Why take a break? Because burnout sucks

By Caitlin Kelly

Playtime matters!
Playtime matters!

Here’s a smart story from the Washington Post about why we all really do need to take vacations:

The image that stands out most in my mind during the broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics? The Cadillac commercial with a boxy, middle-aged white guy in a fancy house striding purposefully from his luxurious swimming pool to his $75,000 luxury Cadillac ELR parked out front while extolling the virtues of hard work, American style.

“Why do we work so hard? For stuff?” actor Neal McDonough asks in the commercial that has been playing without cease. “Other countries work. They stroll home. They stop by a café. They take the entire month of August off. “Off,” he says again, to reinforce the point….

Americans are caught up in what economist Juliet Schor calls a vicious cycle of “work-and-spend” – caught on a time-sucking treadmill of more spending, more stuff, more debt, stagnant wages, higher costs and more work to pay for it all…

American leisure? Don’t let the averages fool you, he could say. While it looks like leisure time has gone up, time diaries show that leisure and sleep time have gone up steeply since 1985 for those with less than a high school degree. Why? They’re becoming unemployed or underemployed. And leisure and sleep time for the college educated, the ones working those crazy extreme hours, has fallen steeply.

I agree.

One of the weird things about Americans is their endless obsession with being productive.

A woman I know — who at 33, has already produced three children and three books — has turned this obsession with spending every minute usefully into a thriving career, suggesting multiple ways for us to be more efficient with our time.

I get her exhortatory emails, but just reading them makes me want to take a nose-thumbing nap, or an 8-week beach vacation.

You know what they call the sort of cough that horks up a ton of phlegm?


We all need adventures!
We all need adventures!

But visible professional success is seductive — here’s White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett:

She’s out the door at 5:15 a.m.  She arrives at the White House at 5:22 a.m. and hits the gym (where she assures me she watches Morning Joe!) before meeting with the rest of the White House senior staff at 7:45 a.m. on the dot.  She tries to get home before 10 p.m.

“I have to force myself to go to bed and I jump out of bed in the morning, which is a good sign, I think,” she said. “You always have to pursue a career that you care passionately about so that it will not burn you out.”

Would you be willing to work her 13-14-hour day?

I grew up in Canada, and left when I was 30. I moved to the U.S., eager to taste a new country and its culture.

The first major difference? Two weeks’ vacation a year, if you’re lucky enough to even get paid vacation.

In Canada, I felt American — too aggressive, too ambitious, too direct in my speech. But in the U.S., because I also want to take off four to six weeks’ off a year — to travel, to read, to rest, to recharge — I’m wayyyyyy too European. i.e. soft, flabby, lacking the requisite drive to get ahead, gain even more social and professional status and buy tons of more/bigger/newer stuff.


Working hard 24/7 isn’t the best way to spend my life. I’ve been working for pay since I started life-guarding part-time in high school. It’s essential to earn and save money, of course. And it’s pleasant to have enough to enjoy life beyond the basic necessities.

But after a certain point….meh.

I work my ass off when I am working. But I bring an equal hunger for leisure and downtime — like many people, I just get stupid and bitchy when I’m exhausted and haven’t had enough time for myself.

I also love to travel, whether back to familiar and well-loved places like Paris, or the many places I still haven’t seen yet, some of them a $1,000+ long-haul flight away: Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Argentina.

A four-day weekend — which many worn-out Americans answering emails 24/7 now consider a vacation — just isn’t enough.

Here’s my friend and colleague Minda Zetlin on 10 dangers of overwork, from Inc.:

3. You suck when it counts.

I can tell you from experience that going into a meeting tired and distracted means you will suck in that meeting. You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.

4. Your mood is a buzzkill.

The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.

5. Your judgment is impaired.

The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.

 When you have downtime, how do you relax and recharge?

46 thoughts on “Why take a break? Because burnout sucks

  1. unsolicitedtidbits

    I’ve fallen into the trap of feeling the need to be productive and push push push. Only recently have I made the decision to step away and take breaks. It feels funny, but the payoff is that I’m far more content and thoughtful when I return to my work. Breaks are part of the working process, and your post conveys that nicely. Cheers.

    1. Thanks…I wish more people spoke out in favor of breaks. It seems counter-cultural to do so, but all we do is wear ourselves out trying to impress…someone…if we never slow down and rest.

      I often take a day off and go into NYC or just putter at home. I feel guilty, but I am always happier and more refreshed for having done so.

  2. betternotbroken

    It is healthy mentally and physically to take a break and to keep our ego in check. Humans, all of us have limitations. Thank you for giving me the validation I needed this Sunday night.

  3. Allison Jakes

    Thanks for sharing! I had never thought of it like that before. I was born and raised in the US so I guess it had never even occurred to me that so much “productivity” can actually be a bad thing! Great mind-opener 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping by — and thinking about this.

      I’ve lived in five countries, including France, where leisure time and long lunches have been valued much more highly than in the States. I totally get the value of producing great work, but I also treasure the joy and pleasure I get being far, far away from the treadmill of production for a while.

