What does burnout feel (felt) like (for me)?
This year I burnt out. I can say that now as I’m coming out the other side and can see the light again. But for a while it was dark, I wasn’t depressed, I didn’t feel hopeless but the joy was gone and I shut the world away.
Looking back, I can see how much I shut down during that period, I was in survival mode, on autopilot.
For me, it was disengaging with friends, stopping writing, not wanting to learn, saying no to social engagements, not doing things I love and coming off social media.
All I was able to do was turn up to my job (physically, mentally I was not there) and look after my little boy (thankfully this is one thing I didn’t check out of).
Whilst I was in the midst of burnout I didn’t realise it. I sought out a ‘Life Coach’ thinking I needed to “be better at my job” and they would help me achieve this – oh how wrong I was, so much came out of my coaching sessions and none of it was in relation to “improving my performance at work”.
Through different sessions, we worked on communicating my needs, implementing boundaries, connecting to my intuition, reprogramming old/negative thoughts and creating space for joy in my life.
It didn’t happen suddenly, but eventually, I started to see the light – I was singing to the radio again, to quote a friend.
To those who feel burnt out and are reading this. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you too can get there! Jump in, be gentle with yourself…
What is burnout?
Burnout is officially classed by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as:
“[Burnout is] a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
It is characterised by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.”
The ICD-11 ties burnout back to workplace stress, but personally, although this can be a leading cause of burnout, I think it can be triggered by anything that consumes and overwhelms you mentally.
How do I know if I’m suffering from burnout?
Research from Winona State University has categorised five stages of burnout.
- The Honeymoon Stage – the beginning of a new job or project when you have lots of energy and excitement. If healthy boundaries and coping strategies aren’t put in place as you become busier you can unknowingly move into stage two.
- The Balancing Act – although you are more competent in your role or responsibilities by now, your energy is starting to wane. A lack of boundaries means you take on more and more.
- Chronic Symptoms – not too dissimilar to the balancing act but by now your symptoms have intensified and you’re running on empty. Instead of admitting that you’re overworked/overwhelmed, you can blame others for your situation and it can impact your social life.
- The Crisis Stage – by this stage you cannot emotionally deal with stress which leads people to breaking point. You become detached, feel a loss of control, anxious or even depressed.
- Enmeshment – if you never manage to break the burnout cycle, this is where you end up. The behaviours and symptoms are enmeshed into how you function and you are at risk from “severe chronic long-term physical or mental illness”.
Burnout, different perspectives.
In the introduction, I talk about how, whilst in the midst of burnout, I was totally disengaged – I didn’t realise I was burnt out but if I had been more aware of the symptoms would I have realised?
Symptoms at each stage:
The Winona State study provides details of signs at the various stages.
|Honeymoon||Balancing Act||Chronic Symptoms||Crisis Stage||Enmeshment|
|In balance||-Job dissatisfaction-Work Inefficiency|
-Fatigue (both mental and physical)
-Escapist activities (such as eating, drinking, smoking, zoning out, etc.)
-Physical Illness (stress is a factor in many diseases)
|-Physical symptoms intensify and/or increase in number|
-Obsessing about work frustrations
-An ‘escapist mentality’
|-Very unhappy |
-Trapped in a job
-Stuck in the burnout cycle
But I wanted to know what it felt like for other people.
A male perspective:
I realised my perspective might contain some blind spots and so I reached out to a male friend. We spoke about what burnout means to him, what triggers it and what coping mechanisms he has in place.
“Burnout to me is mental, not physical. It’s the feeling of not being able to get off from the hamster wheel of work and family day-to-day pressures.”Sam*
He spoke about the inability to break from the daily grind, the mundane routines. Burnout triggers for Sam* include both work and family. In short, we agreed it was the lack of joy that was the line between feeling burnt out or not. (Maybe why so many people are now experiencing it after the last two years in a pandemic!)
*Sam is a pseudonym as he preferred me not to use his real name.
It struck me as Sam spoke about his experience of burnout, how close it was to mine and how well he’d managed to articulate what I’d been going through.
I asked Sam if, when he’s feeling burnt out, he asks for help? He responded quickly with “no, it’s a sign of weakness”. I think a lot of men feel this same pressure when it comes to being vulnerable.
