Exhaustion can threaten the very core of our being. When everything costs energy we don’t have, our world shrinks. We can become alienated from our emotions, desires and loved ones. But what can we do about it?

Encourage appreciation
In my work as a burnout coach, I have found the cause that stands out above all the others is not feeling valued. If we neither give nor receive appreciation at work, our chances of burning out increase by 45% and 48% respectively, according to a 2019 study by the OC Tanner Institute. In the long run, this absence of positive feedback diminishes and devalues us. The good news is that the appreciation cure works both ways. We can be nourished by the act of appreciating others, which also increases our chances of receiving it as well.

Perspective is everything
We may think we are living in the age of exhaustion par excellence. The 2023 Deloitte Wellbeing at Work survey found that around half of the UK and US workforce declares it is always or often exhausted or stressed. But ours is far from being the only generation to have battled with the demons of exhaustion. In the Middle Ages, exhaustion was defined as “acedia” – a sinful spiritual malaise that manifested as apathy, torpor and ingratitude. Renaissance scholars associated exhaustion with scholarly activities and the alignment of the planets. In the 19th century, it was the central symptom of a condition called “neurasthenia”, defined as a weakness of the nerves and understood to be the consequence of a faster pace of life and overstimulation. I have found it consoling to learn that these fears have always been with us. Concerns about exhaustion are what make us human. They relate to more deep-seated fears about the consequences of social change, the gradual waning of energy as we age, and death.

The gospel of work is not our friend
In the past, seasons, tasks and the dying of the light determined our working patterns. But industrialisation required a different attitude to work and time. Time management, punctuality and efficiency became new virtues. Theological ideas from the 16th century morphed into a “gospel of work”, revolving around discipline, productivity and success. Sociologist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant work ethic”, where success and worldly achievements were considered a sign of being among the elect – those predestined for salvation. Even further back, laziness was considered one of the deadly Seven Sins.

While the Protestant work ethic has fuelled progress, it may not serve us well personally. Many of us have deeply internalised these old religious values and become our own taskmasters, believing that we are nothing without success, and worthless without our work. We hold the idea that “time is money”, as Benjamin Franklin famously put it. We feel a constant pressure to use our time to work and achieve because, deep down, we still believe that this is the only path to redemption.

Take up a hobby
One of the most powerful antidotes to exhaustion is a hobby. Hobbies ensure that we have other things in our lives apart from work that provide us with meaning, joy and even community. Gardening, dancing, knitting etc allow us to become what the burnout researcher Nick Petrie has called “multifaceted people”, those who have not placed all their eggs in the basket of work. Nourishing opposite worlds are essential for thriving.Hobbies serve no purpose other than making the person who performs them happy. Like child’s play, they are unapologetically work’s true opposite. If you don’t know whether you should grow rare succulents, climb mountains, or collect photographs of hot Victorian men with funny moustaches, ask yourself: when did I last feel fully alive?

Manage your inner critic
Many of us will be familiar with a negative voice in our head that is constantly judging us. It’s the voice that tells us we are not clever enough, that we are too fat, too thin, too short, too tall, that we are no good at our job. Our inner critic magnifies the negative and spreads discontent in our lives. It can also drain our energy from within and be a major cause of our exhaustion.

As a coach, I have found that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers particularly powerful tools for managing our inner critic. ACT can teach us to treat it as mind-chatter and to shift attention away from the content (what it has to say) to the form (insignificant noise in our head). ACT teaches us one of the most precious insights there is, namely, that we are not our thoughts.

Instead of thinking, “I am useless at my job,” or “I am stupid and I mess everything up,” ACT encourages us to add: “I notice that I am having the thought that I am useless at my job,” and, “I notice that I am having the thought that I am stupid and mess everything up.” This creates a crucial and powerful distance between ourselves and our unhelpful thoughts.

Work out your “life-cost”
In his bestselling book Walden, the 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau introduced the captivating notion of “life-cost” – the amount of time, energy, health and mental wellbeing we sacrifice to achieve our aims and objectives. Many of us unthinkingly seek to acquire as much money as possible, or to accumulate possessions. Or else we chase status in the form of degrees, awards, promotion or fame. We willingly pay for these things with our time and often with our health or our relationships.

We should therefore always ask ourselves: what is the actual life-cost of our choices? If we find the price we pay is too high, we may wish to make adjustments, privileging time and health over money or status.

How to say no
When we are exhausted, a simple but effective strategy is to look at our commitments, both big and small, and map them on to our core values. Which of our commitments support what is truly important and meaningful? Which are irrelevant or even run counter to our values? What matters in this exercise is the feeling of having a choice – reflecting consciously on what we want to spend our time on, rather than being on autopilot, or at the mercy of other people’s desires.

We can begin to practise saying no to small requests in safe settings, and thus build up our no-saying capacity. In that way, we can gradually feel more confident and prepared for more important situations.

Apply the 80/20 principle
Do you work all the time, but still feel behind with everything? Is there a gap between your input and output? The Pareto law, also known as the 80/20 principle, may help you. Based on the research of Vilfredo Pareto, who looked at patterns of wealth and income distribution in 19th-century England, the ratio that was always predictable and consistent was 80/20 – ie 80% of the wealth was in the possession of 20% of the population. It also crops up in our own work activities and our personal life. The 80/20 ration indicates that a surprisingly small proportion of our efforts leads to a large proportion of our achievements. The question to ask is thus: what are the 20% of our activities – in any sphere of life – that yield the most important results?

Prioritise rest
Exhaustion is a warning sign. By breaking down, our body and mind are saying no. Seeking to protect us from further damage, they are telling us to rest. But often, we do the opposite. Because we find ourselves falling ever further behind, we don’t allow ourselves to rest. We feel that we need to use every available moment to catch up. It is essential to take proper pauses each day, especially if we feel overwhelmed. We must allow ourselves guilt-free breaks in which we detach from our work and give our minds and bodies a chance to restore themselves. This is not easy, because many of us have unlearned the ancient art of resting. As Vincent Deary put it: “Work needs rest and rest takes work.”

Be more Stoic
The ancient Stoics believed our suffering is caused not by external circumstances but by our reactions to those circumstances – a combination of faulty judgments and unrealistic expectations. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius also held impressively pragmatic views about how we should expend our mental energies.They deemed most external events beyond our control and believed it is pointless to worry about them. Our evaluations of these events, by contrast, are completely within our control. Consequently, all our mental energies should be directed to our inner life, with a view to controlling our thoughts.

A powerful Stoic technique we can use at home is the “Circle of Control” exercise. Make a list of your core stressors. Then draw two concentric circles nestling within each other. The outer one is “what I can’t control”. The inner circle houses “what I can control”. Place your stressors in the relevant circles. Seneca and co would encourage you to accept whatever is in the outer circle and to focus on addressing what is within the inner circle. Ultimately, the Stoics advise us radically to control our expectations. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “Only a madman looks for figs in winter.”

Exhausted: An A–Z for the Weary by Anna Katharina Schaffner is published by Profile Books at £15.99. Buy a copy for £13.91 at guardianbookshop.com

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