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What does burnout feel like? An interview

Friday, November 24 2023
Written By: Poppy Millett
  Occupational burnout is defined by The World Health Organisation (WHO) as: "A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to […]

 

Occupational burnout is defined by The World Health Organisation (WHO) as:

"A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.”

Though accurate, we understand that this description might feel a little… flat.

And so, when a friend of Luminate offered to share their own, relatively recent experience of burnout with us (and by extension, you), we were grateful for the opportunity to humanise, to add a little more substance and colour to, the classification of this workplace phenomenon.

We hope their story goes some way towards improving awareness of the signs and symptoms of burnout, towards increasing empathy for those who are/who have gone through it, and towards developing a more well-rounded understanding of how burnout, and recovery from burnout, can impact a life.

Please note that this interview may be difficult to read if you, or someone you care about, is currently experiencing, or recovering from, burnout. It is important to remind ourselves that everybody’s journey to burnout and back again, to wellness, looks different and is never without a few bumps in the road.

 

How did you become burnt out?

It’s a strange one as it seemed to happen in slow motion over the course of a few months. I knew I wasn’t particularly well as I was super stressed at work, not sleeping great, travelling a lot, etc. but had no idea what was to come.

After a few months of feeling like this, the pandemic hit and we suddenly had two little children at home. Both my husband and I had to continue to work as both our jobs actually ramped up.

We had also just accepted an offer on our house and therefore had the turmoil and uncertainty of a house move on top of the uncertainty of the pandemic hanging over our heads. It sent me into a spiral of anxiety which I was finding increasingly hard to manage.What does burnout feel like?

We managed to move after a few months, and it was a day or two after the move that I just couldn’t get out of bed. It was so odd. I just felt completely and utterly exhausted. I went into total panic mode that I would lose my job, etc. as there was no way I could go back to work like that. It was a very dark time for myself and my husband who felt helpless watching me suffer like that.

 

What does burnout feel like?

 It all started with me feeling more and more consistently stressed, bouts of brain fog, and trouble sleeping.

At night, I’d be dozing off and suddenly jolt awake from rushes of adrenaline. At the time, I didn’t understand these feelings as early symptoms of burnout but thought it was the result of my travelling for work and would soon pass.

Eventually (after a long time of stress and lack of sleep) this developed into intense feelings of anxiety and panic attacks - experienced as hot flushes, heart palpitations, nausea, and throwing up.

When burnout hit, I had absolutely no energy whatsoever. I was paralysed with exhaustion, couldn’t leave my bed, was extremely tearful and frightened by what was happening to me.

 

How did burnout affect your relationships?

Almost everyone in my inner circle was incredibly supportive and just very worried about me. It brought my partner and I even closer - they really had my back and were sympathetic to (never judgemental or critical of) my experience and how complicated it was.

There were a few people who didn’t react with much empathy or understanding which was very hard to accept.

They seemed not to understand why I was sick when the circumstances of my life were generally good, i.e. just moved into a new house, lovey children, lovely partner. Some individuals didn’t understand why I couldn’t just bounce back - as if I was choosing to feel this way rather than it being something happening to my body.

 

How did your workplace handle it?

My workplace responded well. They were supportive and discreet about my situation which I really appreciated at the time.

When a business leader heard about my burning out, they reached out to me personally to tell me how much they appreciated me and my work at the organisation and to reassure me that they were supportive of me taking whatever time I needed to feel better.

When I did eventually return to work, I was worried about stigma and felt that my burnout might have affected my credibility. This hasn’t been the case however, and I am now at the point where I speak openly about my experience at work, to raise awareness of and advocate for colleagues experiencing high stress.

 

How long does burnout last? (in your experience)

Months – a couple of years. It’s a case of one step forward and two steps back for a very long time. You have to get to know yourself on a completely new level to understand your boundaries, the way you manage your energy, reassess your lifestyle, etc.

 

What does recovery from burnout look like to you?

Balance. I am so strict about giving myself time to breathe. I am constantly setting and resetting boundaries to make sure I make myself a priority. I approach exercise, socialising, etc in a very different way from what I used to. I have also accepted my limitations.

 

burnout

Do you approach things (work, family, other responsibilities) differently post your experience of burnout?

Absolutely. I approach everything differently.

Whilst I wouldn’t wish it on anyone and am terrified of going back there, it really has prompted enormous personal growth. I am so much clearer on who I am, what my drivers are, and I try and stay in line with my values as much as possible.

I am also working on saying “no” when necessary.

 

Luminate offers plenty of resources around the topic of burnout: from our free toolkit on recovering from burnout, to our employee webinar on Understanding and Avoiding Burnout, and our managers' training that teaches team leaders how to spot the signs of burnout at work and then some.

If you are worried about yourself or someone you know, we encourage you/them to speak to a line manager and/or GP and consider taking some time off work on the grounds of stress.

Despite possible feelings of guilt or dread in stepping away from work for a while, acknowledging that you’re/they’re unwell and taking sick leave is the fastest road to recovery and, therefore, in the best long-term interests of everyone.

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