3 Things I Learnt From My Burnout.
I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t breathe and the only thing that mattered to me at that very moment was to make sure nobody noticed.
It happened in Algiers on the 10th November 2015. I was there to facilitate a two-day workshop for a large group of our local managers. The topic of the seminar was Supporting Employee Engagement or, SEE as we used to call it.
Such incredible irony!
I had already conducted the same workshop in France, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. After this brief stop in Algeria, I was meant to deliver it one last time in Angola before taking a break.
I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
I was exhausted, disillusioned and, let’s face it…depressed. At that moment, I felt my work was totally pointless and it didn’t bring any value to the company. [more on that further down this post]
Looking back, my state of mind could have given me some sort of a hint on what I was going through and, what was coming. Perhaps if I had paid attention to these signs I could have taken better decisions then and, potentially, avoid enduring one of the worst episodes of my life.
But I was too ridiculously stubborn, oblivious and arrogant for that.
The reality, I was burned out, and I couldn’t even acknowledge it.
“A burnout? No, not me!”.
How wrong I was!
It all started well in Algiers. We were using a venue in a hotel near the coast and we could all enjoy a superb view of Mediterranean sea. Some ideal conditions indeed.
After wrapping up the morning session, I sent the delegates for lunch. Before following them, I quickly had a look at my emails to check if I had anything pressing, and there was indeed something. A small “annoyance” that would be eventually resolved with a nicely crafted email full of the usual business keywords such as “alignment”, “roadmap”, “low-hanging fruits”, “synergy”. But somehow this small problem really annoyed me, and I took it with me to the salad bar.
I was still thinking about my super nicely crafted email supposed to soon restore harmony whilst eating lunch until I realized something was seriously wrong.
I couldn’t breathe.
I had to consciously make an effort to take air in and out. I had to focus on my inhales & my exhales, otherwise, my body wouldn’t do it for me.
In that moment, my priority was all about saving face.
I didn’t say anything to my colleagues. I stood up, forcing myself to smile and vaguely indicated with my hand that I had to step out. Still concentrating on my breathing and hoping they didn’t notice my troubles. I was expecting it would pass quickly enough so that I could come back like nothing happened, eat my chlada felfel and then resume the workshop with grace.
Tadam! Me again! I was delusional.
I sat down on one of the sofas in the hotel’s lobby, closed my eyes, practicing my mantra: “breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out”…and…nothing changed!
My situation was getting worse. I was suffocating. I had strange sensations everywhere. It seemed like I was seeing things from very far away. Things were spinning with weird feelings in the chest and in the arms. And worst of all, it felt like…like I was dying.
“Holy S**t, I am having a heart attack!” I thought.
Somehow, it made sense to me. It was the only logical explanation I could think of. I was losing it, “It is really happening, I will die now!” The fear was immense. I was terrified.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a heart issue, but a severe panic attack (as the doctor concluded later on, after examining me). A panic attack, one of the possible outcome you can experience if you were subject to a burnout.
I won’t go through the entire story, but luckily for me, it ends well. I did eventually manage to ask for help and, hours later, I was lying on a hospital bed with an IV in my arm, shaken but doing mostly ok.
To this day, it is one of the most difficult experience I had to go through.
Actually, the most difficult part was when I called my wife on my way to the hospital, still in the panic attack (and still thinking I wouldn’t make it). Talking with her, I realized then how much my priorities were totally out of place, with so many regrets.
My burnout has been a real wake up call and it influenced some radical life decisions later on.
Now, before I continue, I have to say that, I haven’t found Zen enlightenment yet (if ever), and that I am still struggling with stress. So this post is not about me telling you how you should meditate every morning, become vegan and spend time in nature watching the birds singing peacefully around you…that will be very inappropriate coming from me.
No, what my burnout revealed are simple but powerful ideas that can be very helpful to avoid this painful experience.
- We Have & Are Our Body.
We have the tendency to neglect our body (and our biology altogether) at work. We don’t really pay attention to it. We see ourselves as a sort of a vague brain, a “pac-man” or a consciousness on its own having to accomplish tasks and solve problems.
