Burnout is the term given to the state of physical and mental exhaustion resulting from severe or chronical stress from work. The World Health Organisation (WHO) describe burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon.’

This book, Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle,  has been written for women, with an invitation to take a heroine’s journey to overcome a disease the authors refer to as Human Giver Syndrome. I heard the authors speak on the radio years ago and a lot of what they talked about resonated. I quickly added the book to my list. Years later, I have finally gotten around to reading it.

The authors, Emily & Amelia Nagoski, open their book by stating that for women, the game is rigged by the patriarchy and that by understanding this, we can start to make our own rules. I was excited by this book. The belief of not being ‘enough’ is relatable for many and so the book’s callout to women who think this was enticing. The claim that this book holds the secret to solving the stress cycle was also appealing and I really wanted this book to deliver. I was disappointed in finding it didn’t offer as many practical takeaways as I would have liked, but it was certainly thought provoking. More on this at the end of this book review. First up are a few concepts and takeaways I found interesting and worth sharing with you.

Burnout: Reading Notes from a Therapist

Human Giver Syndrome

The authors describe this as where we give to others at the cost of our own needs. They outline the symptoms of this (non-clinical) syndrome as believing that:

  • You have a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous & attentive to the needs of others and that this forms our sense of meaning in life.
  • Any failure to be the above makes you a failure overall as a person.
  • This failure means you deserve punishment.
  • The above needs to be achieved at the expense of your own needs.
  • All of the above to be normal, that all women should be this way, and so feeling outraged by other women who do not conform to this.

I think a lot of women will find themselves nodding along to this list. In this way, it is validating and provides a sense of collective unity in this experience. It sets the scene for our problematic beliefs and how they are harming us. I read on hoping we’d get to some pointers on how to challenge or chip away at these beliefs and was gutted that they didn’t arrive!

 

Body Image and BMI

The authors bring attention to the existence of a hundred-billion-dollar global beauty industry that is dependent on our insecurities and dissatisfaction with our body image. While we may not give this much thought, most of us know it exists. The authors also call out supposedly medical measures that they say are also part of this problem. For example, Body Mass Index (BMI) is referred to as ‘a nonsense measure of personal health.’ They state that it was created by a panel of 9 individuals, 7 of whom were employed by weight-loss companies. That was a jaw-dropping moment!

An interesting point is raised – that BMI doesn’t account for what makes up our weight. So, somebody with low fat but high muscle mass may still be classed as overweight on this scale. On this basis, if this additional context is not taken into consideration, they may be encouraged to lose weight unnecessarily. They discuss the pressure that arises, for women in particular, to achieve unrealistic body goals based on BMI categorising us as either healthy or unhealthy. They highlight the risks that can arise from this. Weight-control strategies can develop into illness. With eating disorders having the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, this is a serious matter.

We all have insecurities about our appearance and the authors call this out as something to celebrate. Their recommendation is to reframe these insecurities (eg. Scars, acne) as ‘the new hotness.’ I like this idea but to really shift our thinking, we have buy into our new beliefs and I’m not sure that’s enough of a strategy to challenge our views on the physical aspects of ourselves that we feel most insecure about.

 

Sleep is Medicine

The book includes some interesting research about sleep. A standout example for me was a study suggesting that even one night’s sleep deprivation has a similar effect on our functioning as being drunk. To manage this, our body triggers the stress response to increase adrenaline and cortisol. This masks tiredness and the effects of sleep deprivation. As a result, we feel able to manage tasks better than we actually can. The authors liken this to the increased confidence we can tend to feel in our abilities when we are drunk.

They summarise this by stating: “Anything you wouldn’t do drunk – drive, lead a work meeting, raise a child – don’t try it if you’ve been awake for nineteen hours, slept only four hours the previous night, or slept fewer than six hours every night for two weeks.” The rationale here is clear, but I’m not sure how helpful or achievable these instructions are. How would a sleep-deprived new mother not raise her child? How would someone working long and changing shift patterns not go to work?

The takeaway message is to get enough sleep. If this is a struggle, the recommendation is to seek medical advice or attend a sleep clinic. I fully advocate the importance and necessity of sleep. It is fundamental to our overall health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, I know from supporting many with sleep difficulties, that attending a sleep clinic is often not an option. Going back to the earlier point about burnout resulting from systemic problems and failures rather than personal failures, it seems important then to identify ways we can help ourselves when the systems around us can’t. Inclusion practical pointers on how to improve our sleep ourselves would have been a valuable addition.

Burnout: A Therapist’s Book Review

The Patriarchy

This is a mega theme throughout this book. I found there to be an undertone of anger towards the patriarchy. If the reader can take an actions that both help themselves and ‘smash the patriarchy,’ bonus points are awarded. I can see the intention for this to empower women. At the same time, I wonder about an alternative approach centred on broader human solidarity and compassion rather than ‘us against them.’ The authors state that the cure for burnout isn’t ‘self care’ but all of us caring for each other. Surely a collaborative and inclusive approach would be more helpful if ‘all of us’ is meant literally? Rather than focusing on the divide between women and the patriarchy, wouldn’t we benefit more from finding ways to come together?

The Problem Vs the Solution

The book very clearly explains the many reasons why women are so hard on themselves and so helps us make sense of why we do some of the things we do – like prioritising the needs of others, being self-critical and depriving ourselves of rest. Of course these things will be vulnerability factors for us eventually burning out. It helps us see burnout as a reflection of a bigger problem with the system around us, rather than a personal failing.

In terms of practical strategies to prevent or manage burnout, I didn’t find the book delivered in its promise to tell us how to solve the stress cycle. The actions were very generic. We are told to sleep, exercise, be kind to ourselves, listen to our bodies, and find a way to have an outlet for stress. Suggested outlets included were belly laughing, hugs, breathing, creative expression, social connection or crying.

However, it offers a good overview of factors increasing risk of burnout for women. It covers some interesting and useful topics and is powerful in offering validation for those struggling with burnout. Additionally, if you’re interested in research, you’ll be impressed by the hefty reference list. As I write this, I wonder if this might be a helpful book for men to read. Perhaps this would support with understanding some of the common challenges women face day to day. There’s my suggestion for smashing the patriarchy!

 

A Final Thought

The information we take in is filtered by our own experiences, knowledge and beliefs. These are my views as a CBT therapist. My work focuses very much on update unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving. I also have a clinical understanding of burnout and other common problems such as low self esteem and perfectionism. I’ve helped many women with these challenges using evidence-based approaches. So my expectations of this book, were high! Perhaps without my professional experience, I could have found this book quite revelatory. I don’t know, but I’m all for being open-minded and there’s certainly no harm in reading this and forming your own opinion!

 

 

Updated June 2024