The burnout experience

burnout

Mental health in the UK is more prevalent today than ever before. Heavy workloads and deadline pressures are a fact of working life. We all know the feeling of being overwhelmed or stretched. However, when relentless stress pushes you into a debilitating state, that most often leads to burnout. This is not something that affects just someone’s performance and wellbeing but also their team’s and organisation’s.

According to statistics, in 2020 of British Adults in Employment, a staggering 79% commonly experience work-related stress which is 20% higher than reported in 2018. 

Furthermore, over 50% of working days lost are reportedly due to stress, depression or anxiety. 

One of the biggest developments in the business world has been the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognising burnout as an occupational phenomenon. They define burnout as “a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive or prolonged stress that can leave people feeling exhausted and unable to cope with the demands of life.”

However, what does burnout actually look like and how it manifests itself? Here is my very very personal experience with it last winter. 

In February I paid a visit to a naprapath to release the lower back, shoulder and neck tensions due to predominantly sedentary work. 20 minutes into the session I started feeling nauseous, dizzy and shaky. What I thought would be temporary and go away in a minute, took over my body and left me shaking for 40 minutes before I was taken to hospital. After various checks and tests, I was discharged, as medics could not find anything out of the ordinary, apart from the fact that my body had gone in what could only be described as an adrenaline overdose that my body couldn’t shake off. It doesn’t sound that bad… Let me tell you, I have had six shoulder dislocations and they have nothing compared to what I went through that one afternoon. I was simply not in control anymore.

After that, it took me two weeks until I could face the world again. My appetite had gone, I had no energy, I was afraid of falling asleep in case my body went into a similar fit again, but most of all just the thought of me opening my laptop and looking at the screen, made me feel physically sick. 

I called a doctor friend of mine, who specialises in oncology, to go through the event again and unpack it in more detail. We concluded that it was burnout. Was I stressed? No way! Well, at least not in a way that I would describe ‘stress’. And then it hit me – THAT’S IT! It is not THE ‘stress’, it is all the daily ‘little stresses’: lack of movement, lack of nutrients in diet, lack of vitamin D for most of us during the winter months (especially us, who reside close to the Arctic circle with almost no daylight during the winter months), that ‘shitty’ e-mail you got from your colleague/manager/client, and most of all – excessive screen time! 

This is when I recalled a podcast by Leo Widrich, a leadership coach, that I had listened to a few times last year and that resonated with me. Leo was explaining the difference between manual regulation and auto or self-regulation

Let me put these terms in context. Exhausting day at work. Perhaps your idea was dismissed in an open meeting or you received a passive-aggressive e-mail from a colleague or a client. To deal with the stresses of the day, some people find their comfort in drinking, eating, watching TV and even taking drugs. All of these are our unconscious coping mechanisms or ways ‘to forget’. To release the mind and to carry on again the next day. And so we do. This is auto or self-regulation. When you do not want to think about or reflect on what happened, but just carry on with your life.

But, why did that e-mail make me feel angry? Why did my manager’s response to me in that meeting make me feel frustrated? We need to validate and understand these feelings so that we can find peace with these situations and learn about ourselves. 

This is where manual regulation comes in. Talking it through with someone, who can offer you a warm accompaniment, is the best cure. Someone, who can be there for you without giving you advice or offering their experiences in return, but simply holding space for you and letting you feel whatever you feel and not letting those emotions and experiences build up. When they build up – we see burnout happening. Hence, the saying “a weight off your shoulders”. It very literally is about unburdening yourself from worries. 

What has helped me:

  1. Understanding that my energy is finite. Rethinking my relationship with my work and setting clear boundaries, was the key and most crucial step. Now I am more confident to say ‘yes’ and more importantly ‘no’ to incoming requests for my time and attention. 
  2. Rethinking my never-ending to-do list. I only focus on completing one to two big items a day rather than looking at the whole ‘to-do’ list and stressing over it instead of getting anything done. And guess what? – I still manage to get the important things completed on time with and with no stress!
  3. Scheduling my wellbeing. I love this notion that Chief Burnout Officer Michael Levitt introduced to me on one of my podcast episodes. Pick your favourite colour and book your self-care time in your diary. If at the end of the week you are not seeing enough of your favourite colour in your diary, you have given more of your precious time and energy than received. This is a non-negotiable! The fact that you have a gap in your diary, doesn’t mean that you’re available.
  4. Embarking on a 30-day yoga journey was life-changing. Breathing, stretching, grounding, being present are all fundamental activities that we take for granted. 
  5. Essential oils are my new best friends. Lavender blends before bed have been fantastic to enjoy a more quality deep sleep and wake up rested. Whereas, peppermint and citrus blends in the morning give me the energy and positive vibe to face into the day and work with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.

Burnout is a real thing. It is physical, cognitive and emotional. It is that low-frequency sound in your head. It is a lack of energy to face those trivial jobs, as taking your bins our or paying your bills on time. It is that tension in your lower back, in your neck, your shoulders, which when released (as mine during the naprapathy session) tells you very literally that you are no longer in charge. Take the charge back and schedule your self-care!

  1. The 21st Century Change Agent podcast, Episode 4 with Chief Burnout Officer Michael Levitt on Scheduling Your Wellbeing
  2. Distributed podcast with Leo Widrich on Emotional Wellness
  3. YouTube – 30-day yoga journey Breath

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