I was recently invited to participate in an online discussion focusing on burnout in the time of Covid-19. As a burnout survivor, I am very conscious of what’s going on in the world around us. Many are struggling with life, work and relationships due to Covid-19. Parts arts of our communities are particularly vulnerable to feeling over-loaded and overwhelm can quickly turn to burnout.
Whilst there’s a growing awareness of burnout as a condition, it remains ill-defined and as a result, there is not much reliable and credible advice available to sufferers. What advice is available, focuses largely on managing your resilience and having firm boundaries, and for those with more severe cases, potentially drug and or talking therapies.
My story of burnout is fairly classic. As a largely Type-A personality in a high pressured, demanding work environment coinciding with being a more mature parent of a young child and a husband setting up his own business. My burnout led me to an intense path of investigation including reading many books and articles, speaking to quite a few professionals (including doctors and therapists some pretty weird and wonderful) as well as burnout survivors and of course trying a whole range of different things to aid in my recovery (again, some it pretty funky).
Given my recent experience talking about burnout publicly and realising the impending potential magnitude of this issue, I thought it could be helpful to share a few insights based on the information I collated and my experience along my burnout journey.
1) Burnout is absolutely individual to each person. There are no one common set of symptoms and therefore no one course of action works for most sufferers. What was interesting in much of what I gleaned was how burnout survivors would often advocate for one particular solution (often the solution that worked for them). It requires diligent detective work by the sufferer to piece together a coherent set of symptoms which will then help build an approach to recovery. This is a real problem as time is the one thing sufferers lack. Even keeping a very simple diary and noting down in a few words on a daily basis can help build a picture which can help you.
2) Burnout is a catch-22. It is neither just a mental nor just a physical condition. However, most available support for burnout sufferers tends to focus on either the mental (the preference of the medical establishment in the UK) or the physical with little regard that whilst for some it will be one or the other, but that for most sufferers it is likely a blend of both the mental and the physical symptoms. Unknown to me at the time, I was going through a severe case of early onset perimenopause which meant my hormonal health was greatly contributing towards my symptoms of anxiety, insomnia married with bone deep weariness and brain fog that contributed but also confused my burnout diagnosis. Whereas before, I would have been able to handle the high levels of cortiso and adrenaline (due to stress)*, I literally found myself unable to cope on the adrenaline/cortisol roller coaster. When I mentioned this to my GP, she instantly dismissed it. It was only through painstaking detective work that I was able to better understand how the physical symptoms contributed to the mental symptoms and vice versa and what I could do from a root cause perspective to address these symptoms.
3) Burnout is an expensive business in so many ways not least of it financial. To access good support costs money. However, there are things sufferers can do that at least start to make a difference and come at a minimal cost. Pay attention to the basics — food, drink (especially alcohol and caffeine), prioritise sleep and routines above all else and get really good at saying no. By turning as many of your activities into routines, you’re reducing decisions to be taken and therefore stress from the equation. Finding rest in nature; walking, gardening or just sitting outside if that’s all you can manage, is critical. Too many of us live our lives inside stuck behind screens. Prioritise gentle exercise preferably in nature until you start feeling better — avoiding high impact indoor workouts (like gym visits) at all cost.
4) Surround yourself with supportive professionals to help you on your journey. Money may be tight so investigate if possible, with the support of your GP, what you can access for free or at a reduced cost. My GP was hopeless, and it was a hard lesson to learn. Fortunately, I was able to access some support through a friend for low cost mindfulness classes, and through some health insurance, a specific type of osteopathy as well as paying myself for various nutritional experts to help me with my recovery.
5) Burnout remains an “Achilles” heal for most sufferers. Particularly if you have had severe burnout. Most survivors I spoke to talked about needing to manage themselves and their sensitivity to burnout on an ongoing basis and I can identify with that. In my case, my burnout led me to totally re-evaluate my work and my approach to it. I’m now crafting a work and life with gives me much more purpose and joy. It still has its ups and downs and this year has definitely had many of those, but my bone aching exhaustion and extreme levels of anxiety are in the past. I remain vigilant.
In my Wise Sherpa coaching work, burnout is still to a great degree, a taboo subject. There is a tendency for sufferers to downplay symptoms as “feeling a bit tired” or “run down”. The stigma of burnout for many, particularly in the workplace married with the desire not to worry nearest and dearest, leads many sufferers to suffer in silence. My belief is, if we can talk about burnout not just as part of the mental health debate but also as a mental and physical condition, in as many spaces as possible, it will be easier for sufferers to ask for help. This effort will enable professionals to better understand the scale and the need for their quality support. My hope is that sharing my personal experiences through this post will help others open up a bit further the conversation and chip away at the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding burnout.
PS If you’re interested, I’m working on a longer blog/article on the A-Z of burnout — a practical guide. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on what we should include
- To learn more about stress, cortisol and adrenaline, check out this link https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
Rebecca Hill www.wisesherpa.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org