How I Beat Burnout

How I Beat Burnout

5th January is always a difficult day for me, as it is the joint anniversary of my parents’ deaths, 21 years apart. However, 2021 was on a different scale.
During the height of lockdown, my commute to work was from my bedroom across the landing to my office. On that day I managed that commute, just… but then I proceeded to sit staring at my computer, literally physically unable to switch it on.

I felt utterly bereft, but it was more than grief. This was a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, that I was an utter failure in my job and in my life. I wish I had seen the signs and taken steps to prevent this black hole I had fallen so deeply into. I was completely burnt out and just could not function at any level. I sat there sobbing hysterically into my hands. I didn’t know what had hit me. I had meetings in my diary and other commitments for the day. What was I going to do?

As those of us in HR know all too well, during COVID we were catapulted to the fore. I was working in social care with all the particular issues that that sector was facing. I had my team to manage (some of whom, I realise now, were also crumbling); ongoing large-scale projects – job evaluation, implementation of a new HR system… and so on. We had just appointed a completely new Board, so there were new relationships to manage. I was also drowning in a sea of ever-changing Government rules and regulations, which needed constant refining and distilling to communicate to managers and frontline employees. Safe to say it was not unusual to be working 14- or even 16-hour days.

I am generally a very sociable person and like to meet up regularly with friends and family. I also love my foreign holidays as a way of recharging the batteries. None of this was available during lockdowns, to offer relief from the pressures of work. I also have a sister in residential care and endured more than six months without physically seeing her. This was all adding to my situation.

I was part of a hard-working senior management team and knew many of my peers were facing similar challenges. My strong and perfectionist personality never liked to admit defeat or even ask for help.

Yes, I was suffering from exhaustion, frustration with myself and others. I wasn’t sleeping and was starting to have anxiety attacks… but I thought this would pass and that many people were probably feeling the same inside. I was the HR Director; I should be able to handle this - it came with the salary.

I did have a moan with a select few friends and colleagues, but I wasn’t being completely truthful about my feelings. My poor husband had to put up with me every day, but I think, in hindsight, I was even hiding my feelings from him.  In reality, I was brushing aside the big red flags. I was more than stressed - I was heading for full-on BURNOUT.

There’s been a lot of coverage and research about the impact of the current situation on HR – stress, overwhelm and heading for burnout. Many people have reported that they have fallen out of love with HR and want to do something completely different. That’s exactly how I felt.

Burnout has become a bit of a buzz term but, in truth, it’s incredibly difficult to identify the signs of burnout at work when they’re actually happening to you.

In the world of HR, (never mind in the midst of COVID), we are expected to be there for others and to know how to spot the signs, to look after ourselves in the same way that we signpost others to get support. But that’s often not the case. We don’t always look after ourselves and admit we are not okay.

I think, for HR, it’s a particularly tough concept to wrap our head around, when we are the ‘go to’ people for support and advice. We forget to look in the mirror or at our own teams.

Where is that point when stress or overwhelm turns into actual burnout? And what exactly is burnout? What are the signs it’s happening, and what can you do to prevent it when you realise you are on that slippery slope?

What exactly is burnout?

Unhelpfully perhaps, there hasn’t always been an agreed definition.

However, in May 2019, the World Health Organisation announced the 11th revision of its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, which includes an updated and more detailed entry on burnout. Before then, it was described as a ‘state of vital exhaustion’, whereas it’s now classified as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

What are the signs of burnout?
It is a challenge to put yourself under the microscope and realise you might be heading straight towards feeling burnt out at work. As I mentioned, this is particularly hard for HR professionals and, in my case, I had no microscope. I just had a sledgehammer that hit me.

Different people will experience different symptoms or degrees of symptoms, but the following are the most common and prevalent warning signs of burnout.

1. You are exhausted

You have fatigue and an overall feeling of utter exhaustion.
Just getting out of bed is a struggle as you have probably spent half the night worrying about what is on your to do list, your next deadline or report, if the advice you gave is correct, your next presentation… and so the list goes on. We can all do this at stages in our career, but this is relentless anxiousness that just doesn’t let your mind switch off at all.  You overthink everything. Some days I could barely function with exhaustion.

2. You have lost interest in work/life

You just don’t give a f**k.
If you are usually conscientious about work and somehow find you have a lack of interest or enthusiasm about what you’re doing, you might be tip-toeing into burnout.
If you are a workaholic and a perfectionist like me, this apathy is a huge sign. In the worst-case scenario, this extends beyond your work and negatively impacts your interests outside of work. I am a sociable bunny and a Christmas baby and love the fun and excitement of that time of year. If I tell you I was glad of lockdown as I didn’t want to mix with friends or family and found Christmas presents in April that I had pushed aside, it might give you a clue as to how disinterested in everything in my life I had become.