He didn’t have any practices in place to help him when he’s feeling burnt out. Admitting that this is something he needs to get better at.
A professional perspective:
I also reached out to a Professional Counselling Psychologist, Helen Carouzos. With over 20 years of experience, Helen offers person-centric counselling and coaching services that “equip adults with the knowledge and tools to live a life of better mental health and improved work and life performance.”
I wanted to know what her experiences of burnout were and any themes she sees.
We started the conversation by discussing what she sees as the triggers for burnout. Helen believes the “always-on” culture and need for “instant gratification” is a huge contributor, we are always contactable and the expectation for a response is immediate.
Then you add increasing external pressures from “organisations, social media, (perceived) societal expectations”.
Helen stressed that without “making your own rules”, i.e. setting boundaries, you can very quickly deplete.
When asked about ‘the signs’ of burnout, her clients report feeling:
- A loss of control
- Things are happening to them
- You are no longer the driver of your life
(Point 2 was something I felt personally in the midst of burnout!)
I asked Helen what work she does with her clients when they come to her completely burnt out and she spoke to me about values work. This took me by surprise at first – what do personal values have to do with burnout recovery? But the more we talked, to me it was everything.
Helen spoke about the ‘values audit’ she runs with her clients, something they’ve often never thought about before. When looking at the outcome, what their values are and how they’re currently living – there’s often a huge misalignment. The life they are living and the life they want to be living are worlds apart. No wonder they’re completely exhausted.
As with all things, awareness is the first step and by creating awareness Helen can support her clients with practical steps to better live their values.
By recognising your values and choosing to live them, you can start to set boundaries around what you do and don’t want to be doing. Plus, you can start to bring more joy into your life by doing what you really love.
(I spoke in-depth with Helen about values, so much so I wrote another blog on personal values)
Before we finished our conversation, I asked Helen if she had any practical tips to help with burnout recovery. She took a huge sigh and paused before saying, “you know it’s really hard to break out of some of these behaviours, we have developed these deep-set habits over a lifetime”.
I appreciated Helen’s honesty and frankness here! All too often we can minimise things by talking about “quick-tips” or by fitting them into a social post. But behaviours are tied back to beliefs and uncovering these can be hard work and take time.
She did say, “if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you” and so if you’re trying to break out of the burnout cycle, you have to do what might feel counterintuitive at the time.
When you’re in burnout “you’re in the washing machine and on the fastest spin” – you have to stop everything. Helen said something that is very effective with her clients is deep abdominal breathing techniques, as it requires you to stop everything and pause.
Helen also spoke about mindfulness – “being present without judgement.” Recognising what you’re feeling and practising non-judgement to what you’re going through. For me, this is so powerful and a place we often forget to start – just being kind and compassionate with ourselves.
Burnout, what I know now.
Coming out of the other side of burnout I recognise more than ever the importance of boundaries.
Yet, to build meaningful boundaries you have to know what’s important to you – you have to acquaint yourself with your personal values and then have the courage to live them.
Finally, make joy a priority! This gets harder as you get older, have children, take care of your family – but you cannot pour from an empty cup. Joy is something you have to cultivate, it doesn’t just happen – I started a monthly joy club with my closest friends. We take turns to pick something we love to do; a hike, yoga, pizza, wine, meditation – whatever we want, so long as it brings us joy and we get off the hamster wheel!
- Burnout is classed as ‘unmanaged workplace stress’ but personally I think it can expand to anything that overwhelms you and you have no respite from
- Winona State University classified five stages of burnout which if not managed properly can lead to serious chronic illness
- After speaking with other people, including professionals, burnout can be tied back to a misalignment in lived values. You have to know what’s important to you and put practices in place to live them
- Boundaries can be built around your values once you understand what’s important to you. Boundaries are key to protecting your energy
- Cultivate joy! It’s important that you make time to break free from ‘the hamster wheel’ – whatever brings you joy, make space in your life for it
Thank you to:
Laura at The Vibrancy Hub for supporting me through burnout and being the ultimate expander.
Helen Carouzos for the time taken to speak with me and the detail covered.
Sam for being vulnerable.