The world doesn’t have the same back-to-school-September energy this year.
It’s hardly surprising given that we are only just starting to emerge from the pandemic. Just months into COVID psychologists and health experts predicted that the negative impacts on mental health would develop and linger long after the worst of the lockdowns were over.
And it feels like we are now starting to see these predictions become a reality. People are feeling depleted. Feeling flat. Uncertain.
And now the energy we used for baking banana-bread and crafting needs to fuel all the ‘catch ups’ with family and friends as we are thrust back into this latest ‘new normal’.
We are expected to carry on as we were pre-March2020…
And it’s exhausting. No surprise that many of us aren’t quite sure that we want to go back to that ‘old’ way of life.
The extended pause in our social life and the missing daily commute gave us time and space to think. It has allowed us to examine where we are at and whether the way we were living is the way that we want to continue now we’ve had a taste of an alternative.
It’s left some of us questioning where we want next, whether what we are doing feels right anymore and more than anything it’s left us feeling uncertain, unmotivated and flat.
We can finally go back to doing all things we missed so much, but do we want them anymore?
Do we want to get sucked back into that work-eat-sleep-repeat cycle of stress and burnout?
It’s easy for me to say a big fat “NO!” to this. It’s what I do all day every day with clients and a decision I took after I realised I had been stuck in my own burnout cycle for 15 years.
But I got to that “NO!” that hard way: 3.5 burnouts. The last left me too sick to work for almost a year and with crippling anxiety which morphed into depression.
I’ve never shared about the first 2.5 burnouts before because it was that final one that forced me to change my course. But I learned so much from them and I think/hope that by sharing more about my burnout cycle, it might help you decide whether jumping back into the ‘new normal’ as if nothing has changed is going to create or perpetuate yours….
The Burnout Cycle: where it started
My very first taste of it was when I was 25. I was working in the press office for a Minister and both he and my boss were pretty formidable. 9am Monday meetings, with a lot of raised voices, the occasional F.Bomb and way too much pressure on a fresh grad. I always felt like I was chasing my tail, got the Sunday dread and often had a racing heart in meetings.
I was extremely stressed but never felt defeated or cynical.
And that’s a really important distinction between stress and burnout. Under high stress, everything feels too much but you feel like you can still get through it. But with burnout, nothing feels enough and you feel pretty empty.
That’s why I refer to this as burnout 0.5. I was right on the cusp but jumped ship just in time. The next job was a dream but the high achiever in me wanted a new challenge (aka my own shiny office & more money!) within a couple of years…
Next stop was a big job in a fancy office in Spain. Great lifestyle but the team was chaotic, hierarchical and non-collaborative. 2 years in, once I’d delivered a big project, it was clear I wasn’t OK.
Burnout 1: perfectionism and non-existent boundaries will kick your a$$
Although I felt confident there – I sucked at setting boundaries. Between my people pleasing, perfectionism and the unhealthy environment I hit my first full-on burnout.
Terrible sleep, headaches, awful neck & back pain. Physical, mentally and emotionally I was drained. I felt like I didn’t know how to be effective anymore. I was distancing myself from work, from friends and felt pretty low most of the time.
So, obviously, I jumped into a new job. Oblivious to my own role in this burnout I figured 2 weeks off and a newer, more shiny office would do the trick.
Burnout 2: Time off or a new job will not cure burnout. #sorrynotsorry
I felt better for a while. But my relationship with work was jaded. I was getting it done but I often felt resentment towards the organisation, questioned their purpose and was doubtful of my own. On the outside, I looked fine, happy, in control. But on the inside, I was miserable. My inner critic was rarely quiet and it followed me around – inside and outside of work.
Another 2 years (can you spot my burnout cycle yet?) and I decided that the solution to feeling frazzled was another new job – but this time with a new city too.
Burnout 3: A lack of support will break you faster than high workloads
I was sure a younger, less suit-filled team was the key to happiness. So a tech start-up was the obvious choice! The job itself should have been a breeze compared to what I was used to. But the environment made it feel like it felt like running up a hill, in sand, into a brick wall…over and over.
