Every few years, Burnout rears its head in the news – (normally in January to be fair) and someone will write an article to highlight that it is a real thing. I’ve suffered from Burnout a couple of times, so I know it’s real and I know the signs.
A bit of a background….
Burnout is the “thing” you feel when you’re at breaking point, either through work, or just life getting too much for you. When the pressures of expectation, or the weight of workload simply get too much for your mind to comprehend. It’s at this stage when your body starts to show the true signs of Burnout. You may not know that you’re experiencing it – it can show itself as a range of physical conditions – fatigue, nausea, headaches, skin issues. For me, I suffer badly from joint inflammation when I’m stressed or worried, and this in turn upsets my eyes and back, resulting in a nasty dose of steroids being needed. It can be that feeling where you just don’t know what to do with yourself – or where you simply want to sit alone in a dark room and forget about everything. When you simply become out of character.
The thing with Burnout, as with a lot of “mental” (I use quotes, because I don’t believe that burnout is simply a mental condition, it’s triggered by so many different things, that the cause can’t be labelled so clearly), it’s so easily dismissed by professionals because of the other signs. The treatable signs. You treat the symptoms, without really understanding the cause.
Skin rash – Here’s some E45.
Headaches? Change the office lights, get new glasses.
Back Ache? Get a new chair.
You know what I’m saying?
I think the worst time I ever experienced Burnout was when I was leading a team in a startup. I’d helped the company go from turning around £200 a day to, when I left, averaging around £40,000 a day and still growing. Throughout this time, I was overseeing the creation of their online store, and running their internal IT Systems.
It was partly my fault (if there can be “fault” for these kinds of things) – At the start, I was enjoying things, I had free rein to do what I thought needed to be done to help growth. I had a pretty much unlimited budget because of our parent companies wealth. I built a team to work below me, and helped the company expand at a rate that none of us expected. Because I’d set everything up – I was expected to maintain and oversee it’s growth.
I was the main point of contact for everything – I built the internal ordering and fulfilment systems. I built the website. I designed the layout of the warehouse. I installed the servers, the CCTV, the desktop computers, the phone system, the printers. I organised the courier services. I setup the stock control systems.
Really, when I step back, I should have seen this coming.
I think the first warning signs for me started when we got really busy – I would pop to the toilet, and I’d hear people waiting outside. They weren’t waiting to use the toilet – they were waiting for me to come out so they could ask me for advice or help. I couldn’t have a lunch break, I couldn’t be off site. I had a company mobile phone, which meant people assumed I was on call (I wasn’t). Some mornings, if we’d been super busy, the printers would run out of printer and the spool queue would fill up. I’d written instructions for how to manage this (I mean, obviously, put more paper in), but no, people would either call me and complain that it was “broken”, or they’d simply do nothing and sit there waiting for me to arrive. Which of course, would mean orders were delayed, and the day would just be a mad rush to catch up.
As a side note here – it’s important to consider the type of work you do as a cause for Burnout. I’m a developer. Software development is one of the most intense lines of work for concentration. Yes, you see software agencies with pool tables and arcade machines – but there’s a very good reason for that. Development has been compared, mentally, to sitting 6 separate 1 hour exams, every day, for a week. It’s not as easy as people think it is.
I had my own office during the later stages of my time here – it was still in the main building, but it was upstairs, above the warehouse. I could close the door, and the understanding was that if the door was shut, I was busy. Of course, no one cared. People would come up, wait outside for as long as it took for me to get up and see what they were waiting for. People would phone my desk phone (which I’d ignore if I was busy, or take off the hook) – they’d then phone my mobile even though they knew I was upstairs.
I asked for time off – it had been an intense few months. My manager replied to my annual leave request
“Of course, you deserve a break – please make sure you’re contactable though in case we need you”.
They called daily. One day, I was about 100 miles away and a printer had stopped working. They had a backup – but my manager insisted I come in to fix it. I refused. I spent the next hour worrying, and the next 2 hours after that driving in to the office. There was a paper jam. A PAPER JAM.
I was entering Burnout stage.
Things started to change at work – I used to skip in to work at 8am, and leave at 6pm. I started arriving later. I started to cancel things at home, social life, family events – I was just tired, I couldn’t be bothered. My relationships were suffering – I was not happy. I didn’t see it at the time – but my life had been totally encapsulated by this startup. I was working at home, at night. Up until 3am trying to get things finished so I could work towards having a break.
One evening, I was so worried about my workload, I was sick. Just randomly, out of the blue. I went to work the next day and told my manager that I need to step back a little bit. Her reply;
“If you’re not up to the job, then I’ll get people in to do it instead”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She head hunted me to join this startup as we’d worked together previously – and it had dawned on me quite quickly that she was thriving off the back of the work I was doing. This became evident when I approached the company director to ask for his advice, and she blocked me at every level, and eventually tried her best to force me out of the company when she thought I was a threat to her.
Evidently, when I figured out what was going on – I quit. She tried to get me to stay, but I had to put my own wellbeing first. She lost her job shortly after I left – I guess when the workers leave, the people sponging off them get found out soon enough.
This is the same manager who would interview people, females, and then say “Well, I’m not employing her, she’ll be wanting a family soon and I can’t be coping with all that“. I was just shocked. She’d also be the first to pass the blame on to, well, anyone. Anyone who wasn’t in the room. And I soon found out, that I was often the point of blame for her mistakes. Thankfully, I guess, it soon became clear once I left.
I had the signs of Burnout. My body was trying it’s best to tell me. I’ve suffered from an eye issue for years, where I get inflammation behind my eye, and if it’s not treated urgently, could lead to blindness. I never associated it work, until one Doctor asked me if I was under and exceptional stress levels. I said no, but then I took a step back and looked at my life. It was all work, constantly. I had no support, I had no social life, I was in a bad relationship – it was just all getting too much for me.
I’d hit peak Burnout.
This wasn’t the first time – I’d gone through similar symptoms when I first started as a developer – the pressures of client deadlines and the expectation that you just knew what you were doing (see “Imposter syndrome“. I started to shy away from things, I’d stay indoors, I’d keep my headphones on all the time. I drank more than I should have, and I took out my frustrations on the people who were just trying to help (you can read about this here).
Now, I’m a bit wiser to Burnout. And I’m incredibly fortunate to be in a job with people who understand. We’re only human. I now know that I need to put myself first, and not be afraid to talk about any concerns I may have. I know the symptoms, I know when I get that niggle behind my eyes or in my back, then something is bothering me and I should deal with it. I know what makes me function, and what blocks me. I’ve recently joined the gym, which has helped my state of mind like I never imagined it could.
Everyone should take the time to look at their situation and simply ask themselves:
“Am I doing what’s right for me? What is my body telling me?”
Take the time to be yourself. Allow yourself to switch off, to do the things that you enjoy.
If your job doesn’t allow you to do this, then you’re on a slippery slope.
A couple of take aways….
- Take a step back from the daily routine – ask yourself if you’re doing enough for you, not everyone else
- Look for the warning signs. Constantly being run down, tired. Skin irritations, aches and pains…..Your body is telling you something is wrong – don’t assume it’s just “one of those things”
- Speak to other people, especially those in your industry. You won’t be the first to suffer from Burnout, sadly you won’t be the last, either
- Try and look for the positives – even after the most stressful of days, try and take something good away from it
- Allow yourself time to do what you enjoy. Nothing is more important than your own wellbeing.