Treating Burnout in Precarious Times

When freelancer Courtney Tenz underwent treatment for burnout, she learned what individualized care could and couldn’t fix.

by | September 19, 2020

A couple of years ago, just after a trip back to the US, I found myself in my doctor’s office in Cologne, Germany, in tears. For months, I had been looking forward to a summer in the North Woods of Wisconsin, which I considered home. What freelancer doesn’t welcome time away to write and relax surrounded by forests and lakes and very few people? It was the opposite of my too-busy city life.

But landing back in Germany, I realized how isolating my life as a woman parenting alone here is — and how few career prospects I have in this country. It wasn’t a new realization; these feelings have been present throughout my 15 years here. The visit back to the US had thrown into sharp relief what I usually held in the back of my mind: a robust social welfare system can’t replace a strong social network or sense of belonging. 

My doctor knew exactly what was going on when I broke down. It wasn’t the first time I’d presented with these warning signs in his office: too much stress, a poor diet, lack of sleep. Years of an always-managing routine had taken their toll, and a few weeks away couldn’t make up for the lack of support in my every day. 

My doctor diagnosed me with burnout, a mental and physical exhaustion so bone-deep, I couldn’t get through the day. I had lost sight of any future. A common metaphor used to describe burnout is that of a car running on fumes, but it never felt that way to me. Getting through my days felt more like trying to drive a car uphill while in neutral, an impossible task; I could never disengage the brakes that were keeping me from moving forward.

Fellow Study Haller Nathan Ma, who’s also experienced burnout, described feeling similarly. “I’d characterize it as confusion stepping in for motivation: I can’t focus, I find it difficult to even conceive of how to approach the tasks I need to complete, and have little energy left to complete the daily tasks that I need to do to function.”

Although some doctors are reluctant to diagnose burnout, in 2019, the World Health Organization recognized it as an occupational health hazard. Much of the research that has been done to date looks at burnout as the result of an unhealthy work environment: toxic management, job insecurity, inflexible structures, and poor communication are all thought to contribute to the condition. 

Sound familiar? In a Statista survey from 2019, broadcasting and newspaper reporting were listed as two of the ten most stressful careers in the US — just below airline pilots. It also seems to hit younger generations hardest: another survey showed that of the respondents who knew someone with burnout, a quarter of those aged 18-29 said they themselves had experienced it.  Anne Helen Petersen even wrote an entire book about how structural problems in the US are creating an epidemic of burnout in the “millennial generation.”  In recent years, burnout has also gotten a lot of attention in Germany specifically, where some studies estimate that companies lose around nine billion Euros a year as a result of employee burnout. 

While my burnout wasn’t entirely work-related, the zero-hour conditional employment contracts I am offered in Germany have definitely contributed to my exhaustion. (With employee rights enshrined here, companies prefer to hire freelancers to avoid paying out holidays, vacations, and pensions and reserving the right to fire at will.) Although I have public health insurance, I lack the job stability and the financial security that comes along with being employed on staff and have spent a lot of time spinning my wheels while not getting my basic needs met. I know that other freelancers in Germany are in a much more precarious position than I am. I at least hold a permanent residency permit that isn’t tied to a job — the visa question is an outsized contributor to stress for some other immigrants, including Ma. 

“For years, I was locked into abusive working conditions by virtue of having limited access to the job market due to my visa, which only allowed me to take on work that could be billed as freelance work,” says Ma. “Companies in Germany — especially in the media — are familiar with these rights and regulations, and often encourage people to sign unfair if not downright exploitative contracts.”

Perhaps that’s why we freelancers are so susceptible to burnout: we don’t know where our next paycheck will come from, if our invoices will be paid on time, and we’re stuck in a system designed to underpay for labor. From unpaid internships to minimum wage training programs to those requiring you put in non-billable hours to get stories out, those in the lowest career tiers are asked to do a lot for very little. Add maintaining a social media presence to do your own promotion because you won’t easily slide into a staff job without having made a name for yourself, and it can sometimes feel like you’re working nonstop for a pittance. We forget to eat in the rush of story chasing. We get threats in our inboxes, go to bed staring at our constantly updating phones, wonder why, after watching violent images from a society in collapse, we can’t sleep. 

Although it took over a year after my initial doctor’s visit to get treatment, eventually my insurance company agreed to a series of treatments for me. The months-long regimen intended to lower my stress levels kicked off with a three-week inpatient “mother-child cure” that felt in some ways like a vacation. That was followed by a one-week seminar in stress management by something called the “Institute for Burnout Prevention,” then a year of behavioral therapy. 