Aside from dealing with being pretty much the only female at a table full of alpha males, being judged for my corporate background (no failed start-up to my name = not cool), and a job scope and ‘team’ that was in constant flux…
I then had a gigantic project dropped on me – last minute – with almost zero support.
That was the beginning of the end. Burnout 3.5….
The warning signs
I’ve touched on some above. The classic physical ones: bad, sleep, headaches, upset tummy. Feeling anxious and emotional. But there were less obvious ones: the twitch in my eye, numbness in my fingers and toes, hot flushes, swinging between over socialising to zero socialising, big changes in my appetite, teeth grinding…
My concentration was shot, I would forget why I walked into rooms, lose my train of thought and felt overwhelmed and underwhelmed all at once. Then there was the negative self-talk and the massive amount of frustration/impatience I felt with others and myself.
Despite all this, I still felt weirdly responsible for my work. Even though I had almost no connection/desire for it, I still couldn’t ignore it. And I think that’s where the real damage was done.
Burnout recovery is slow
I had let it get so bad that I needed a LOT of time off work. At first I was still focusing on fixing the physical stuff but they wouldn’t get better. It wasn’t until I unpicked exactly what had happened, why, and understood my own role in it that I started to get back in control and feel better.
Once this happened I worked on figuring out what I really wanted from work and what I needed to get it. I’d been aiming at something that I didn’t even want for the longest time and I had no idea. Hardly surprising that I felt flat and unmotivated with work.
What you can do to prevent it
If I could go back in time and change things, in all 3 instances I would have:
- set proper, healthy boundaries to take control of my time and energy.
- applied all my project management skills (especially saying “no, that’s out of scope”) to my own role.
- prioritised my health and wellbeing over work demands.
But most of all I would have gotten help sooner. And that’s what I absolutely implore you to do if any of this sounds even a little bit familiar.
When I say help I mean help in all its different formats.
I’d have spoken up to friends and colleagues about how I was really feeling. I’d have worked with a coach sooner – my manager was pretty absent and when I finally got a coach I stopped feeling so isolated and overwhelmed. I’d also have gotten more support at home – cleaners, grocery delivery, shared cooking with friends just to take that pressure off.
How to deal with stress.
You can’t eradicate stress. That’s not the goal. Some stress is actually very healthy for you. What you want to do is get better at spotting the signs, reducing the stressors and learning to complete your stress cycle regularly and fully.
Since burnout #3 I’ve done this partially through changing my mindset around the role work has in my life. I remind myself frequently and firmly that my value as a human is not defined by my productivity or job title.
By separating your identity from what you do to earn a living doesn’t and accepting that work is not the only way to feel happy and fulfilled you’ll take so much pressure off and daily stress will immediately feel, well, less stressful!
But mindset only gets you so far. So for myself and my clients, I encourage practical actions to keep things in check.
- Know your warning signs – keep an eye on physical or emotional changes and be extra vigilant when there is a lot going on.
- Go to the heart of where the stress is coming from. Sit down and analyse what exactly is causing it then reduce and remove as much as possible. Bonus point: make sure that your own behaviour isn’t making things worse.
- Have clear, achievable goals that are relevant to your needs and not just those of your boss/clients/loved ones
- Set clear boundaries around your time and energy, firm start and finish time, no out of hours working
- Learn to prioritise what actually needs to be done rather than what your brain/ego would like to prove it can do. Be wary of only doing shiny things!
- And finally figured out what really helps you destress rather than masking how you’re feeling. For me, that looked like fewer hardcore workouts and more coastal walks. Fewer big parties and more small dinners. Less tv and more drawing/cooking.
These are the exact steps I work through with them and I when I am feeling stressed (which So far, 3 years since burning out last (a PB!) and I’m fine – so it must be working!
And this is what my new course THE RESET is all about. It’s designed to help you break your burnout cycle and take back control. It will give you the foundations to feel calm, confident and in control of your time and energy so you can thrive inside and outside of work.
In a world where your personal and professional lives are so intertwined, imagining a new way of working can feel scary or maybe even impossible. But The Reset will help you navigate this new normal and find ways to make work, work for you. You can find an outline of the course via the button below. Spaces will be limited so sign up to the waitlist to claim your seat on the course.
Feel free to drop me an email if you have any questions