Sunday 17 April 2022

After the burnout

It's shortly after 6am on Sunday morning. I love this time of day: the sun is just rising, the house is quiet, everybody is still sleeping, the world hasn't quite woken up. It's my favourite time to reflect, and there's lots to reflect on.   

In two days I will return to work after 4 weeks off due to burnout. It's been a much-needed, precious break that has done what it was supposed to: it restored my strength and energy and helped my overstretched nervous system to recover and slow down. 

It was difficult to make the decision to take time off. It made me feel like a failure - someone not as strong as the rest. If it hadn't been for my body being sick and staying sick (I had severe stomach cramps, fatigue, headaches and body aches) I would have powered through as I always have before. In a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol, taking time to rest feels like admitting defeat. 
But that's exactly what I was doing. I was defeated, and I had to take a step back. 

Burnout is such a buzz word these days that it may be confusing to know how exactly it manifests, but there are certain common factors that will show up when you're experiencing signs of burnout:

1. Exhaustion: You are physically and mentally tired all the time. You are dreading the day ahead when you never did before. Even simple tasks feel impossibly hard. You still feel exhausted after a few days off, and you can't imagine ever having energy again. 

2. Depersonalization/cynicism: Irritation is the name of the game. You have no patience for people, and you're constantly annoyed and on edge. You are feeling detached from your work, questioning what the point of it is. Your cynicism is shocking, and you flip the bird behind closed doors at an alarming rate. You mutter obscenities under your breath when (hopefully) nobody is nearby, and you are genuinely afraid that you may explode and tell the next person who annoys you how you really feel. 

3. Reduced personal accomplishment: You are doing your job less well than you normally do. Your productivity has gone down, and with it your confidence. No matter how hard you try, you are not getting the results you are used to. You feel like you are running in place without going anywhere. You completely exhaust yourself without achieving anything. 

I experienced all three signs, and the only remedy was rest. My batteries were empty and I needed to recharge for longer than a weekend.
The first couple of weeks were a mess. My emotions were all over the place, I would cry all the time and question everything. Was this the job I wanted to continue to do? Could I do it? What if I would never feel like myself again? 
The people from work who coordinate the details about stress leaves called me regularly (too regularly for my liking), asking me how I was doing, what I was going to do, when I was going to return. I wanted to scream at them that "I don't fucking know anything, stop asking!", but instead I meekly kept repeating "I don't know yet, I'm sorry," over and over, wondering if I would ever have a different answer. 

To my intense relief, things started to shift in week three. It was as if one day the blinders I didn't know I'd had on were removed, and I could see the full picture again. I could see what had led to my burnout, which is important. Without awareness you are a helpless victim to circumstances - but once you know what the contributing factors are you can take steps to avoid them. 

A lot of things are out of our control: the pandemic, the staffing shortages, natural catastrophes, politics, the economy, the assholery of people. But how we react to it is completely within our control, and that's empowering!

Setting boundaries is what it's all about, baby! I've made myself a list of things that I need in order to avoid getting run down again:
  • Say no, unapologetically and with conviction. 
  • Make it a priority to not disappoint myself instead of being always concerned about not disappointing others (life hack from my therapist!)
  • Do alllllll the self-care: slow morning routine, walks at lunch time, nap/reading time after work
  • Tackle problems head on, i.e. talk to the person instead of about them if there's a problem
  • Rest, lots and lots and lots of it

This is forever a work in progress for me, as it is for all of us. I'm a little bit nervous to go back, but the longer I wait the harder it will be. 
Wish me luck!

Happy Easter to all of you!


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