At first, I was convinced I had food poisoning. Then, fatigue overtook me that was so intense I wondered if I was severely physically ill.
“Could it be cancer?”
For three days, I could do little more than move from my bed to the washroom and back. My body felt weighted down, I moved slowly, I had a hard time thinking in full sentences. Usually high energy, multi-tasking and energetic, I was a shell of my typical self. I was too tired to even watch Netflix. Sometimes I just stared out the window. Sometimes minutes crawled by. Other times, I lost hours that felt like a blink of the eye. I didn’t know what I wanted at any given moment. “Am I hungry?” (Shrug). “Am I sleepy?” (Shrug). And so it went.
I did not cry, at least not at first. I did not have a panic attack. I did not do the things you see on TV when someone crashes and burns. I just stopped.
My body would not let me move forward any longer. My brain felt like it was soaked in molasses. I was exhausted. But I was so exhausted, I couldn’t even muster the acknowledgement of my own exhaustion. I just stopped. Like a computer that gets overloaded and freezes, I needed a reboot.
“What’s wrong with me? Could this be depression?”
Ultimately, I was experiencing burnout (solidified by a trifecta of moral distress, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue), and it took me 3 months before I was able to resume work again, and another many months to achieve optimal functioning afterward.
A Slow Burn
In hindsight, I can see the flags waving to get me to notice what was happening, as I ground myself to a pulp trying to keep my high-wire juggling act going.
It happens slowly. Starts with a little misstep here and there, a little lost sleep, a little extra stress, but every time I noticed I was off-balance, I made an excuse and brushed it aside.
Have you ever been to one of those “build-your-own frozen yogurt” shops? Where you can select from a range of toppings to add? Have you ever got to the end and put your overloaded cup on the scale to see you owe $30. It was just coconut sprinkles at first, and then the berries, and then the chocolate…oooh, there’s candy! My burnout was like that. Each topping of stress, just a little on top until my cup was overloaded.
First, I missed a couple of workouts. “Oh, I’ll get back on track after this big meeting.”
Then I stopped running and working out entirely.
Then, I stopped packing lunches, or even taking a lunch. Instead, grabbing whatever was fastest to stuff down between meetings. “Oh this month has been busy, but it will be better next month.”
Then I stopped taking breaks altogether.
Then I started checking emails before and after work. Then responding to emails after the kids were in bed.
Then taking calls and emails on weekends.
Then saying “yes” to new projects.
Then extending my work days to “catch up.”
Then I stopped sleeping.
Then I was working until 3 am some nights.
Then I was actually trying to be in multiple places at once by responding to emails while on video conferences, or taking meetings in my car while I drove between cities.
Just one more topping of stress on top of the other, constantly telling myself “oh, it’s just a little on top.”
The Tightrope Act
I was so excited about a newly created management position, that I returned to work early from maternity leave when my second child was 7 months old. The scope was massive, the expectations high (and sometimes unclear, often shifting). I was up to the task. I was a brand new manager, leading a team of professionals in a subject matter that was new to me. I was up to the task.
In the midst of this all, we purchased and moved into a new home with our two young sons – ages 1 and 4. By the end of my first year in the position, I was running several large scale projects, leading a team of professionals, and redesigning various program deliveries in a highly politicized context. I cared deeply about the work I was doing and told myself “eye on the prize” aiming to make a positive impact for the organization. Yet, I was still getting up multiple times in the night with my baby to nurse for the first year of my the position (often checking emails on my work phone, while my baby nursed).
The more depleted I became, the more I rationalized. I didn’t know how to ask for help or what to do. I thought it was my own issue and I just needed to learn how to be a better manager.
“It’s just a learning curve.”
“The organization is just in a time of transition.”
“Next month will be better.”
“Get more efficient.”
“Carve out more time.”
“Be more productive with the time you have.”
“Once this project is done, things will be better.”
But I failed to realize that running at 150% at all times, with no balance in wellness is not sustainable. I failed to notice that with each passing month, things got worse, not better.
The Perfect Storm
No one thing caused me to experience burnout, but an accumulation of things resulted in the perfect storm for my crash: poor leadership and expectations, a lack of support for my growth and development, minimal recognition or reward, minimal involvement or influence, a workload that far exceeded my capacity, depleted harmony between my work and personal life, a sense of isolation and a culture that had constantly changing norms and values all combined with my high work ethic, deep passion for my work, and strong professional conscientiousness and perfectionism over time to completely deplete my resources.
I took time away from work, I rested, I healed, and I got better. The resources that helped me heal was an interdisciplinary support network, including a robust and well-organized disability management program, a supportive counsellor through the company’s Employee Family Assistance Program, a strong support from my family physician and my family support network, and subsequent leadership coaching provided to me when I returned to work.
Almost 2 years after my burnout experience, I have moved into private practice offering my services to clients at the intersection of work and wellbeing. With Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. & Associates, I offer CBT Therapy Services and with MyWorkplaceHealth, I offer psychological safety consulting. I’ve now experienced the power of the National Psychological Safety Standard as a practitioner, but also as an employee who benefited from an effective recovery process after experiencing burnout.
Darby is a CBT Therapist and a certified Psychological Health & Safety (PH&S) Advisor with Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. & Associates and MyWorkplaceHealth. She has extensive experience in disability management, vocational rehabilitation, workplace wellness, and civility and respect at work. Check out her full bio here and reach out through our contact page for a workplace consultation.