3 things I wish I had known when I first experienced burnout
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
Less than three years after I graduated from university, I was offered what I thought at the time as my dream job.
Two years later, I couldn’t stop crying at the thought of heading in to work at that very same job.
I didn’t know it at the time but that was my first experience of burnout. Almost 10 years have passed and I’ve learnt a lot more about burnout since then. Reflecting back on that experience, here are 3 things I wish I had known at the time.
1. Everything will be okay. Most importantly, I will be okay.
I could still feel the panic in my chest when I think back about that time. I felt so overwhelmed by everything. My calendar was full of appointments and meetings; my inbox and my to-do list were out of control even though I consistently put in extra hours in the evening and on the weekends. I didn’t have any colleagues that I felt I could ask to help me, because they were too busy or it’d take too much time to train them. So I kept pushing myself. Until I couldn’t anymore.
Even then, I didn’t tell anyone that I was struggling. I just kept calling in sick without sharing any details. At the time, sharing the real reason why I couldn’t show up at work felt like committing career suicide. “They would find out that I couldn’t handle the job, that I was in way over my head; and they would never give me another opportunity. I failed; and that’s how they would always remember me, as the person who buckled under the pressure.”
But in reality, when I finally worked up enough courage to share what was going on with my Director, my VP, and my colleagues, I was met with an overwhelming outpour of support. They asked me what I needed, and worked with me to put those things in place. Some were immediate. Others took longer.
Most importantly, there was no negative impact on my career progression. I continued to progress onto roles with increasing levels of responsibilities and pressure, and succeeded in them. If anything, that experience taught me some important lessons about boundaries, perfectionism, and asking for help. It was also an important catalyst that kickstarted my learning about burnout and the reason why I now specialize in burnout management and flexible work as a coach.
2. I’ve done enough. I am enough.
I took a lot of pride in my ability to consistently go above and beyond, to exceed expectations, to be a low-maintenance employee and a reliable colleague. So the thought of dropping everything unexpectedly, knowing that no one else was there to catch it, seemed like the most irresponsible thing I could have possibly done. I had let everyone down. I felt broken and worthless. I felt like a complete failure.
But the truth was that I had been trying to do too much for far too long. A year after my burnout, we grew the department from 1 staff (me) to 3 full-time staff and 5 part-time staff. My breakdown wasn’t a failure. It was a clear signal that the workload and my expectations were unreasonable.
The hardest part for me throughout this journey was recognizing that I was the only one that kept telling myself I hadn’t done enough. No one else was thinking that. As a perfectionist, I was always focused on what I could have done better without ever pausing to acknowledge how far I had gone. Ironically, the same drive that helped me get the job was also the reason why I crashed and burnt. It’s taken me years to truly accept that focusing on growth without rest is not sustainable.
3. I can change the course.
I still remember sitting in the psychologist's office on the third day that I had called in sick. The psychologist asked me a series of questions and eventually handed me a list of depression symptoms with checkmarks next to most of them. “Take this to your doctor. They’ll know what to do.” So I took it to my doctor, who told me that I had depression and the options available to me were: go on antidepressants and/or take some time off work.
What I didn’t know at the time was that burnout and depression share a lot of common symptoms. But I had a gut instinct that antidepressants were not the solution to my problem. My problem was not a chemical imbalance. The problem was my workload, my lack of boundaries, my dysfunctional beliefs around rest and productivity, and my inability to say “this is not manageable, and I need help.”
But before I had clarity on what the real issues were, I felt really stuck. The workload couldn’t change because I truly believed that was what the job required. On the other hand, I didn’t want to leave my job because despite everything, I still loved that job.
When I finally talked to my Director, she helped me think the unthinkable. We talked about what I believed I needed to stop doing. Some of it got reassigned to a colleague. Some of it was just simply dropped. She gave me permission to let them go, which made way for a monumental shift in me. If a smart, wise, and experienced leader like her said that it was ok to drop these things, maybe they were not all as important and urgent as I had thought they were? Learning to question my own sense of urgency remains one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt to this day.
I would love to say that I only experienced burnout once and learnt all my important lessons from that experience. But that was not how my story unfolded. I continued to experience varying degrees of burnout multiple times throughout my career, learning more about myself, my needs, and my boundaries after each time. I've chosen to share a small part of my burnout story here in hope that others who might be experiencing it right now will feel less alone and broken when they read my words.
Have you ever experienced burnout? If you could travel back in time, what would you say to yourself when you were in the burnout zone?