It was 3 AM on a pretty spring night and I had just finished work.
I didn’t know it then but this was my first burnout. It lasted for about 3 months. And it was exhilarating.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I finally understood what burnouts are not after I had one but after I heard other people’s stories about their own. It’s one thing to know the meaning of a word on an intellectual level. It’s completely different to hear a personal experience and recognize yourself in it.
So today, I wanted to share with you a personal story about my two and a half burnouts and the lessons I learned along the way. I hope this helps you recognize the signs and learn the lessons without having to go through it all.
How to recognize burnout
First off, this post will be largely pointless if I don’t add some pointers on recognizing burnout. I myself couldn’t recognize it even after I already had experience.
Keep in mind, though, that I’m not a trained psychologist and I don’t even play one on TV. If you feel bad for whatever reason and it’s not a transient feeling but an everyday occurrence, talk to a friend and, ideally, to a professional. Mental health is just as important as physical health. You might shrug off a couple of days of high temperature but for everything else, you’ll probably go see a doctor, right?
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers, or clients?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
- Do you find it hard to concentrate?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
- Are you using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits changed?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?
There are a few main causes of burnout that can include any mix of the following:
- increased workload for sustained periods of time, work-life imbalance;
- lack of clarity about your role or what’s expected of you;
- lack of control, decisions being made for you by managers or clients;
- dysfunctional team relations, lack of support from peers or management, no feeling of community;
- discrepancies in values with your employer or a sense things are unfair;
- lack of recognition and reward (both material or related to social status).
I believe the piece by the Mayo Clinic sums it up nicely. But if you’re looking for a deep dive and not afraid of academic papers, Maslach and Leiter explain how far we’ve come in understanding burnout.
It’s also important to note that burnout is not just some fancy new thing millennial hipsters made up. Depending on your profession, between 3% and 7% of your colleagues have gone through it. So here’s what it felt like for me.
Two and a half burnouts
The hard thing about burnouts is that they rarely seem like ones. Often they feel like a great time in your career, a dynamic development – or just a temporary bump in the road where you’re not doing that good.
And in my experience there’s almost no case of “full-on burnout” – all our experiences are a mix of good and bad. This is why when I tell the following stories, I always wonder at the back of my head was this really a burnout or am I overstating the situation. So let’s say that I’ve had two and a half burnouts – and I’ll leave you to decide which one is the half one.
The one with all the new beginnings
“Exhilarating” is a word very few people might use to describe a burnout. But it’s the truth.
This was an amazing period of my professional life. I was working on a major rebranding and it was also the birth of what later became the biggest full-day popular science event in Bulgaria.
I was working with website designers in the morning, then filling in countless spreadsheets with new product content, only to come home, grab dinner and do whatever needed doing in the endless list of event management tasks.
It was exhilarating but it was also exhausting and it took a long while to mend after.
I only later recognized this as a burnout – months after the Christmas holidays when I would just lay on the couch, watch movies, and feel generally upset without being able to express why.
The reason is perhaps that I had so much creative freedom, a sense of purpose, and every day I felt I was growing professionally. But I also had no balance and I got completely lost in work.
The one big mistake you can make during a burnout is simply not telling anyone. Detachment and distancing are very common side-effects of stress and burnout. I just thought I didn’t have time for friends and ended up severing connections that took tons of time to recover. Or, if I look deeper, I felt nobody cared.
Take stock of your feelings
What doesn’t help your relationships with others during a burnout is the fact you feel like sh*t all the time. This might take a number of different forms, from fatigue and loss of motivation to temper tantrums and crying fits.
Awareness comes into play whenever a change in feelings enters the picture. It’s very easy to tell yourself there’s an external source to your rotten mood. But if you dig deeper you can find what’s really going on.
The one with the superficial responsibilities
The second time this happened was at a time when I was serving as the de facto project manager of a team of 5 people. We were building something new, we were taking inspiration from the worlds’ best and we were also following the best and most detailed strategy framework out there.