  4. Left my last job because I spent to many weekends trying to catch up on work. I would feel like I needed days off to work. Every vacation was used to deal with the piles of marking. Now, luckily, I work in a place that has a challenging pace, but I don’t need weekends and vacations to catch up.

    Favorite ways to re-charge? Taking a walk in the woods. Explore a new town. Sit outside at a biergarten, sipping the afternoon away along with great company and conversation. If there is live music…even better.

    1. Good for you! I hate workplaces that have no notion of boundaries.

      Walking outdoors is so restorative, too. We’re 15 mins’ drive from Apalachicola, which is Florida’s 3rd oldest town. We drove around it yesterday and I look forward to going back and taking more photos. I love exploring old places, especially.

      1. Your comments remind me of a story. Some friends of mine from WA state were in Atlanta scouting out possibilities for their new home. They asked a passerby “Excuse me, but where is the old part of town?” The person replied with a curt “You Yankees burned it down.”

    1. Hated that commercial. What a silly nose-thumb to a life that’s actually balanced. It’s not PC to work to live, but it seems that’s who I am. Life has so many riches beyond material ones.

      1. I love the quote from Albert Einstein that says, ” We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirement of life. All that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” Chasing after material riches can never lead to satisfaction or contentment because there will always be something newer, better, shinier to chase.

  5. After watching the Cadillac commercial the other evening, I turned to my husband and said, “He may work hard and have a fancy car, but he’s still an asshole.”

    Don’t get me wrong: we’ve worked very hard, too. But hard work doesn’t make a person morally superior. And it can leave blinders in place that in fact diminish the person in many ways. Balance is better.

      1. Many years ago (20?), one of the US car companies was touting the fact that their cars were “American-made.” And one of their big print ads featured a car against a pale background, in front of an enormous red setting sun. I found a phone number for the company, asked to talk to advertising. I told the person I spoke with that the ad seemed to go directly against the message they wanted to convey. Because that enormous red setting sun looked shockingly like the Japanese flag. I never saw that ad again. Coincidence? I’ll never know… 🙂

  6. That’s a post that’ll resonate with a lot of people! In my last year of working with the Matrix, I was so tired with everything that was going on – health issues, imploding marriage, working in an industry that was killing me – that I bit the bullet and asked to go part time. It was amazing what working a 4-day week did for me. There was 20% less money, but a whole day to myself, without anyone reminding me I was a waste of oxygen, might have just saved me from breakdown, enough to decide to walk away from it all.

    I will say though, that it has taken me a year to start to recover from a decade of that wrecked life. I’ve learnt to insist on a day or two alone when I need it. I’ve only just learnt that maybe I don’t always have to feel guilty for doing this, because I am accountable to no one for MY time. I’ve been able to make the most of the incredible opportunities that have come my way ONLY because I have had enough rest to tackle them with the right perspective – sans paranoia and pessimistic fatalism.

    All of this because I make plenty of time to read, nap, doodle and write. Downtime is essential to feeling alive.

    1. I hope so!

      I wonder what drives people — beyond basic economic need and peer pressure — to whip themselves like oxen in the field. Crazy and sad. Glad that you have escaped and can see it more clearly.

      1. that is so true caitlin, and those kind of bosses will use you up until there is nothing left or you leave. then, they will move on to the next worker drone.

  7. I’m in the midst of being treated for burn out and I work the least of anyone I know (in Germany, which has on average, a 38-hour work week, 6 weeks of vacation and three times as many holidays), which is to say that it’s not necessarily about the work/vacation balance, but much more about how you take care of yourself and deal with stress on a daily basis. I think the big issue in the US is that we equate time spent at work with effectivity/productivity, which is simply not the case, as recent studies show (Germans spend on average much less time at work than others in Europe but are more productive).

    1. I’m so sorry to hear this…and glad that you are able to take time to recharge and recover your strength.

      I agree that daily stress can, and will, kill you or wreck your life if you let it. I have a ton of work-related stress and there are days I think I will throw a chair — especially with now routine bullshit like late payments. I had a new client simply (!?) pay me only 50% of my invoice recently and they still have not paid me the expenses they agreed, in writing, to cover. Being lied to and fucked around is, for me, extremely stressful. I offer excellent work on or ahead of deadline. Pay me or fuck off. Seriously.

      I hope you feel better soon, and can find a way to mitigate your stress, or a new place/way to work.

