Burnout is the new pandemic

Doctor in scrubs, hands on temples, looking resigned and exhausted.

Burnout is the new pandemic

Personal Growth, Well-Being

Written by Tracey

December 18, 2023

In the history of my 20+ year career, I’ve never experienced as many folks suffering the effects of burnout as I am now. While extended lock down during Covid was not good for some folks, it did have the benefit of a return to simpler, slower times that gave us all a chance to breath and reconnect to what mattered.  

Many clients invested in pursuits that gave them deeper meaning and purpose like growing veggies, painting, reading and journalling. Soil quality and sun tolerance replaced the conversations about burnout.

Doctor in scrubs, hands on temples, looking resigned and exhausted.

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.  Maya Angelou

With the rise of burnout I’ve also noticed that unless something is imposed, even mandated… we seem to ignore, dismiss, discount, resist, defend and argue until the situation becomes critical.  In the early 90’s I worked in a very demanding position where as soon as I got to the bottom of my daily files another set came in to take their place. It went like that day after day and it eroded me emotionally and physically. I had no help and the office culture had an air of expectation, “this is just how it’s done here”, and a clique that instilled you as “one of them” if you somehow pulled it all off without complaining or asking for a day off. If I took a sick day, peers resented me for a couple of days because they’d had to handle my files on top of their own burgeoning workload. Socially, it was easier to keep going than to take rest. I was experiencing three signs of burnout – exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy

Doctor in scrubs, hands on temples, looking resigned and exhausted.

Despite many meltdowns, panic attacks, exhaustion and a prevalent, deep depressive state I still believed I could “get on top of things if only I worked harder for a couple more weeks”. I convinced myself that it would be over just as soon as someone was hired because I was covering for an endless stream of people who had either quit or taken vacation. Colleagues returned to work, new employees were hired but the volume of work never stopped and my burnout intensified.

I came in on weekends to “organize and create as much automation as I could” believing that to be the issue.  I also naively believed that the senior partners would surely say something if they noticed the job required two of me.  This fueled the, “I’m the problem, it’s me” story which I then contradicted with the, “they need me, I can’t let them down” narrative.

I assigned my well-being to everyone else but me.  I hated the work and any rest I got was shadowed by the deep and crippling dread I experienced the day before I was to return to work. At home I snapped at the smallest of things, I screamed at people who cut me off in traffic and anyone who tried to tell me I couldn’t sustain this pace, I dismissed with, “they don’t get it, I can’t just walk away”.

There was a huge volume of work, but more importantly, I did not like the work I was doing, and I struggled to find meaning and any alignment with my values. In my view, I was reinforcing a system that I did not believe in, and that caused me to question who I was. I felt rudderless and lacking purpose. It was this existential crisis that really was at the root of my suffering.

When I stopped defending my unhealthy habits and believing that I was solely responsible for saving the company, exploring what was coming up for me became much easier.  For the first time in my life I reflected on my core values, the virtues that defined my identity and gradually allowed me to contemplate a new future for myself.  I felt the inner turmoil without being able to name the specific values and virtues that were compromised but eventually was able to reverse engineer the conflict I felt and finally identify values and virtues that resonated with me.

Some studies suggest that people are predisposed to burnout. In my case I had boundary issues, was a perfectionist and some would say one of those “Type A personalities”.  You’ll be glad to know that required education to become a coach addressed all of these issues and I also spent many hours on the therapist’s couch tackling the deeper issues that presented as stubborn habits.


Peaceful and smiling

The story I shared is only one of three that occurred at different stages of my life. Yes, I hit burnout three times before I could live a life without burnout being an inevitability. The first step in recovery is admitting we have a problem.  The second step involves hope, adopting an optimistic state of mind about the future and being willing to speak that future out loud (to be witnessed) or to at least write it down somewhere you’ll be able to return to. I say the third step is to add structure sufficient to the resistance you will feel when your old habits start to creep back in. Being stubborn has it’s merits (entrepreneurship being one of them) but not always. 

Structure might be creating a comprehensive well-being plan and having a loving accountability partner to stand with you when you “don’t wanna” leave work on time or say “no” when you know you’re at capacity. It can also look like having a therapist AND a coach on your team. One to heal the past and the other to reflect and remind you of the new future you said you’d like to create. Together they can provide you with all the tools, resources and guidance to keep calling you forward when the old habits seduce you back to your old ways. 

Remember, burnout is not a symptom of achievement. Overcoming it is, for it requires tremendous self-awareness, inner strength, compassion and willpower. I can think of no other more worthwhile pursuit than your own life. Can you?

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