Job Burnout: What’s Next… Is Closure Possible?

It has been quite a journey. Some of my closer friends would have known about me taking a career break in Feb 2017. Prior to that, life seems to be doing well with an upcoming marriage preparation, a good job and all. Except that, reality does not always appear to be what it seems on the surface.

I was trying to cope with a marriage preparation process that consists of many small minute details in event planning, life transitions, moving house, managing work issues and eventually… had to deal with the loss of my immediate family member who passed away. All of these happened within the span of a few months. While coping with these stressors, my health suffered. I fell sick often, experienced insomnia and an extreme stressful state that almost went out of control. Everything started falling apart. Perhaps some of my concerned colleagues already saw the signs and symptoms of it, but, couldn’t do much to help, until the eventual burnout occurred. Pity my poor husband who has to endure the bits and pieces of my broken self.

To share about my experience, burnout doesn’t just happen in one day. It’s not like “burnout” decided to announce its arrival by pressing the doorbell at your house. Most of the time, it’s an unwelcomed visit. Because, “Burnout” is not “God of Prosperity”, nobody likes it and nobody wants it in their home.

Even to acknowledge and admit it, is not easy. I often wonder, how many people have I seen, who are burnout, and yet continue to struggle in their journey because they have reached their dead-end with no solution. In fact, it took me months. Starting from the time that I left my job in Feb, it has been 6 months now, as of August 2017 that I am writing this article. During this time, there has been different responses by people. Ranging from the kaypoh ones, the judgemental ones, caring ones, nonchalant ones etc. Common [unhelpful] comments include:

Then what are you going to do next?

Why you quit so suddenly?

Your boss no good, is it?

Your husband must be quite rich, he’s able to support you financially, right?

You’ve chose to quit at a bad time, the job market is quite bad now.

I think, people sometimes just do not know how to practise empathy and do not know how to handle such tricky situations. I have experienced numerous annoying comments, to that extent that I’ve learnt to either rebut them with frustration or just avoid talking to them. If there was one message I could share with people: if you know someone who is on a career break, give them space. They will start talking when they are ready to share.

Even when I was on an overseas trip, the brain had been so caught up in the previous stress mode that it took a while to adjust. The brain was stressed, health wise, I still fell sick after the resignation. Then, I had to make lifestyle changes to change my eating diet. I tried to learn healthy cooking from a very nurturing chef, make deliberate attempts to include more healthy foods in my diet, even having to educate people that “takeaway food is not healthy”.

Oh… And I forgot to mention that I was working as a Case Manager in the Healthcare sector. It is often such an irony that, me, working in the helping profession was unable to cope with my personal struggles in life, when my work specializes in helping clients to improve their emotional wellbeing. Yes, it might be an irony, but… as soon as I learnt to accept this, honestly, with self-acceptance, I gradually learnt to let go of the judgemental thoughts. During the initial phase, I was very angsty when meeting people, because I didn’t like people who were always probing for juicy gossip, but yet, did not offer to provide any help or encouragement. Then I started to adopt a defensive stance giving off the message that: If you can’t help me, then don’t ask, stay within your own boundaries. Today, I have moved beyond that.

I would always describe that, last year was a bad year for me. I had to endure lots of difficult circumstances. I would even remember my birthday last year in 2016, when I had actually fell sick due to mental stress (from work, life, family), so I ended up being on sick leave and was crying alone in some corner. What an awesome way to celebrate one’s birthday.

The journey towards recovery from burnout is not easy. In some sense, Kubler Ross’s Cycle of Grief did apply to my context. The most prominent stage for me was Grief. Grieving over the loss/failure/burnout of my career. I had felt so disappointed with myself for having been burnout by the work and environmental factors. I have always perceived myself as a very motivated and career-minded person. However, this experience has humbled me a lot. To admit that I have “failed” in my job, on hindsight, maybe because I had measured my own value based on my job performance. Even though I tried… tried very hard to seek help for external support from people around me, problems still persist as they were. Do not get me wrong. I am not blaming my organization for their faults, in fact, I am very grateful for the support from my clinical supervisor and some supportive colleagues. Looking at the broader perspective, it could be the system. Like, how this whole macro system supports or doesn’t support burnout staff. For example, you’ll have to be at least a long term staff who have served a minimum of x number of years of service in that organization before you would qualify for a sabbatical leave. Then, where does this leave us? Does it mean that we have to work until we die, or that we are less valued in the healthcare sector? If that’s the case, maybe I am better off leaving this industry, in disappointment.