To my American friends, this sounded luxurious. (And in many ways, it is a luxury to live somewhere where the healthcare system is focused on preventative, not punitive measures.) During the weeks-long time-out, I slept in a bare-bones hostel, ate cafeteria food and spent my days taking long walks on a sandy beach while my daughter was in day care. It was far from a five-star spa resort; it was, however, the perfect setup for recovery. My basic needs were met so I could focus my attention elsewhere.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an idea in modern psychology that has your needs stacked up in pyramid form, the bottom, foundational layer consists of a need for things like food, sleep, homeostasis. Building off that is the security layer: a roof over our heads, a job that pays the bills, a sense of security. We can really only function as human beings if that brickwork is laid; although we can be creative and function even under terrible circumstances, the lack of these foundational elements will often leave people drained. 

“The three things everyone needs is dignity, a sense of security, and a feeling of belonging or connection,” says Kim Brice, a resilience coach and trainer with Inspiring Mountains who, together with journalist Mar Cabra, runs an online workshop for journalists called the Self-Investigation Program that addresses the factors leading to burnout. The program, which is running another series in September through the European Journalism Assembly, focuses on balancing the stress of our always-online lifestyles and provides mindfulness exercises to help media workers restore balance.

Still, no amount of burnout treatment or stress management or preventative health measures can make up for structural issues brought on by inequalities like racism, classism or misogyny. As Ma says, these structures not only contribute to burnout, they can create “an atmosphere of helplessness” that limits solutions.

“Being non-white…It is not uncommon to walk into a media job or workplace with few to no other people of color, and the tolerance for casual to overt racism has been a recurring issue,” Ma told me. “In previous roles, the hostility has led me to leave relatively stable positions; I know that I have missed out on opportunities because I’ve swerved workplaces and projects that would burn me out quickly with no support or recovery plan.”

All too often, trauma, depression, and burnout get confused, but they aren’t the same and they can’t be treated the same way so it’s important to discuss how you’re feeling with your doctor. Some amounts of tiredness and a feeling of helplessness about your job are common components of burnout. Night terrors or feelings of hopelessness about your whole life are not, and for those, you need medical help. While there’s some discussion in burnout treatments of how to address racism within newsrooms, these therapies cannot address traumas from lived experiences; for that, you need a qualified therapist, not a walk in the woods or a bubble bath and face mask. This distinction is important to make for reporters covering violent themes or who experience an especially unhealthy working environment. 

“Not everyone has PTSD or trauma,” says Brice. “But some people can have their trauma reactions reawakened in difficult times and understanding that is important.”

The burnout treatment I went through focused on changing the aspects of my working life that I could change. Helen Heinemann, the head of the Institute for Burnout Prevention and leader of my week-long seminar, said that sometimes participants found learning a few stress management techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation exercises or meditation, helpful enough to stave off burnout. But for the seminar to have a lasting impact, participants had to address their individual trials: do they quit a job with a terrible boss, or stick with it and push for change? Is that hellish commute really worth it for a mediocre job?

“Burnout exists as part of a spectrum, midway between acute stress and depression,” Heinemann said. “If we have acute stress for too long, we burnout and need to recuperate. But we also have to come out of the cycle of acute stress and then recuperation. We need to find a long-term solution to reducing that acute stress.”

In her seminar, the groups are small but comforting; although every one of us was going through it, we could offer each other outsider perspectives on our problems. For me, as a journalist, one of the hardest things to cope with was (and is) the lack of recognition. Sending out pitch after pitch that gets no response is frustrating; publishing stories that seem to disappear into the ether and having to chase after payment for them is worse. The other group members, those with stable jobs, gave me a referral to a career coach who would help me rewrite my resume in hopes of landing a permanent job; another day, they helped me practice a dialogue with a male colleague who was repeatedly overstepping his boundaries. 

Although I didn’t get a job out of the coaching sessions and the male colleague actually took my content work away after our discussion, the conversations in the burnout session gave me a chance to reflect on what wasn’t working in my life, and that gave me a starting point from which I could start advocating for change. Sometimes that’s all it takes when it comes to burnout: The feeling that there’s some way out of the rut you’ve fallen into. 

Burnout is, after all, a lack of ability to see the future. As our final project, our group made a hokey vision board, a collage of where we see ourselves in five or ten years. None of us imagined that  life would be like it is in 2020; no one ever expected to be in this horrible place. But as Brice reminded me recently, the first step towards changing things for the better is acceptance. “Acceptance is not being a wet noodle. It’s acknowledging this is your reality right now. A lot of stress comes from the inner struggle with not wanting to accept that things are really shit right now… We’re not all designed to be able to navigate a freelancer’s reality. And that’s OK.”

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