Yes, Downtime Is Productive Time: Relaxing In The Age Of Burnout
More and more, we're starting to wake up to the fact that chronic, prolonged stress—while common—isn't normal.
In a move that resonated with many, the World Health Organization1 reclassified and expanded its definition of burnout2 in May. It is now considered an "occupational phenomenon," with symptoms including "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy."
And according to an April poll by Gallup, Americans are increasingly stressed out: Last year, 55% of respondents said they were stressed out daily. Twenty-two percent even said they were angry daily. And just look at what we're reading: According to data released by Barnes & Noble, mental health self-help books now outsell weight-loss, diet, and exercise tomes.
All this stress and anxiety is wreaking havoc on our mental and physical health. Among the long list of health issues tied to prolonged stress and anxiety is cardiovascular diseases, major gut issues, serious prenatal concerns—and that's just from updated research from this year alone.
But with the increased pressure to be "always on" comes backlash: the prioritization of time off.
It may seem counterintuitive, but we now need to start accepting that downtime, is in fact, productive.
"We're starting to point out that it's not all about how much productivity you can get out of yourself," says mindbodygreen Collective member and holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D.
"Here's how I make sense of it: In the past, be it with physical labor or a more industrial society, there were boundaries in your work life. You would be at work, and then at a certain time, you would leave, and there was no way to continue working. It protected us from burnout. Now, with cellphones and being able to work remotely, that doesn't exist anymore."
A good analogy courtesy of Vora: It's like cars have been invented but seat belts haven't. We have the ability to work all the time but haven't built up societal customs or protections to remind us that we really shouldn't be.
And here's the thing: We know stepping away from work is actually beneficial in the long run. "So many people think they 'win the game' if they optimize their life, limit how much they need to sleep, and always push themselves, but what we're starting to learn is that it might work for a little while, but it's not sustainable long term; you will end up being less productive," says Vora. The tortoise and the hare scenario has never been more apt.
New York Times bestselling author Emily Nagowski, Ph.D., saw this firsthand—and it bothered her so much she decided to write a book about it. Released in March of this past year, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle addresses this topic exactly. "Over and over, women approached me saying they appreciated [my past work], but what was really life-changing was when I wrote about stress and feelings," she says.
Her co-author and sister Amelia Nagowski, DMA, noted this too: "We need to prioritize downtime because the current amount of stress in our lives is going to kill us. We've lost count of the number of women who have told us they, like me, were hospitalized for stress-induced illnesses. Literally, the physical impact of living in a world of unmeetable goals and unceasing demands is slowly destroying our bodies—especially the bodies of women and people of color," she says. "This requires us to replace the toxic view of rest as sloth or laziness with the understanding that when we celebrate rest for ourselves and others, we make the world safer for everyone."
If you don't know where to start, there's a plethora of apps, programs, and literature that now exists to convince you to chill out. Take Gravity, a wellness community in Columbus, Ohio, that was built with mental health in mind. It's a collection of homes, workspaces, and open spaces that put well-being first. ("The whole thing is curated on improving mental health and the human experience," Brett Kaufman, Gravity's founder, told mbg.)
You could also try any one of the new meditation communities like Mindset and Frequency. Or pick up one of those mental health self-help books: This April, artist, writer, and Stanford University professor Jenny Odell released the now bestselling How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Finally, check out Pattern, a new parent brand founded on the goal to address millennial burnout. Their first endeavor? Equal Parts, which aims to make cooking and kitchen time less like a chore and more holistically fulfilling.
However, Vora says the real change will come with your choices: You are the only person who can advocate for your own needs. "You need to find the agency in yourself to know when to close the laptop," she says. "There's no more 5 o'clock whistle."
The mindbodygreen editorial team worked together on the creation of this article, combining their deep expertise honed by years of reporting on health and well-being. It has been thoroughly researched, written, fact-checked, and reviewed by our editors.