Nowadays, I am quite interested in doing research work about burnout and empowerment. If I could make a wish to make things better, I would probably want to advocate for better welfare for the fieldwork staff. It is actually an uphill task, considering the amount of barriers and limited resources. However, this is definitely an area that agencies need to look at. Otherwise, it is really pointless to recruit batches and batches of trained graduates into the sector and have them exit the sector few years later after fulfilling their bond. I even ponder, how many ex-colleagues’ stories that I have heard about this.

If you are unaware of your friend’s or co-worker’s situation, I think my advice is that, burnout can easily occur to anyone. Sometimes we may get so busy with our own lives that we forget about other people who may be struggling and just need your additional support. If only, we could learn to be more observant and help look out for others, I think it would be very beneficial for the whole workforce in general.

At this moment, I would not say that I have fully recovered. I have merely reached the state whereby I am ready to share, within safe limits, not with the busybody people. I have come to realise of the factors that helped me to heal:

· Supportive people who are willing to lend a listening ear — you know who you are

· Companionship — having the chance to catch up with old friends from donkey years ago, casual social gatherings so that you do not get socially isolated

· Seek people who are not stingy with care — those who provided encouragement and acceptance

· Kind gestures — I have a friend who cooked nutritious food for me & offered food cooked with love to heal my burnout self

· Supportive mentors who were there to provide career advice and instrumental support — I am grateful for my mentors who have helped me to link up with the necessary people, offered interim temporary jobs, provided advice and tips on navigating through a career change.

· Self-reflection — to reflect back about the past and see what needs to be modified, cry it out if you need — good to stock up on boxes of tissue at home

· Positive Psychology — seeing your own resilience amongst the hardship

· Courage to take the rest that you need

· Nourish yourself with healthy meals

· Doing things that you’ve always wanted to do — I’m glad that I have done this and gained rich experience that includes… going for a 10 days meditation retreat, solo travel to Taiwan (again), learnt Traditional Thai Massage in Thailand, built new friendships with international friends (made friends with Korean oppa), finally joined a self-defense class, etc

· Taking small steps one day at a time

· Staying away from energy-draining and kaypoh people

· Time

During my free time, I also took time to attend some career seminars about making career change and burnout. Then, I realized that burnout is a very REAL problem that is actually very common in the sector. The thing is, people don’t usually talk about it openly, nor is there an avenue for people to reach out for more social support. I’ve often wished for more of such. In my experiences, everyone seems to be too busy to care. Either they are too caught up in their own work or that they simply don’t know how to help. However, when I look at these people now, their experiences seem so similar to mine. The stages that they go through seem to be the same as mine as well…

Interestingly, I like this quote said by someone. Whenever you are going through transitional change (regardless of burnout or career change), it involves grief. Grieving about the past dream that you had once worked so hard for. You are letting go of your old self, so that you have embrace your new self, evolving into something new, going into the unknown. Well said indeed.

If I can joke about my experience, I would say that I have EVOLVED. Previously, I was in the “suffering” phase, but now, I have evolved into a phoenix, out from the ashes. To me, “suffering” has passed, but rather, it’s in my past that I have “suffered”. Keyword — past tense.

Looking back to the time when I was burnout, I can only recall that life seems so sad and gloomy. Waking up every day, I struggled to pull myself to go to work. From the one who used to be motivated and energetic, I became the one who was sad, tired and lifeless. When I was sad, I probably didn’t know if recovery could ever happen nor do I know what was the next step to take. It’s merely living in uncertainty, not having any plan nor solution for the next step to take. So, I hope that my article could offer some encouragement and inspiration for people experiencing burnout that, recovery CAN happen! It just requires time and some honest reflection for it to occur. As for closure, it helps that I have taken time to mourn about the disappointments in my career, done my reflections and gradually sharing with close friends about my experiences and learnings within my own comfortable zone. That is how I am gradually working towards my own closure and resolving bitter feelings.

Looking ahead, I am still not very sure what is to occur next, but at least, I am glad that I have gone through the emotional state of mourning (to acknowledge that burnout has occurred; I am an imperfect being). I have also started to go for some job interviews, made some tweaks in my career path and have had the courage to share my story here. So, here’s hoping that my writings will be able to offer some strength and encouragement for the possible burnout beings out there. If I may share a quote from Hemingway, “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places”.