I held the doctor’s note between my hands. Written on a green slip of paper, it said “BEDREST,” underlined three times for emphasis. It had finally sunk in. At only nineteen years old, I was being instructed to be glued to my bed until I somehow felt better.
I felt powerless in my own skin.
After a cycle of getting sick again and again for what had been bordering on three months and a slew of diagnoses ranging from pneumonia, to sinus infections, to bronchitis, by the end of my first semester of junior year I felt broken down and defeated. Yet so much of my illness was apparently a monster of my own making. “Stop working so hard,” seemed to be the one cure the doctors said could solve everything, but it was the one I continually failed to accept or prescribe to.
I was 15 when I eagerly completed my first internship. At 16, I was the peppy student council president, already enrolled in college classes in addition to my high school curriculum. At 17 and 18, I was on Dean’s List, completed a handful of fancy internships, and held a collection of college leadership titles. By 19, I was interning for my senator I had always dreamed of working for, working a part-time job, taking a full course load, and leading the largest student organization on my campus.
On the surface and in the eyes of everyone around me, it seemed like I was not only succeeding, but excelling—yet, no matter how many times I told myself that, I never felt like enough. I kept pushing myself harder and harder.
Frozen in my bed, I had “burned out,” as people around me declared, before even turning 20. I was officially diagnosed with pneumonia and literally prescribed not to move until I learned how to better take care of myself.
I wish I could tell you that I was the only one. That I was the only person I knew my age who felt exhausted, depleted, and defeated by the overdrive of work experienced through the sum of societal and internalized pressure to succeed and experiences that had made up my teenage years. Yet, I saw all around me, my peers and people even younger than me had tired, glazed over eyes, struggling to balance everything in a world that seems to be increasingly defined by your work ethic and accomplishments.
The seeds for burnout start young. Many high-achieving students are taught as early as middle school that their ability to excel in all areas—school, friends, extracurriculars—will determine their ability to get into a good college, and therefore, dictate their ability to be successful for the rest of their lives. Deemed the “burnout generation,” young people are feeling the weight of unrealistic work expectations at younger and younger ages.
While many of my peers and co-workers all seemed tired, it did not come as a shock to me that so many of those who claimed feeling tired or overworked were women. As young women, we are told from a young age that we can achieve success, but only if we are willing to work harder than our male peers for it, with men twice as likely as women to advance at each career transition stage. This disparity was seen in research by McKinsey, which showed that 53% of corporate entry-level jobs are held by women, a percentage that drops to 37% for mid-management roles and 26% for vice presidents and senior managers.
Similarly, we are told that showing any form of emotion is seen as weakness. Women often feel afraid to own up to how they are feeling as protection of being perceived by others as “weak” or “unprepared.” I have heard countless stories from my female friends who have refused to say no to any project in an effort to please to a point of exhaustion, whereas they see male counterparts often turn down projects citing concerns of being overworked. Women in the workplace are also more concerned about being laid off than their male peers, which adds to many women feeling the need to put in extra work.
In contrast, men are significantly more likely than women to do things that help their personal wellbeing at work, as explored by the Captivate Network. Men are 25% more likely to take breaks throughout the day for personal activities, 7% more likely to take a walk, 5% more likely to go out to lunch and 35% more likely to take breaks “just to relax.” This demonstrates the unnecessary pressure women often put on themselves in the workforce and their failure to prioritize self-care and awareness.
We have an unhealthy obsession with work in America. Americans work more than any other country in the industrialized world. They also take less vacations, work longer days, and retire later, according to ABC News. With people working harder and taking less time for relaxation and self-care, it is no surprise that people are “burning out” at higher rates than ever before. With technology, no longer do people leave the office and are able to leave work behind them at their desks. Their work often comes with them, staying by their sides even while they sleep in the form of their iPhones on their bedside tables. With this, the lines between work and personal time are becoming increasingly blurred, and it has become even harder to unplug. With one in ten women working more than 45 hours a week, it does not come as a surprise that so many young women resonate with the symptoms of burnout.
I have yet to graduate college and enter what some would call “the real workplace.” Yet, my experiences working long days while juggling classes, extracurriculars, internships, work, family, friends, relationships, and a social life without proper time off to the point of immobility taught me a lesson I am fortunate to have learned so young: nothing, no matter what, can outweigh taking care of yourself.
With more young people prioritizing doing something cause-related over money or other traditional work goals, we also need to rethink the workplace in order to allow young people to thrive, supporting them as they pursue what they are passionate about instead of holding them to traditional work standards.
It’s time to change how we talk about work in America and recognize the effects America’s work obsession has–especially on young women–not only when they do reach the point of burnout or extreme exhaustion. We need to transform this problem into an ongoing cultural conversation and understand why so many women often begin to feel overwhelmed as early as middle school. Whether it’s through creating clear boundaries between our work and personal lives, asking for more vacation days, or removing the guilt when you do need to call one in, learning how to say no when asked to take on that extra project, supporting your female friends, family, or co-workers, being honest and transparent with those around you about how you are feeling, or simply taking time to listen to yourself; prioritizing our mental and physical health needs should not fall to the bottom of our to-do list as it too often does–it should always, unequivocally, come first.
To my fellow young women out there: know you are not alone. You are not what you do, but who you are. That in itself is more than enough.
Jazmin Kay is writer and activist based in Washington, D.C. and New York. Her writing, personal essays, and interviews have been published at HuffPost, MTV, Seventeen Magazine, The Nation, Fast Company, Levo League, The Center for American Progress, and The U.S. Department of State and The White House under President Barack Obama. She is a two-time New York Women in Communications scholarship recipient and is this year’s Hearst Magazines scholar. ♦