Supporting people who are experiencing burnout is part of what I do for a living.
As an executive coach, I often work with driven, ambitious professionals in high-power jobs who work incredibly hard; burnout is a common topic.
And yet, it took me more than 2 years, culminating in a bout of stress-induced gastritis, to realize that I, myself, was burnt out.
How was I so blind to a reality hiding in plain sight?
Thankfully, how to recharge when you feel burnt out is not a taboo topic anymore. In fact, it was recently included in the World Health Organization’s classifications of diseases as an “occupational phenomenon” and defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
And here lies the problem.
I definitely did not see myself in this description of “chronically under stress” at work.
The executives, lawyers, and consultants who are my clients sometimes work insane hours and are responsible for budgets of millions of dollars and teams of hundreds of people.
By comparison, I did not see a reason for stress. I am proud of my ability to maintain a work/life balance. I have (enough) flexibility in choosing my work. And I love what I do! What a privilege.
And yet, something was off. I was having a full-on crisis.
The (hidden) symptoms
- I started to feel disinterested in my work. Bored. Demotivated. I was doing fine by external measures, but I was failing my own potential. I was not going the “extra mile” like I always had.
- I was not feeling excited about new responsibilities; in fact, I dreaded the thought of taking on new challenges.
- My personality slightly warped as well. Empathy and patience had always been among my defining traits; now I was abrupt and uncaring more often than I would have liked.
Don’t get me wrong, I was still a functional adult. I don’t think my colleagues could tell something was wrong. But it felt like my usual joy was gone. At 35, I felt like an old woman.
The signs were there, but I read them all wrong.
- My immediate reaction was to blame myself. In the story that I told myself, I had clearly lost my motivation. I resigned myself to the belief that I was no more the driven, high-achieving person I once was.
- And the ultimate sinking realization: I am not good enough at this (where this = my profession, motherhood, being a good friend). I was starting to lose faith in myself.
What burnout really is
The turning point was the discovery of a model of burnout by Marie Asberg, a professor and expert in burnout from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
Her definition goes: burnout is simply the balance between activities that nourish and replenish us, versus those who deplete and drain our energy. If that balance is in the red for too long, it has a cumulative effect which she calls “the exhaustion funnel:” fatigue and irritability are stop-overs on the way to joylessness and hopelessness.
The balance does not have to be a perfect 1-for-1 nourishing versus depleting activities; some activities add a lot to the “life energy” bank, and others subtract a lot. But just being mindful about this balance can be helpful in itself.
Re-analyzing my life through the eyes of this model brought about some interesting realizations.
How to recharge when you feel burnt out
Firstly, it gave me permission to examine my work without blaming myself.
- What were the activities in my work that were adding to the problem rather than replenishing my energy?
- Which parts were not exciting anymore?
I realized that I needed to push myself to take more risks. Risks are scary and destabilizing; but they also bring excitement and possibility.
- I made some significant changes as a result, restructuring my practice to take on different work and hiring my own coach. I also made a difficult decision to let go of chasing business goals that looked impressive but did not fulfill me.
- Secondly, using Asberg’s definition helped me define burnout not just in relation to work. I have two children, 6 and 3. They are the apple of my eye, the loves of my life. Seeing my toddler’s cheeky smile or my eldest’s unbridled imagination is wonderful and fulfilling in many ways. But children also come with the never-ending worry about their wellbeing; the mental load of endless school events and doctor appointments; the weight of keeping calm in the middle of a storm of toddler emotions.
It is hard for me to admit this out loud, as I am sure it would be for most parents who might feel the same. It does not mean we love our children less.
But, especially in our current society, the pressures put on parents to be calm, fun-loving, Instagram-perfect role-models come with a cost that we often internalize.
In fact, once I started sharing my story with parents, and especially with mothers — who still disproportionately bear the mental load of parenthood, often while also working — nobody was surprised by my definition of burnout. There were a lot of “Oh my God yes!”.
Our society is just now starting to talk about “parenting burnout.” The World Health Organization should take note.
- And thirdly, knowing the theory emboldened me to dive into nourishing activities without guilt. For me, these include spending weekends away only with my husband (pre-coronavirus!), taking time to exercise, practice mindfulness, and take long walks in nature (post-coronavirus!). I still feel a little guilty, to be honest, now and again. But I absolutely believe that focusing on myself makes me a better professional, parent, and human being.
How to recharge when you feel burnt out for me has been slow and keeping the depleting/replenishing balance “in the green” will no doubt be a life-long journey. But now I have regained my courage to go out of my comfort zone and my faith in myself. I am learning to listen to my intuition.
And sometimes I do dance alone in the house, joyfully and blissfully, like I used to.