be in your DNA. “Some people are predisposed to be workaholics,” says Dr Crookes, who warns that this type of behaviour is a one-way path to burnout. “Unrealistic goals – meaning ones that would be largely impossible or where the goalposts continually change – are very stressful and can lead to burnout,” she says. “The stress of constantly working hard and feeling pressure, or anxiety, to meet deadlines puts your physical health at risk. You may get sick more often, get spots, or have trouble sleeping. Your relationships are likely to suffer, leaving you feeling more isolated and without support. Mentally you feel drained and, as it gets worse, you may be less able to make decisions and feel listless. As it develops it may lead to full depression where your mood is low, your mind is no longer focused and you are physically drained.”

Worryingly for me, far from enhancing my work/life balance, working from home may actually be exacerbating the problem. Dr Crookes says, “If you use the kitchen table or your couch to do work on and leave it piled up there, it serves as a constant reminder that you have not finished the task. If the desk is prominent in the living space it is too easy to think about just checking emails quickly after dinner, or before going out. All of this means your ‘work mind’ is actually always on standby just in case, meaning you are never fully committed to your downtime.”

So how can I redress the balance? According to research from social networking site Captivate Network, men are 25 per cent more likely to take breaks throughout the day. “Statistics show that men are better at identifying when they need to take a moment to calm down or refresh. Women need to learn from them,” says Dr Crookes. “Switching off does not have to mean taking a week off, it can simply be going for a walk for 10 minutes, or stretching. These short breaks are not long enough to cause disaster and a vast amount of evidence points to these short breathers actually making you perform better and more efficiently afterwards.” Wise words. She adds, “Build in more ‘me time’ and spend it wisely. Try reading a book, learning a new skill or doing yoga. See your friends one on one rather than opting for high-octane girls’ nights out.”

All of which I fully intend to do... just as soon as I’ve emptied my inbox.

By Aoife Stuart-Madge

By Aoife Stuart-Madge