I know I have.
And how can it be different? Most of us are paid for our knowledge, creativity, neurons’ power and intellectual abilities. The body is just a vehicle that needs to follow and to adapt to the requirements of the business.
We skip lunches to attend meetings, we stay way too late to finish reports, we wake up extremely early to catch up planes, we exhaust ourselves with back to back meetings, we ingest whatever and too much at dinners with our friendly customers, we run to the toilets still following the conference call on our mobile(?!), we sit still all day long in front of a screen (most likely two) clicking our way through…Quite frankly, we treat our body like a disposable commodity that is entirely separate from us.
But we are this body! We really are. And by following this regime, we are directly punishing ourselves.
We are not a pac-man/woman. No, we are more like Mr/Mrs Potato actually, an integrated system. We are a complex system where everything is interlinked and connected. Our anatomy, our organs, and our internal chemistry (including the bacterias in our guts) influence so much our decisions, our energy, mood, and abilities to think, behave and perform. And, in return how much our mind can affect our health and shape.
Not paying attention to signals such as fatigue, pain, feelings and believing we can simply push through is a risky behavior. Sooner or later, all these small traumas we have accumulated will come back to haunt us, and potentially with a big bang (just like a pressure cooker we have left on the fire too long).
And deep down, we all know it. We often say:”I should exercise/eat better/rest/not work during weekends/learn to say no/etc…”. And still, we don’t.
So what will it take then?
Let me ask you this: when is the last time you were aware of your body while at work?
When is the last time you were truly present and conscious of what was going on in you? The feelings, sensations, and emotions running in you? When is the last time you stopped and noticed your arms, your fingers, felt your bones, your breathing while at the office?
What if you pay attention to them right now? What all these sensations, emotions and feelings tell you about “YOU”?
Believe me, this self-awareness can make all the difference. It can prevent us to end up in a very uncomfortable position.
- Being Vulnerable Is A Strength.
There’s one thing we are all really afraid of: failing or being seen as a failure. It is to be seen as not good enough and been rejected by others. It is to disappoint our family, our colleagues or our management, and not being appreciated/loved.
We work hard and we push ourselves continuously so that we can please our environment and deliver according to expectations (or beyond). And when we receive this recognition or acknowledgment, this “thank you” or this “great work”, it can be the best feeling in the world!
But soon enough, we are back in the game craving for more.
We are driven by this constant first for external validation, be it from our manager, our team, our peers or our parents. We want to be seen as someone strong, positive and successful. A real hero, without a cape but with a big smile, navigating through adversity like if it was a walk in the park.
When we face a difficult situation and someone offers to help, we are quick to reply: ”No, thank you, I got this!”
Because who doesn’t love a hero who got this?
Therefore, we act like a solo superhero most of the time: determined, performing and in control.
Although, we all know the truth behind our shiny resume, don’t we? In fact, if we scratch the golden paint of our Linkedin profile, is it all that bright? We all know that things are way more complicated, with our moments of doubts, fear, and screw-ups, that we are so prompt to hide.
But we don’t want to appear imperfect or weak. And revealing the truth seems totally unimaginable. Who will praise us, who will acknowledge us, who will validate us if we reveal our not so great moments and failures? If we show that we don’t really “got this” and we are not the hero we pretend to be?
Let me share something of my own story. When I ended up on this hospital bed in Algeria, some of my colleagues were in the same room with me. I remember crying, holding the hand of the local HR Manager. Oh, how embarrassing, right? Imagine that: not being in control and crying. And me who wanted to save face? What a total failure!
Of course, I tried to hold back my tears, but it was totally pointless as my body had another agenda. “I” had another agenda. I gave up the resisting, fighting and controlling part for once and I simply cried. I let go of my ego and it felt good! I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I was just myself.
When I looked up, at the faces in front of me, there was no judgment, embarrassment or rejection. No, I could see only acceptance, support, and warmth. By revealing my humanity and being vulnerable, something shifted and opened up for all of us present in the room. We felt connected. I was acknowledged for who I was, not whom I was pretending to be and, it made all the difference.