  8. SO many things to say on this subject! What you wrote about earning enough money to live, and then afford some more, is dead on.
    Also, breaks are essential, in any working environment. Time to open an orange and eat it, time to stare at out the window with a glazed expression, or take a walk. It has been proven to improve function!
    One thing I can say about working at the law firm I did, was that lunches were required to be spent on personal interaction, no work chats. (Having a first partner who had 5 bypasses meant that some cautions for stress were taken.)
    Teachers spend weekends and evenings grading papers. On the weekends before report cards, there are no weekends! But, summer…
    Very few working class Americans can afford two weeks’ paid vacation, because they don’t earn enough to use all two weeks leisurely or for travel purposes.
    I cannot relate to the woman who arrives home around 10, only to be back on the grind at 5am.
    That guy, with his estate, pool, and luxury car, is not an employee. People like him are self-employed or own things that generate income.
    #4 is so accurate. Honestly, my husband gets run ragged at times, and I say, “Please just study at the library before you come home, and maybe hit the gym after, because no one wants to be around you when you’re in that mode.”
    Staying home to work is another ball of wax altogether, but I did eventually find balance. It isn’t possible to find balance with babies. As they gain independence, their parents gain balance.
    And we wonder why people struggle to sleep at night, or have heart attacks at 35, or why the divorce rate is so high! Lifestyle is everything.

    1. Thanks for weighing in.

      I agree…many working people are too broke to go anywhere on vacation. But, if they can get paid time off, they can still sleep, read, do home projects, visit a museum or art gallery or zoo…You don’t have to jet off somewhere to find ways to recharge. You do have to do it!

      Jose and I are sleeping a lot on our vacation. And today I just got an email from an editor asking me to get on the phone for a meeting this week and I have politely explained I need this break and would prefer to do it next week. I’m aware some people would say “Hey, it’s only a phone call.”

      It’s our bloody vacation.

      We will soon return to the usual BS, bitter winter cold and insane work schedules. I guard our downtime ferociously. That alone is deeply “un-American.” C’est la vie, mes cher(e)s.

  9. rich

    The worse of it is having to justify to others why you want to work part time or reduce your time. I expected a pay decrease which happened. That being said, I am being asked, “what are you doing with your time?” I want to say: it’s my time to figure it out….when I am not working I can spend hours at the bookstore…reading and writing….away from everyone….
    why the hell does anyone need to justify themselves to anyone else? Like you said in one post above….”fuck off…it’s my bloody vacation.” I love it…….

    1. Good for you. I think when someone sets very clear boundaries and claims more private time, some people are envious and wish they could ask (but won’t) or resent you. It’s really no one’s business.

  10. Call me a Luddite, but this is one reason I’ve so far avoided getting a smartphone. It’s hard enough to secure time off (as a newbee I only get five days for my first year on the job) so once I’ve managed that I definitely don’t want to get sucked into checking work email or having people think they can call me about work stuff. It’s amazing how great I feel when I come back even from a weekend road trip during which my computer stayed behind.

    1. Five days? That’s a bit shocking.

      I agree. I left my computer behind (am using Jose’s) and (bizarre as this sounds) it still feels like vacation because it’s not the same machine I work on every day at home. Nor am I doing anything work related.

      I finally got a new phone last week, after maybe 4 or 5 years of my old one. I like it fine, but I am just as happy to leave it at home as the former. This whole “in touch all the time” thing is nuts.

  11. Great essay! I read magazines–Architectural Digest, Smithsonian, Bookmarks, Entertainment Weekly, National Geographic, Real Simple, The Writer and several more. Love to gaze at pictures and read interesting short pieces. I paint and draw…not all that well and I no longer care. It brings me such pleasure! I spend as much time outdoors watching birds and the rest of nature I can. Music, much music–on stereo or on stage. And I sing and sometimes play my cello. Dance. Sometime take little trips as my husband is working and I am not. And I visit people. How lovely to sit with a coffee outdoors, even in the rainy winters in Portland, chatting with an old friend…But don’t get me wrong, I love to achieve as well. I just know my life depends on taking loving care of it, and so I do. My soul thanks me, too.

    1. This all sounds glorious.

      I’ve been catching up on my reading, (not as interesting a mix as yours), and planned to do some painting but couldn’t find my sketchbook…Cello! That’s one of my favorite instruments.

      Sitting with coffee and company is great; my Dad and I sat in the sunshine for a bit and soaked it up yesterday over two good cups of coffee. Just moving slooooooooowly. I’ve been sleeping a ton here — 9-10.5 hrs a night. I didn’t think I was sleep-deprived, but I know my pace is exhausting. Only when I stop for a while do I see its effects.

      I love how carefully you attend to your soul. I have no doubt it shows in every aspect of your life.

      1. How kind a remark. I was diagnosed with unusual, aggressive coronary heart disease at age 51…took 3 years off work, regrouped and went back to my counseling work, which I loved. But now I am more or less retired (did so a bit early-at 62), so that is why I finally have more time! My soul has always expected attention (like everyone’s) and it is easy to give it in essential ways that work for me. There is too little time here and so much to adore and explore.:)
        So glad to hear you are taking time to visit your dad and enjoying the wonders of being alive. Every minute counts. Truly. Best to you.

  12. I’ve been dealing with this a lot lately in my last semester of college. Especially grappling with aiming for basically all As to get an honors certificate I’ve been working for, but have a gpa just shy of, versus having fun this semester and worrying/stressing less. One big hurdle I have is that even when taking breaks I feel guilty for not doing work, so the break isn’t that relaxing at all. It’s a vicious cycle for me.

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