3. Your performance is declining

A natural follow on is that this disinterest in tasks/projects etc. often leads to poorer performance - people who are burnt out simply don’t care enough and are too bloody exhausted to be able to do things well.

Personally, this was one of the most difficult aspects for me. I am usually a perfectionist and a high achiever so not being at the top of my game producing results, on reflection, was a major warning sign. I was also taking on the work of others, who were absent or struggling. This was adding to my burden and I just couldn’t do everything that needed to be done.

People who struggle with burnout are often those who have reputations as high achievers, so these signs of burnout on the job are typically a stark contrast when compared with their normal approach to their work.

4. You are irritable and emotional 

Your HR composure is a thing of the past. You are snapping at colleagues, your friends and family (if you can be bothered engaging with them), even at strangers. Your usual empathy and compassion has flown out the window. You might find yourself crying for no apparent reason in the middle of meetings or at things you would usually have taken in your stride. I embarrassed myself shouting at a cashier who had the audacity to close a till when I had started unloaded my trolley. That was not me at all. There wasn’t much smiling going on for quite a few months.

5. Your health is suffering

Burnout doesn’t have a consistent physical manifestation for everyone. There are a range of physical signs reported with burnout, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Chest pains
  • Stomach issues
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or fainting

In my case, I had all of the above but at different times. I was trying to make sure I got out at least for a short walk each day but my apathy and the cold winter in Scotland set in and I just couldn’t be bothered. Lockdown meant there were no gym or swimming options and, to be honest, I don’t know if I would have gone even if I’d had the opportunity.

So, you can see that it’s a pretty rough ride to go through. Hitting that brick wall is not an experience I ever want to repeat and if I can help even one person avoid or recover from the brutality of burnout I will be happy.

Thankfully, I have recovered now… BUT it took a long time and a lot of hard work, self- healing and self-love. I did seek professional counselling which helped me make some sense of what I was feeling and appreciate I wasn’t hopeless or helpless and that I mattered and was worthy.
And thank heavens for the beautiful beach on my doorstep – a life saver. I was prescribed anti-depressants, but they didn’t work for me. However, everyone’s different and for some people they can be an immense help to get through a tough period or situation.

Do you recognise any of these signs?

If the answer is yes, some would advise taking some time out, and it’s true that a break can at least give you a bit of breathing space. However, if that is all you do it can be no more than a sticking plaster.

You do need to press the pause button… BUT you also need to make some changes to your mindset and your workload.

If you have perfectionist or high-achieving tendencies I know this can be difficult, but it really is about re-framing thoughts. These traits and the thoughts they create only serve to self-sabotage us and increase stress and anxiety. Do you find yourself saying “I need to do it myself to make sure it gets done properly.” or “People will think I’m a failure if I don’t deliver on time.” Be honest, but who’s ‘properly’ and who’s ‘time’? It is often self-imposed standards we place on ourselves and we’re often our own worst critic.

If one of your saboteurs is people pleasing you might be struggling with that little word ‘no’. It is one of the quickest lessons we need to learn in the workplace. It can be done in a non-confrontational and assertive way and is so powerful once you start to see that people accept no when you deliver it in that way. In fact, they respect and admire you for it.

By recognising and removing some of these self-imposed pressures this can go some way to helping you feel a little less stressed at work. Look up the work of Shirzad Chamine at www.positiveintelligence.com for further guidance on working to beat your saboteurs.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, you really need to decrease your volume of work. Burnout can happen when you simply have too much on your plate and, in those cases, what you really need to do is lighten your load. It is not failure to ask for support or even delegate work. Don’t wait until you are at breaking point as the danger is that it will just come out as a rant. Write down your tasks/projects/deadlines and think in advance about what could be pushed to a later date, or what could be transferred or delegated. Choose a convenient time to have this conversation with your boss – when you both have time to focus on the discussion. Give your boss the heads-up that you want to discuss your workload and that you have some requests and suggestions to facilitate a more reasonable workload moving forward.

In summary, burnout is absolute hell and is hard to recognise. It doesn’t go away on its own. It doesn’t get better because you take some time off or finally tick off another item on your to-do list.

Identifying and addressing burnout does require some conscious thought and effort. I know, you’re thinking where can I find time for that when I am utterly exhausted?! But you must make time. It’s too important not to.

You are ultimately the only one who can do something to change your situation. Please don’t leave it and let yourself get to the stage that I did. I’m grateful and relieved that I beat burnout and I’ve come out the other side, but I wish I had heeded some of the advice I have captured above earlier, to take back control of my career and my life.

Join my mailing list