We need our health service now more than ever. Coronavirus has come at a time when we thought there was no more stretch left in the NHS, but healthcare workers are still finding the energy and enthusiasm to provide care for all those in need. Due to the crisis, medical staff around the world are at an even greater risk of suffering burnout.
Adam Kay’s hugely popular, funny and heartbreaking 2017 memoir This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor brought the everyday realities of extreme fatigue to the forefront of public consciousness. Nurses and doctors have been leaving the profession in order to safeguard their own health and wellbeing, but a sense of duty has now called many back to the frontline. Joanna Cannon’s empathy for the patients she writes about in her poignant memoir, Breaking & Mending, again shows how challenging working in healthcare can be. Cannon worked as a hospital doctor before specialising in psychiatry. She finds it is nearly impossible to give the standard of care that people deserve without diminishing her emotional reserves.
My novel Rest and Be Thankful tells the story of a nurse working a string of nightshifts who is so exhausted that she see things that aren’t there; the effects of sleeplessness seeps into every aspect of her life. Last year the World Health Organization updated its definition of burnout, describing it as an “occupational phenomenon”. There is hope that this definition will increase awareness and understanding.
But sufferers do not just work in the medical professions. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris presents a New York lawyer with a mysterious condition that pushes him to exhaustion. He is compelled to walk, his body propels him, but the relentless walking wears him away physically and emotionally. There is no sympathy, no understanding. He is relegated to a tiny office where his depleting form can be hidden from view. It is a story of life taken for granted.
Perfection and expectation overwhelm Sylvia Plath’s narrator Esther in The Bell Jar. Pressing against the 1950s’ narrow ideas of womanhood, she is overcome by depression. The successes of her earlier life have led her to setting herself unobtainable goals, which gradually push her to the point of despair. “The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.” Bringing a lighter touch to the subject, Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada tells the story of Andrea, a young woman working in the fashion industry who struggles to meet the demands of her boss. Her relationships become strained as she prioritises her work until she snaps. Despite the glamour, gossip and hilarity, Andrea finds herself having to rebuild her life.
We, the Survivors by Tash Aw shows that not all cases of burnout happen quickly. Ah Hock is an ordinary, hard-working man who has committed murder and is serving his time. He remorsefully recounts his life to a student, who interviews him for her dissertation. It is the portrait of a man who strives against poverty, labour exploitation and a rapidly modernising society. His struggle is quiet, painful and lifelong.
• Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass is published by Bloomsbury.