SINGAPORE — “Only going home now?” the office security guard asked, as I trudged out of the building just after midnight on a Saturday night, with a stack of books and laptop in hand.
Although they were brief, I had come to treasure the conversations I had with him as the fun weekends I used to spend out with my friends had become a relentless string of nights spent staring at screens, studying and working in the office.
Last year, I was working a part-time internship position at a strategic advisory firm and contributing to a media outlet while completing my final semester at university.
This was coupled up with occasional volunteer commitments and virtual Chinese lessons to brush up my spoken Mandarin. It was all work and little or no play.
The fatigue finally caught up with me at the end of the year. I was usually able to shake off these feelings of weariness, or even at times, relish in them.
Instead, I felt riddled with self-doubt, weighed down by thoughts that I would never become the person I had so aspired to be.
Despite these feelings, I told myself that I was just tired and that so many of my peers were doing much more than me.
After all, some had school fees they had to pay off but still managed to get top grades in school, others were grappling with major personal issues but could still land internships at prestigious firms.
In the light of all this, were my feelings normal or was there something more to it?
Deep down, I knew that there was more to my twenties than late nights spent alone in the office, coffee after coffee, planning to cross the next goal off the list and the one after that, and so on.
For this column, I spoke to counselors and mental health experts to find out more about what it means to be burned out, how this has been perpetuated by “hustle culture” and healthy ways to address these issues.
HUSTLE CULTURE AND FEELING ‘FOMO’
Hustle culture, which a New York Times article has dubbed as the new work culture, suggests that beyond just going through the motions of a job, workers should love what they do and advertise that love on social media platforms.
It glorifies keeping busy and going after more — whether it’s a bigger paycheque, title or promotion.
This, in turn, also creates a sense of “Fomo” for some, or a fear of missing out. People don’t want to be left behind while their peers advance in their careers or pick up trading to make big bucks from the stock market.
Mental health experts I interviewed said that this constant pursuit of more, and the sense of Fomo comes from something deeper, beyond a desire for greater professional development.
Ms Ng Ai Ling, the head of counseling and principal psychotherapist at Eagles Mediation and Counseling Centre, said: “Fomo happens when we feel a sense of insecurity within ourselves, and we are afraid of the competition in the world that we live in.
“We are too worried about falling behind in the rat race and we push ourselves, sometimes beyond our limits or comfort, to do what others are doing.”
In a similar vein, Mr Cho Ming Xiu, founder of Campus PSY (Peer Support for Youths), a non-profit organization that promotes mental health awareness, said that many people tie their self-worth and identity to their academic performance or professional accomplishments .
He added that those who lack a strong sense of self-identity may be more susceptible to social pressures.
Describing it as a vicious circle, Mr Cho said that he has had youths tell him that seeing their friends make big strides in their professional or academic journeys creates a fear that they will not be able to achieve their goals if they do not buck up.
This sounded a lot like a friend of mine, who juggled an internship at a prestigious bank with his studies, all while taking part in case competitions. He said that he did this because of a “credential inflation” where he feels that educational qualifications alone aren’t enough.
Despite having a glowing resume, he said that he is also driven a lot by self-doubt. “It’s like if I don’t pursue this internship, whatever I learn in the classroom is not going to be good enough, so I felt like I needed to join these companies to strengthen my core competencies.”
JUST TIRED OR BURNT OUT?
A central question I struggled with when those feelings of fatigue swamped me last year was trying to tell whether I was “just tired” or burned out.
Although I withdrew from my friends and gave up most of my hobbies, such as reading or exercising, I often told myself that it was because I was just too tired and would be able to get around to these things at a different time.
The career coach and therapists I spoke to for this piece said that one of the signs of burnout is that the fatigue does not go away even after getting a good night’s sleep.
Ms Ng said that those who are burnt out would feel fatigue in all three aspects of their well-being: Physical, emotional and mental.
She said: “When you are feeling tired, you can get back to work after some good rest. But when you start to feel burnt out, you feel excessive and prolonged physical, emotional and mental stress.
“You have difficulty sleeping or eating or may suffer gastrological problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. You feel overwhelmed, powerless and helpless.”
Thinking back, I realize now that even though I was overworking myself and constantly pushing myself to do better and achieve more, it had made me feel more lost than I was before.
I began to question why I had embarked on these internship roles and courses in the first place and if I was truly passionate about them — because if I was, then why did it take so much for me to get out of bed every morning?
HOW TO AVOID BURN-OUT IN A HYPER-COMPETITIVE ENVIRONMENT
So how should I have dealt with all these feelings in a hyper-competitive environment? Experts tell me it’s important to speak to others about what you’re going through and center yourself.
The mental health experts emphasize the importance of speaking up, although this may be difficult as such heavy workloads have already been normalised.
Mr John Shepherd Lim, the chief well-being officer of Singapore Counseling Centre, said: “This can make it hard for people to vocalise their struggles with burnout, as they might compare with the drive and pace of life that others seem to be coping well with, and fear being seen as weak.
“This judgment of being ‘weak’ can be self-imposed or implied through the attitudes their social circles might hold towards individuals who struggle with the work entrusted to them.”
He added that the need to maintain this image is something that many young adults take seriously, as they are still in the process of establishing their self-esteem and life goals.
“There has often been an observed discrepancy between student awareness of avenues of mental health support and usage of said avenues — people prefer handling the burnout on their own rather than seek help from their colleagues and friends around them,” he said.
Ms Samantha Ng, career coach, said that it is important to take some time to realign with yourself, in terms of your values, career and goals.
She added that it is important to set boundaries and manage our own expectations.
“Burnout does not occur overnight, it is always a build-up of events and emotions. For example, if I know that I am only going to be extremely stressed out if I have to work with ultra-tight deadlines, then minimize the probability of that happening by proper planning and strong execution,” she said.
Mr Cho from Campus PSY gave a piece of advice that resonated with me — he advised that I find my own “anchor”, which is something that serves as a guiding force in the decisions we make and will continue to ground us through difficult times.
For him, his anchor is his faith. They said: “If you have certain anchors in life, it will really help you rethink why you do what you do. Being achievement-oriented is not something that is bad but when it goes over a certain boundary where it eats into your life, then you have to re-think if this is something you want to continue.”
After our conversation, I reflected on what my “anchor” was and if I even had one. I had undertaken these internships, extra courses and volunteer programs all in the name of self-development: Improve my writing or my conversational Chinese skills or knowledge in certain topics.
The pursuit of self-development had crossed a threshold without my realization, and I was mindlessly chasing after the idea of an elusive “better”.
My once-concrete goals became less clear to me and instead, I was trying so hard to become a blurred ideal I conjured up in my head.
It took me three months of uninterrupted rest — where I deactivated my social media accounts and dedicated time to things I enjoyed — before I began to feel more like my old self again.
Now, to avoid going down the same rabbit hole, I try to pace myself.
Before signing up for a course, I try to think about what I want to gain from it and if it is something that I would enjoy learning. I also make time in my week for friends, family and hobbies.
While it is unlikely that hustle culture or feeling Fomo will go away any time soon, I’ve realized that it is important to center ourselves, in order to prevent getting swept away by the currents of social pressures or self-doubt.