Coping with burnout when your world doesn’t stop
Side Note: Vulnerability is for the weak?
I agonized about posting this article. I wrote and rewrote. I worried that my business would be harmed or people would think less of me. I would be seen as a weak leader, or as a failure. I worried that it would do more harm than good.
Today however I decided it was time to share. After watching the keynote speakers at BSides Wellington and listening to the challenges we are sharing across our communities… I realized I was not alone.
I know, I know… I’m not the first person to bang this drum.
Burnout has been written about hundreds of times in the last few years as the cost of our innovation culture becomes more visible. Google burnout and you will find everything from books to life coaches and homeopathic remedies. There is even a vitamin supplement for it.
I’m not writing to tell you I have an answer to this, to sell you my book or to offer you enlightenment.
I’m writing because everything is not OK
I am not OK
I started writing this in May 2017. It was 3 am and I was in Boston, Massachusetts. Around my usual conference routine I was running my company and sorting out the mess of other tasks that make up the world of a founder. The less than glamorous, rarely talked about work of keeping a company going.
A string of unfortunate changes from external sources had caused chaos and at 3 am I had to fix it. My staff, my company, my family all relied on me fixing things well beyond my control. For little bootstrapped companies, there is rarely a safety net in these circumstances.
This is business as usual for those who run or work for small companies.
This time was different though.
It’s time to talk about Boston
At 3 am on that May night I felt myself break. I sat in my room and I sobbed. Unable to hold back the tears of frustration and pain. The mountain of responsibilities around me had slipped and I felt crushed.
Sleep was elusive that night. My nice hotel was downgraded to a shared residence situation.. Not quite a backpackers but that sort of direction. My budget for food and transport was resting at $10 a day and I had no money to fly home early.
So, at 3am, sobbing and exhausted, I began to walk.
From East Boston to central, across the city as it slept, walking because I knew of nothing else I could do. Walking to try and push back this feeling of crushing, overwhelming fear and failure that was consuming me.
I walked for 4 hours.
The company was fine of course. Conversations and controls were initiated and the ship continued to sail.
But me… I came back from Boston changed… I’m hesitant to say broken but I was not quite the same as before, I had reached burn out. I had hit the end of my reserves.
The curse of the over-achiever
I have a type-a personality. If you’ve met me or read about my work you’ll see a list of wonderful things that I have managed to achieve. I’m driven and confident, ambitious and vibrant…. I’m also scared and vulnerable, playful and experimental. I am as likely to fall on my face as anyone else.
When I started telling my friends about my burn out, about the dark place I found myself physically and emotionally they started in turn to have opinions.
“You shouldn’t have….”
“You should have just….”
“It was obvious that …”
Everyone had a laundry list of reasons why they knew this would come, why I should have done more, or done less or done better.
But of course it’s not that simple.
My burnout hadn’t come from one activity or one conference too many.
It had come from the emotional labour of throwing myself into my passions for 5 years and not coming up for air.
It had come from a feeling of responsibility that I had developed despite all the evidence saying this was not my burden to bare alone.
“Just get an early night” they said, “you’re working too much”.
Trouble was I was already sleeping, 9 hours a night. I was stopping work at 4:20pm every day and not working again until 8am. My weekends were for family only…..
Despite these working patterns however, I was continually exhausted both physically and emotionally.
My doctors ran every test they knew. I wasn’t depressed, I had regular responses to anxiety. My iron and other levels were normal for my age. There was no medical reason at all….
Data Driven Discovery
It took a gadget to get this understood.
An impulse bought fitness tracker with heart-rate and stress monitoring found it’s way onto my wrist and the feeling of continuous pressure started showing up in the results. Data patterns emerged that worried me, my friends and family.
I’m a fairly active 33 year old woman. I don’t smoke or do drugs and I barely drink, yet my heart rate and stress were a confronting picture.
- My resting heart beat was high(77 bpm) and would peak at over 160 beats per minute in random fluctuations as I felt stress grow. (This would happen while sat quietly on the sofa, in a calm and computer free environment).
- My stress level was held at “high” for over 40% of each 24 hour period.
- My rest periods (where my heart and body could recover) were less than 15% of 24 hour period (They should be around 40–50%).
In short, even when I was sat resting or sleeping, my body and mind thought I was fighting tigers. After consuming sugar, alcohol or caffeine, my already terrible rest patterns would get worse.
It was no wonder I was exhausted, my body thought it was at war and had been for a very long time.
According to the medical profession this increases my likelihood of serious ailments such as heart disease significantly. At 33, I was walking the short road to serious health issues and a shortened life.
So I have to change and it’s hard.
If you’ve encountered me in the last couple of months you will have noticed I’m quieter, perhaps not quite myself.
Please be kind and patient
All the guidance for recovering from burnout is to stop, take a holiday and have a complete rest from life.
They tell you it will take a year.
They tell you to meditate and exercise, to change your diet and to coach yourself out of negative behaviors.
I don’t have the money to stop working for a year, and anyway, I’m a mother and an employer. I have some responsibilities that don’t vanish because I’m struggling.
So here are the things I am doing. Perhaps if you are feeling this way or are approaching the end of your reserves, they might help you.
- I’ve stopped drinking (though at less than 4 units a week it was never a big thing),
- I’ve banned caffeine from my life and am trying to make good choices with food and drink (grazing rather than eating large meals to maintain equal blood sugar),
- Having periods of zero device time and watching mindless movies*
- Gentle exercise (walking and yoga, but only when I have the emotional reserve to do so)**,
- Early nights and consistent routines (sorry if I vanish from your event early or choose not to attend),
- Spending time with friends from outside my community, preferably in the outdoors,
- Admitting when I need help, when I am not OK,
- Taking quiet time out of the day when I feel myself crumble
(* Fun story, Thor Ragnorok gave me a period of deep relaxation according to the data, more so than a night’s sleep… who knew?)
(** Stressful exercise and high impact stuff triggers the same stress hormones that contribute to burnout, engaging when already exhausted may make things worse… ask me how I know this).
I’m not the only one going through this
So if you are sat reading this and it resonates. If you know that feeling of bone-tiredness that consumes you emotionally and physically. If you feel yourself on the edge of tears or anger for no more reason than you can’t take another step.
Please know you’re not alone, especially if you can’t take the giant break from it all that the self help books recommend.
Find your way towards things that help you rest. Reach out and talk to people. Find your community and get help.
There is a cost to our culture of achievement and going fast. There is a price for not taking a break or doing self-care enough.
We have to talk about this… because everything is not OK.
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