Nothing could stop us.
No matter what manager title was slapped to my name, though, my opinion was rarely taken into account – even when I had the domain experience.
After spending 2 days with the team to plan a direction for the project only to have it all torn apart in a late-night shouting match with management I finally saw things for what they were. I wrote my resignation letter right then, slept on it, and send it in early the next day.
But what I didn’t see was that I had been boxed in this situation for more than 3 months of frustration, stress, and always-on availability. With no control and ever-changing priorities.
Come to terms with what you can’t change
The lack of control is a big factor in burnout. It felt that no matter what I did and what I thought, I had to follow someone else’s rules.
But I did have control – I had control over me staying or not. I had to come to terms with the fact that someone else was driving the ship and I couldn’t change the direction. Once that happened, I jumped in the water in a heartbeat.
Obviously, this is not a solution for someone who is the primary breadwinner in a big family with no savings. But I was lucky enough to be able to do it.
The one with the never-ending task list
If the list so far looks to you like burnouts are only a matter of external factors, this story will prove you can also cause a burnout through conscious decisions.
It started off with a couple of small side projects. Minor strategy advice for a friend, or a content plan for a new e-commerce project. All of this was piling on top of my other extracurriculars like non-profit work and teaching content marketing to groups of 500+ students.
I still remember the day at the end of March when I looked back and realized I haven’t had a free weekend since Christmas.
This was the moment where I said to myself “Girl, it’s time to make a decision!” And I did although it was super hard to leave a great team and an exciting product. But I knew that if I didn’t act on time I’d spiral on further.
Recognize when you have too much on your plate
Most often burnout is caused by major issues like differences in values, perceived lack of control, dysfunctional team dynamics, or lack of clarity and support by higher management. But sometimes a consistent increase in activity can do it for you.
Don’t get me wrong – there are times when putting in the extra hours is part of the deal and it even feels good. But if it becomes your everyday reality, then it’s an issue.
You’re not being lazy. You’re being overworked. Stop it.
Getting out after a burnout is a process
My first instance of burnout wasn’t something I was completely aware of. I recognized something was wrong but I didn’t have the tools to verbalize or even explain to myself what it was. It went on for more than half a year and recovery dragged on for almost a year and a half. The next time it took just 2 months, mainly because I put everything else on hold.
Recovering from burnout is a process that requires focus and time. The things that worked for me are:
- Building self-awareness – focusing on how things feel and what the underlying reasons are. This may or may not involve meditation. But it surely means you need to observe and try to dig deeper.
- Sleep and rest – it’s ridiculous how dependent our mood is on a good night’s sleep. Try to do 2 consecutive weeks of high-quality sleep and you’ll see improvements in your mood. And when I say rest, I don’t mean just sleeping in. I mean taking a break from major stressors like big decisions or over-complicated new projects.
- Physical activity – recovery isn’t about building a career out of lounging on your sofa. Try to mix in some physical activity, which can be anything from light walks and stretching to full-on Crossfit and cardio. Whatever makes you feel good.
- Good food and less alcohol – the gut-brain connection is mostly accepted as a scientific fact now. Binging on fries isn’t good for your mood as well as your pants size. And although I’m a big fan of a glass of wine with dinner I’d try to stay away from it when I’m most stressed.
- Friends and family – this is the hardest one for me as I’m usually not a social fan. But try to keep in touch with your close ones and really share.
Pay it forward
I usually try to stay away from overly personal stories but I felt this is a good time for this one. It’s very easy to overdo it with work tasks or feel disconnected from others after a bunch of weeks of physical distancing and staying at home.
I think mental health is a topic we should all be talking about – as professionals, as ambitious people with no sense of work-life boundaries, but mostly as people trying to grow.
So if reading this helped, be open with friends. Maybe they need to hear someone else’s mental health story, too.