In late October, I’ll be at the Sirens literary conference in Denver talking about managing burnout as a creative. In prep for this workshop, I’ve been going through my notes from earlier in the year and I thought I’d create a series of posts documenting my experience with burnout. You can expect the rest of the series to be posted before Halloween.
I’m breaking this post into three parts (Discovery, Learning, Recovery) for a couple of reasons. First, I want to make it easy for you to find what you’re looking for and second, I know this will be a lengthy topic.
And before I go any further, I need to put this disclaimer out there:
I am not a medical professional. I don’t have a medical degree, or a medical background. I can’t diagnose you or give you medical advice. I can, however, share my experiences and what I’ve learned along the way in the hopes that you will seek that medical help if you feel you need it.
Now that that’s out of the way, some background on how I got to where I am now, sitting down writing about burnout.
A couple of years ago, I moved abroad and started a new job in a new career. Not long after I started, one of my bosses sent out an email to our team explaining that our profession has an unusually high percentage of people who burn out, that in Sweden this is a medically recognized condition, and the company I worked for wanted us all to feel like we could get help if we needed it. Of course, to get help, we had to recognized the problem, and so my boss had attached information about burnout and a test that we could take to determine if we were at risk. The test was simple. If we scored above a certain number, we were supposed to contact our leads and let them know so that they could talk to HR and get us help.
I was floored. This kind of respect for an employee’s mental health wasn’t something I’d ever seen in the U.S. But, I also largely ignored the test because the position I was in was not nearly as stressful as jobs I’d had in the past.
My burnout symptoms
So fast forward to the end of last year. I’d largely forgotten about this email. I was exhausted constantly. I found myself unable to make it through a full day of work without feeling like I was going to fall asleep standing up. I was having memory problems, trouble concentrating. I became frustrated faster, and small things made me angry. I got to the point where I felt like I was failing at every aspect of my life and everything I was trying to do. I couldn’t make simple decisions like what to eat, or wear, or if I wanted to watch a show versus read a book in the evenings.
As a person with a history of anxiety and depression, I thought my anxiety was worsening and I feared that I was close to dipping back into depression.
So I dug into my bag of tricks, coping mechanisms that I’d learned over the years to help me manage my anxiety. I forced myself to do more social things, despite feeling exhausted. I forced myself to workout more because working out always helped lift me up out feeling ‘blue’.
I became more exhausted. I became even more frustrated. Workouts that used to be easy were hard. I physically couldn’t push myself the way I once had. I stripped my workouts down to the basics and did what in the past had been really easy workouts for me. Except they were increasingly more difficult.
At work, I found myself every week saying, “I just have to make it to Friday.” And then I found myself adjusting that goal to Wednesday. During this time, I experienced shortness of breath. I would get lightheaded. I began to have panic attacks, with my heart racing. Sounds around me were more aggravating than before, and could easily trigger my heart to race, and then a panic attack.
One day in late fall a coworker and friend sent me a message via our internal chat service. He said he’d overheard me talking with some other people and he wanted to check in to see if I was okay. He previously had gone through burnout leave and some of what I was saying gave him pause.
I nearly cried at my desk. For one, I was so exhausted, that I was super emotional. The fact this person had taken the time to make sure I was okay, when I felt terrible and was pretty much hating myself at this point, meant so much to me. But also, I was in denial. This wasn’t burnout. My job was not that hard. I’d been under way more pressure and stress before and never burned out. So I thanked him and then sat there telling myself I was fine.
Until the following Monday. That particular Monday I went into work and within the first hour I had an email that set me off. It was then that I told myself, “you just have to make it to five pm.”
My “just have to make it” time frame had been shrinking for months. This new time frame made me feel horrible. I could barely manage a day. One day. What was wrong with me?
Then I completely lost my cool over the most mundane and idiotic thing.
There’s a whole story here about the butter that’s totally unimportant to talking about burnout. But I want you all to see that what ‘broke’ me and made me realize I needed help was freaking out over something I knew was absurd. That’s not who I am. That person, raging about butter, is not me.
So I went back to my desk and took that test. And my score was really clear. I was burned out.
I told my manager. She immediately sent me home to rest and told me she’d take care of notifying HR and finding out how I could get help.
Let me stop here. I recognize that this kind of support from an employer is rare and extraordinary. I know other people who have not been this lucky, despite having a company with policies in place to take care of them. But I’m giving you this background so you’ll see how I got to burnout leave.
Asking for Help
The first step on the road to recovery (I’m sure you’ve all heard this before) is admitting you have a problem. For me that wasn’t the first step. I knew I had a problem. Unfortunately, I thought my problem was something else. And I self-treated for that ‘other problem’ which only further exasperated my real problem.
For me, the first step on the road to recovery was asking for help.
I am not the poster child for seeking help. I’m pretty type-A. If I can’t do something, I’d rather figure it out on my own and show you how capable I am than ask you to show me how it’s done. Pride is a dangerous thing, I suppose. But honestly, I also have struggled with my self-esteem for years, so asking for help sometimes isn’t about overcoming pride, but believing I have enough worth for people to want to help me. For me, it’s about believing that I deserve help.
We don’t have time to unpack that can of worms here, but I have a feeling other people hold themselves back for similar reasons. When dealing with mental health, it’s very hard to ask for help. There is so much stigma around mental health issues, especially in the U.S.
Fast Forward A Bit
Everyone’s journey once they decide to get help will be different. People experience stress differently and the journey to getting well will vary based on your individual characteristics and problems. So I don’t really need to walk you through every part of my burnout leave.
I will, however, fast-forward to earlier this year when I was talking to one of my friends and coworkers about burnout. She’d gone through burnout alone, without support, and without any information on what was happening. She’d tried to research online, but ‘burnout’ is a vague term and she couldn’t find concrete information. She, in her words, felt like she was going crazy. We talked about our shared experiences and symptoms, about the ways we tried to manage burnout before we knew what was going on, and I told her what I’d learned during my leave. She then excitedly told me I had to share my experience with the world because people needed help.
I think I laughed. I’m not, as previously noted, a doctor or a medical expert. I told her that someone else should write on this.
And then she invited me to talk about burnout on her podcast (Learning to Heal From Burnout Pt. 1 and Pt. 2). And I said yes, because when Kitty gets you talking about something, her enthusiasm is infectious and you can’t really say no.
I did more research on burnout while preparing for that two-part podcast. I’ll share links and a summary of that research in part 2.