There’s actually someone who is appreciated way more than a hero, a genuine human being! Someone who is ready to share their fallibility and show that they don’t have their s**t together. It’s the reason why we are so moved when people open up and reveal their struggles. That’s why we connect deeply with them. That’s why we always prefer the underdogs to the hero.
There are tremendous gifts in being vulnerable, including for senior leaders who believe they need to remain constantly strong and to know all the answers. The gift of connection. The gift of support. The gift of authenticity. The gift of trust…
We all know that each one of us has failed, is failing or will fail. Everybody struggle, get emotional and make mistakes. These are the common treats for being a human being…but somehow we fight against them being brainwashed by virtual images and ideas of perfection.
The truth, everyone will appreciate us more if we remove our masks, and if we ask for help and show our vulnerability. If we are simply ourselves.
So what will it take?
- Stepping On Our Values Has Serious Consequences
I loved my company so much. Seriously, I really did.
I loved everything about it : the culture, the leadership style, the diversity (so many nationalities), the fact we were traveling constantly and we could work internationally, that we could contact and talk openly to senior leaders, that we could call somebody on the other side of the world and get help immediately, that we were empowered, that we had total freedom to deliver the projects the way we wanted, that we had amazing job opportunities…yes, I was in love and I wasn’t the only one.
Sure, it wasn’t perfect (you had your level of politics like everywhere else) but it was really, really close.
Things changed radically though with a new leadership team and its new vision. All of a sudden, there were more processes, less autonomy, more politics, a hard & solo focus on the revenue, more automation and systems were introduced. We experienced what we call nowadays a “Transformation Initiative” and it was brutal.
In a few years, the organisation we loved became a machine. It seemed that the heart of the company was gone. Everything was now centralized, formalized and standardized. Every decision was cascaded top down with a very directive style (and we couldn’t challenge anything as we used to). Our freedom and power of decision were dramatically reduced.
On top of that, we faced one of the most difficult business periods of our history, which triggered a massive wave of lays off (and “massive” is an understatement)
What was happening? Where was the company we all adore?
Most of us were lost, scared and demotivated, but we didn’t say anything. We continued to pretend everything was fine, but nobody was fooled (as you could hear the whispers in the corridors). The reality, we were all grieving the company we once knew.
I wasn’t inspired in this type of environment. It seemed I was in conflict with the corporate strategy and direction. All I wanted is to organize creative workshops where everyone could really express their feelings and build their emotional intelligence. I wanted to use a system coaching approach, reveal the inner dynamic of the organization and find new effective solutions. I aspired to implement innovative leadership programs. I was championing for the “soft stuff” and putting back “people” at the center, convinced it was the way to go but, unfortunately, very few believed in it. I was told very quickly that it wasn’t the focus of the company.
And that led to my burnout.
It was the result of doing things that I disagreed with and felt inappropriate. Of course, I am not saying I was right and knew better. I simply wasn’t sharing the same vision and values with my company anymore.
Despite knowing what I stood for, I was too afraid to leave. I was well paid, I had seniority and a corner office so I shut up and tried to get along. The personal consequences were painful for me as I hit burnout.
And how many of us do that? We prefer to stay and suffer rather than leaping into the unknown because at least, the suffering is familiar. The unknown is just so…unknown! So we try to suppress our inner voice. We ignore the signals of our body. We try to rationalize all what’s happening. We try to convince ourselves that it will get better soon. We chose our comfort rather than our values. And then, we see our passion and engagement slowly fading away.
And the worst part, we lie to ourselves! We say:”Let’s do another year, or may two, or maybe five…but after that, for sure, I’ll leave, I’ll do what I really want to”. We try to find some strategies to bare with this sense of emptiness and dread we feel.
Until we can’t anymore.
The truth is there’s no way out of it: been misaligned with our personal values has dire consequences. Trust me on this one. We cannot simply turn our heads and pretend it is/will be all fine.
So what will it take?