Exactly one year ago, I sat alone in the stairwell at my office, and I cried.
While that period of my life is a bit of a blur, I remember that moment clearly. It was the moment I knew something was deeply wrong – that I had no motivation left for my work, and that things were out of control.
I felt like a failure, and I had no clue how to fix it.
It’s taken me a year to recover from burnout and to be ready to write this article. I’ve learned a lot over the last year – about myself, my values, and building a balanced life – and I hope some of those lessons might benefit others in the same situation.
Strap in – this story’s a long one.
Burnout is a cunning thief. It feeds on your passion, your energy, and your enthusiasm, taking these positive qualities and turning them into exhaustion, frustration, and self-doubt. It’s way more than just having a bad day, or being tired and worn out. As an article in New York magazine described it, burnout is “a problem that’s both physical and existential, an untidy agglomeration of external symptoms and private frustrations”.
The best definition of burnout I’ve come across is a chronic state of being out of sync with one or more aspects of your life. Think of it like riding a bicycle. When everything’s running smoothly, your work, life, and enthusiasm all balance, and you feel valued and fully engaged in your work. But when these aspects get out of sync for too long, you lose your balance and fall down. Unlike riding a bike, though, with burnout, once you’re down, it can be a real challenge to get back up.
The leading researchers on burnout in the workplace are Drs. Michael P. Leitner and Christina Maslach. In their book, The Truth About Burnout, they outline six major imbalances between employees and their work that often lead to burnout:
- Lack of control. You don’t have a lot of say about what’s going on in your work, or your sense of control is undermined or restricted.
- Values conflict. There’s a disconnect between your own core values and the core values of the organisation.
- Insufficient reward. You feel undercompensated, underappreciated, and taken for granted.
- Work overload. Your workload is too much, too urgent, or too complicated.
- Unfairness. You’re treated poorly by the organisation, management plays favourites, and assignments and promotions are made behind closed doors.
- Breakdown of community. Your colleagues patronise you or others, there’s no-one to talk with about conflicts, and feedback is non-existent.
You don’t need to have a serious mismatch in all six of these areas to be at risk. In fact, a mismatch in even one area can put you on the path to burnout. I personally experienced at least four of these imbalances last year, but my road to burnout started long before that.
Four years ago, I was working as a software engineer here in Denver. I was part of a great team, I enjoyed the work, and it left plenty of room for working on side projects and some freelancing.
After a year working for that company, I was promoted to become the manager of my team. Suddenly, my day-to-day responsibilities were very different. I spent more and more time learning things like project management, and less and less time on my own projects.
Slowly – enough that I never noticed – I stopped creating. Because it wasn’t helping me build my career, I felt it wasn’t important. I stopped working on side projects, I stopped freelancing, and instead, I spent all my energy managing and building my team.
Fast forward to early last year, and I’d moved on to a different company and was working as a product manager. Now normally, as a product manager, your job is to work closely with customers and understand their needs, but the company structure kept me from doing this properly. We were flying blind, working on projects that provided little benefit to our customers.
Around the same time, my manager left the company. Suddenly without direction, I started feeling more and more disconnected. My work was no longer motivating, and it became harder and harder to stay focused. I felt like I was failing – like I should be able to make things work, but for some reason, I couldn’t.
I tried to compensate the only way I knew how – by working harder – but that only made things worse. Over the course of a few months, I went from highly productive and motivated, to feeling exhausted and doubting every decision I made.
Things eventually became so bad that I couldn’t make myself care about work, and struggled to motivate myself to do anything. I couldn’t even face my colleagues, so I found the only place I could be alone – the emergency stairwell – and I cried.
I knew something was deeply wrong, but I had no idea what it was, or how to fix it.
The point of no return
It took a long time for me to realise what I was experiencing was burnout.
I wasn’t overworked. I rarely arrived at the office before 8am, and I was home before 5pm nearly every day. I was working with a team of talented and motivated engineers and designers, solving what should have been fun and challenging problems. Weekends were spent relaxing with family.
I never had more work on my plate than I could handle. In fact, my workload and working conditions were what most people would consider ideal. The perfect job.
And therein lies the trap.
When you read about other people’s experience of burnout, they almost always talk about it being caused by the workload. Long hours, weekends spent at the office, unrealistic deadlines, imposing bosses. When I thought about burnout, this is what I imagined, but my situation couldn’t be more different.
I wasn’t overworked, but I was exhausted all the time. I couldn’t concentrate on my work – even simple tasks like responding to emails felt monumental. I was only able to work at a mere fraction of what I knew I was capable of. Things that used to be easy were almost impossible. I was plagued with insomnia, and found myself forgetting meals. My creativity had vanished – I could barely even respond to emails, let alone design a product.
Joyful activities, like playing with my infant daughter, suddenly felt like an obligation and a chore. I had a remarkably short temper – I would lash out at loved ones over the tiniest little problems. I felt incapable, overwhelmed, and trapped – and when people pointed out that something was wrong, it only dug the hole even deeper.
Most of all, I felt weak. And I felt ashamed of feeling weak. I felt like I should be able to power through and work things out on my own. And when I couldn’t, I felt even worse.
For months I kept going, trying to work through the stress and frustration, but it only became worse. People started to notice something was wrong, but each question they asked, no matter how well-intentioned, only made me feel more ashamed. I tried bringing it up with my manager, even giving them a few options like temporarily dropping back to four days a week, but their only response was that they needed someone full-time.
