You have to stop.

Burn out is a hard ass teacher

I sat on a beautiful white leather chair across from a concerned looking medical professional. A silver air diffuser puffed small bits of lavender-scented smoke, and I stared at it, unblinking, in the tense silence. The doctor knitted her brow and looked down at my test results.

“You have to stop.”

I winced. Stop has never been in my vocabulary.

Just a few weeks before this conversation, I had completed my first TEDx talk, a milestone I had put on vision boards for years. I should have been on a high — but something wasn’t quite right. I could feel my edge dulling. I had always tackled anxiety with action, but my natural energy wasn’t kicking in. I felt like I was shaking a broken remote control. I went quiet in meetings, had blunted reactions to news, had trouble getting up in the morning. I had lost my type A-ness overnight. I should have been panicked, but I just… wasn’t.

My friend Kent’s voice shook me out of my meeting daze “Sarah, what do you think?” I hadn’t been listening.

I’ve been working at early-stage startups my entire career. When I say working, I mean werking, in the ‘you have the same number of hours in the day as Beyonce’ sense. I check analytics dashboards as part of my getting up ritual every day. I’m in the office before 8am. I sweat the numbers by the hour. I mentored, spoke, and sat on panels in my spare time. Companies that hired me got my hustle, energy, passion, emotion, and Saturdays. I’d do what I do best, grow whatever needed to grow — signups, users, revenue — and coach my teams to do the same.

My friend Andrew calls me an “all-in” person (with a wry, knowing smile).

Uh huh.

The crash

“Are you a flight risk?”

My 8am call with the Head of International just got real.

“Yes” I replied weakly, looking my mentor and favourite leader in the eye.


What is burnout, really?

I thought I’d been burnt out many times — but I was wrong. Burnout isn’t exhaustion, and it isn’t stress.

Burnout is occupational depression.

You know you should care, but you can’t. You’re not the least bit anxious, even when you should be stressed. You sleep a lot more than usual. You don’t get worked up when you should. Your immune system is shot, so you’re at risk of illness. Your fight or flight instincts have been used up, and you have nothing left.

It’s becoming more common

Women in their late 20s and early 30s are experiencing increasingly higher rates of burnout — and when I read the research, it made sense.

There are three phases to burnout:

  1. Exhaustion
  2. Cynicism
  3. Inefficacy

A study by BMC Public Health found that women tend to experience the symptoms in this order, while men often may not experience the third symptom at all.

While women are the primary risk-group for burn out, men are experiencing it too — , just differently.

By contrast, men tend to experience cynicism first, then exhaustion. Interestingly, many of the men in the study kept working because they didn’t feel as though the symptoms from the first two stages impacted their quality of work. They didn’t reach the inefficacy stage because they thought they were still being effective.
Why More Women Are Burning Out in Their 20s and 30s, Huffington Post

Getting better

Most of us are stumbling through the healing process from burnout. I was given great advice, and have been on the mend for quite some time. Here’s what I learned from the experience:

1. All in isn’t all good

Before I burnt out, my fiancé was doing all of the dog walking, and I had been on day 13 of my ‘Headspace journey’ for 36 days. Despite not having time for my own life essentials, I was still saying yes to weekend speaking engagements, and evening events.

A wise friend told me “take 5% of your passion and energy back, and if that feels good, try 10%”. Startup life demands commitment — but your own life also requires your attention and commitment. Good employees and managers are committed to their jobs, but their commitment to themselves comes first.

2. Take care of yourself, the right way

When I told my naturopath I was doing Krav Maga for exercise, she raised an eyebrow — “So you’re worried about stress at work, your cortisol levels are off the charts, and you’ve chosen fighting another person to de-stress?” Uh, hadn’t thought of it that way…

What’s helped me the most is consistency in self-care, with a focus on restorative healing. This includes:

  • Headspace 1/day — this is not just a shameless plug, I have found daily meditation gives me the space and clarity I need to show up as the best version of myself.
  • Weights and yoga — I’ve taken a break from high intensity bootcamp / fighting workouts to keep my stress hormones in check.
  • Limited caffeine — to my Type A achiever friends out there, coffee in small doses is your best friend…but a ton of it will amplify your anxiety 100x.

3. Say it out loud

Vulnerability was the hardest part for me. I prided myself on always having my shit together, so asking for help sucked. A weird thing happened when I did though. Folks I admire and respect started telling me their burn out stories — and it became a secret, supportive tribe of reformed overachievers. Connection accelerates healing. When you’ve identified you’re burning out, name it, and ask for some help.

If you haven’t experienced burnout, I really can’t recommend it at all — so please use this as a cautionary tale. Watch for the warning signs, practice self-care, and remember, happiness doesn’t always come from more. Sometimes, less is just what the doctor (in my case, the literal doctor) ordered.

Remember what my girl Brené Brown says (can I call you my girl, B?):

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
Brené Brown

If you have experienced burnout, I’d love to connect and hear your story in the comments on this post.

If you liked this post, I’d be so grateful if you took a moment to click the little ❤.