The first time it took me an entire day of struggling to compose and send a simple, three sentence email, I knew there was a problem. I was burnt out. Being a thinker and problem solver I started to look for information about burnout, how it manifested, and how to get out of it. What I found was rather discouraging, First, I often found the depictions of burnout to be rather unspecific as they settled for descriptions of general malaise. They left me wondering if what I was experiencing was actually part of it. Did others also spend entire days writing simple emails? Was this a normal part of burnout? Did others find it impossible to focus or concentrate on things both at work and at home and did it sap their energy in both spheres? Did it drain every ounce of creativity and then douse the spark entirely? Did it derail their entire lives? So I turned to a few friends who, it turns out, were also in the midst of burnout. In comparing our experiences we recognized a common set of burnout effects. Second, as I read various articles and essays, one common thread appeared. The consensus seemed to be that the only thing to do was to leave your current employment. Plans varied after that from throwing yourself into a new job, changing careers, or taking significant time off to travel the world. Yet the common denominator was always first and foremost leaving the job that put you in burnout in the first place. As I looked at myself and several of my friends, it was easy to see we were all deeply burnt out. Yet none of us had the option to leave our respective jobs. For whatever reasons, be they economic, logistic, or relationship based, we were all stuck until we might find another job to which we could transfer. Good jobs are not always that easy to come by and our seemingly inescapable predicament extended into years until I started to wonder exactly how long one could tread burnt out water before a major catastrophe ensued. As time wore on and the prospects for changing my work situation came and went unfulfilled, I wondered how long burnout could last. Once you had it, would it ever go away without that key component of job change? I also became concerned about the transition I was so hoping for. If I did manage to secure a new job, would I be able to step right into it with the attention, focus, and energy it would require given that I was already somehow miraculously running on a deficit of such things? What if I could only negotiate a week off in between jobs? Would it be enough or would I simply be setting myself up to fail? How much time would I really need to recover from this? Not content to waste away in my misery and mindful of the inner work of the self that must be continually pursued, I tried as much as possible to work on myself through my burnout. Let me state clearly that this was much easier said than done. I was more intentional about my self care and more jealous of the time needed for it, increasingly sticking to my boundaries. Still, often I did not have the energy to engage in even those basic yet essential self care activities. At the same time, I knew that a day or two of self care was but mist in a dry desert wind. There was no way a relaxing weekend was going to fix anything. Once I began to get a bit of a handle on things, I sought ways to reignite my creative spark. To really live again.
Gradually, I began to see cracks in the immobilizing body cast of my burnout. Little flashes here and there keyed me into the reality that somewhere inside part of me was coming back, if only just a small part. Then I began to ask the question all over again. Was leaving the job the only avenue to healing form burnout? Was there a way to come out on the other side still in the same job? Yes. I think it can happen. It takes time and a lot of hard, mindful work, but I think it is possible, albeit perhaps not in every situation. And another question followed: How can we, in spite of the structures of our surroundings, protect and nurture ourselves and the creative spark inside? This question put me on the path to reflective practice. The other main point for me is that we don’t talk about this enough and when we do we are not explicit. Burnout is one of those issues shrouded in shame and wrongdoing. As if somehow acknowledging it means that either I simply wasn’t strong enough or that my organization did something wrong. First, burnout isn’t about a lack of strength or individual failure to cope. There are strategies and practices that individuals can adopt to protect against burnout and they are not fixes for the larger problem. Second, while employee burnout is generally a symptom of a greater structural problem in organizations, it doesn’t necessarily mean the organization is inherently bad or meant for harm to come to their employee. Rather than provoking a defensive reaction, the occurrence of burnout can be taken as an opportunity to develop the organization and its staff to work more effectively. Burnout occurs through the joint actions of the employee and the organization, and it can be prevented the same way. How can we work, live, and lead towards resilience for everyone in our organizations, including ourselves? For further reading on burnout, here’s a thoughtful post from Rob Symington: Email to my team on my startup burnout, lessons learned, & finding a new way forwards.