And so it went, deeper and deeper, until that day in the stairwell. My wife convinced me to use all my vacation time to try and clear my head. I ended up taking two weeks off, but it didn’t help. I spoke with my manager, said goodbye to a few trusted team members, and never went back. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.
Climbing out of burnout
Burnout isn’t something that goes away on its own – the recovery is just as slow and painful as what caused the burnout in the first place.
Regaining your balance will take longer than you expect, but you’ll learn a ton about yourself and what you really want from your life in the process.
When I quit, we were lucky enough to have some savings stashed away, giving me the flexibility to take some time off to recharge. I thought it would take a month, maybe two before I’d feel ready to work again. Ultimately, I didn’t feel back to normal for six months.
Throughout that time, my wife and I talked about our future, and what we wanted out of our lives. We planned out what needed to change for us to get there.
And bit by bit, I started feeling like myself again. My creativity started to come back, I worked on some projects around the house, and I was once again enjoying the company of my daughter.
Now, coming up on a year since I hit bottom, I’ve embraced real change in my life and my work. My wife and I are both happily self-employed – she’s running a private therapy practice, and I’m helping creative entrepreneurs learn to build sustainable solo businesses. We both spend more time with each other, and with our daughter, and our stress levels are way down. I think I’m more balanced, and I understand more about what I truly care about than I ever did before.
If you’re feeling burned out, or you recognise anything about yourself in my experiences, I’d like to share some lessons I learned during my recovery.
Recognise there’s a problem.
I know it sounds obvious, but it took months for me to realise something was wrong – long after it was already too late. In some situations, the problem will be pretty obvious. In others, it might take a bit of time and introspection to discover the cause. MindTools provides a free self-test to help you recognise if you’re at risk for burnout – if you feel like you’re struggling, take the quiz, or talk to loved ones about how you’re feeling.
Stop (or at least slow down).
Trying to power through only makes things worse. While quitting your job is certainly one option, it’s not the only option. Talk to your manager about taking an extended break, or just use as much of your vacation time as you can manage (I used all of mine). If you’re self-employed, think about dropping some or all of your client work for a while, to buy yourself some headroom. Use the time to take a proper break away from work. I spent a lot of time camping, as it was one of the few ways I could properly decompress.
Be honest with friends, family, and work colleagues about your struggles. Don’t be ashamed of feeling weak or incapable. You’ll likely find that others have dealt with the same problems in the past, and can help you out. Try to delegate as many things as possible, even if the person you’re delegating to may not do them the way you envision.
Focus on the basics.
Even the simplest of tasks become monumental efforts when you’re burned out. Try to focus on eating regularly – proper meals, not just snacks or alcohol. Make sure you’re getting as much sleep as you possibly can. If you have trouble with insomnia like I did, sleeping medication helps a lot. Get out of the house every day – get some exercise, go to a museum or an art gallery, or take the family to the park. Make time for what makes you happy.
Reassess your personal values and goals.
Burnout offers a hidden silver lining. It can be a positive force for change, giving you the perfect chance to reassess nearly everything about your life and your work. It’s a chance to rediscover yourself and make changes that might otherwise be ignored.
Take time to think about what you really want in your life – your goals, priorities, hopes, and dreams. Think about what gives you meaning in your work – not just what you think should matter to you. Think about what might have been missing that caused the burnout in the first place.
For me, I discovered a few important things about myself. Creative work is incredibly important to me, and I had unknowingly let it lapse over the few years leading up to my burnout. I also realised the people I care the most about helping are individuals and tiny businesses, the polar opposite of the large customers of my previous employer. Finally, I discovered that I value control and flexibility over a consistent paycheck. Working for myself, while stressful at times, has made me the happiest I’ve been in years. I would never have discovered that if it wasn’t for going through burnout.
Undoing burnout takes a long time, and often some pretty drastic changes. Even if you’re feeling good short-term, chances are you may not be ready to jump back into it, or that jumping back into the same role isn’t a good idea. Be prepared to end up in an entirely different place to where you are now – whether it’s a different role, a different department, or a different career.
Burnout was hard. It’s not a path that I would ever go down by choice, and I wish I had known a year ago the things I know now.
If I had, perhaps things would have turned out differently. Maybe I’d still be working for someone else, in a job that wasn’t fulfilling. Maybe I’d have found a better job. I don’t know. I’m sure, though, that things would be very different today.
But would they be better? That, I’m not so sure about. Going through this experience has taught me more about myself and what I truly value than anything else in my life. I feel like I’m now on a better path, one that fits me.
Maybe you’ve noticed something about yourself in my experiences. Maybe you’re not feeling particularly overworked, but you’re run down, frustrated, and apathetic. Perhaps you’re struggling to deal with simple tasks, or not enjoying the fun things in your life.
Maybe you’re starting to struggle with burnout, too.
Talk about it with your family and colleagues. Take some down time, and truly switch off. Recognise there’s a problem, and think about what caused it. Find ways to reconnect with yourself, and make a plan to fix it for good.
I overcame burnout and I know you can, too.
If you’re looking for ways to avoid burnout in your work, I’ve put together a free guide with 7 strategies you can use to prevent burnout before it’s too late.