Eyeing the Tiger: How Burnout Sneaks up on You
Burnouts are complex, hard to define and highly personal. Covering the topic in a blogpost feels therefore quite scary. Still, I think it’s necessary to give it a try. Because, even though I’ve known people who suffered from a burnout over the years, it wasn’t until my best friend collapsed that I found out I didn’t really know what it was. So that’s why I would like to share my thoughts to help raise awareness of the factors that could potentially lead to a burnout. With more openness around the subject, I hope we can start to understand and help ourselves — and the people around us — a bit better.
Shortness of breath 🏭 🤯
First of all, what is a burnout? It’s generally known that stress is the main cause of a burnout, but stress in itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually a very useful reaction that makes you run when you’re face to face with a tiger. After taking that sprint, however, you’ll need some time to catch your breath. Stress is a mechanism that makes you perform under high pressure but if this pressure isn’t released, things can turn ugly real fast.
Imagine being in a room with a tiger for years; you’ll have to keep an eye on it all of the time. Since there’s no time to relax in this constant state of alertness, it won’t be long before you’ll get exhausted. To compensate for this exhaustion, your stress system will work even harder to supply the needed energy. As your body gets adjusted to continuous action, you’ll end up in a chronic stress condition. The consequences of this constant supply of energy can eventually give rise to a burnout.
My friend felt very energetic the last months before she collapsed. The extra wave of energy makes it really hard to see a burnout coming, especially when it’s right in front of you. The body, however, does send out many warning signs. There are over fifty physical and mental conditions — ranging from sleep disturbance to a numb feeling in hands and feet — that could be related to stress. There are even records of people that went temporarily blind, which proves how powerful this mechanism can be.
Too much stress = less stretch 🧠 🗯
Since it takes a lot of energy to keep a person performing non-stop, stress can eventually wear down the entire body. Think of this process as a machine malfunctioning; random parts will stop working. At some point, the stress system itself will break down. The veil of stress hormones will be lifted, leaving a worn-down body and brain behind. This moment is often experienced as a crash, as if the whole body decides to go on a strike. When the brain bathes in stress hormones for a long time, it will shorten the nerve endings. My friend uses the metaphor of a rubber band to explain this physical response. To her it feels as if the elasticity in her brain is lost. When she has to decide on what to eat — an issue that normally takes minimal effort to figure out — her brain can suddenly stop cooperating. There’s no stretch in her brain anymore, it’s either on or off.
She also experiences a kind of tiredness that is hard to explain, a state she never experienced before. It’s not the kind you feel after coming home from a festival, which a good night of sleep will cure. When she visits me by train, for instance, she has to lie down for an hour before we can even start having a conversation. Burnout is a really tricky disorder, as it affects all aspects of everyday life for several months — or even years — in a row. From the outside, however, everything looks exactly the same as before. In that sense it’s better to break a leg. Then people will understand why you can’t walk and prevent you from falling.
In sickness and in health 👰 🤵
Suffering from a burnout brings about a lot of stress in itself. All of a sudden, you might not be able to do the things that keep your life running. In order to recover, you need to get rid of all the stressors that took over your body. The best place to start is usually the workplace. Here, employers should respond like good spouses by showing that they are dedicated to you in sickness and in health. This dedication goes further than just providing you with enough time to recover. When you’re diagnosed sick, you still have to attend regular check-ups or write a reintegration plan. These tasks can be especially draining for someone who’s suffering from a burnout, which is not always easy to understand.
My friend’s employer, for example, kept insisting on having the monthly meet-ups at the office, as is the standard for sick employees. But for my friend, taking the train to the office was already more than she could do in one day, let alone the one hour meeting and the forty-minutes travel back. It can be a challenge for employers to keep in mind that they’re dealing with someone who is in a completely different state of mind. Dealing with an employee who has a broken leg is easier, as it’s quite clear what someone is able to handle. Someone with a broken brain is much harder to read.
Balance is key ⚖️ ✨
Like other medical illnesses: prevention is better than cure. Avoiding a future burnout, however, is not an easy task. It all starts by acknowledging what your boundaries are and how to prevent yourself from crossing them. As mentioned before, stress can be good as long as you catch a breath afterwards. In order to do so, you have to know what’s draining you and what’s recharging you and how to balance the two. That is much easier said than done. Even if you know you’re pushing your own limits, it can be difficult to recognise this as a problem. And even if you do, other people might not consider it to be problematic. It’s important to remember that feeling drained while others seem to be fine, is not a matter of ‘not being capable of something’ but of everyone being different.
When working on something you love, it can be especially challenging to admit to yourself when you’re not feeling well. It’s hard to take a step back when you feel you need to, since you don’t want to miss out on all the cool projects that are coming up. I think it’s important to compliment your colleagues, not only if they deliver hard and good work, but also if they’re trying to get to know their own boundaries or making those boundaries clear to others. Good work is great on the short term but if this comes at the expense of your health, you’re not creating a sustainable working situation.
Luckily, I work at a company where I get a lot of freedom to take care of myself, but I still think that being a sustainable person isn’t as trendy as it should be. It’s still way cooler to be available all the time and meet the crazy deadline for that important client, than to say: “no I can’t, it’s too much for me”. Let’s change this trend and be a new generation of sustainable-employees, who deliver great work but also keep our own needs in mind. This way, we will be able to do what we love in such a way that we can hopefully do it for the rest of our lives (or at least until we take out our pensions).
Author’s note: The article is based on my personal experience, and isn’t medical advice. My goal is to help raise general awareness on the issue of burnouts. Please always seek advice from health professionals with questions you may have regarding a medical condition.