A Hopeful End to Burnout

The last time I shared a Ben Harper song on social media, I referred to an early morning get down that was executed in the buff. My horoscope instructed me, on that very morning, to “get naked and dance,” so that is exactly what I did.

Three hours later, I found myself on a video conference call, getting laid off from my job.

It is important to bring up the naked dancing, as I believe the Universe intervened and presented a healthy coping option just prior to the hammer falling. I believe it served to temper my reaction when receiving the information. I was calm. I didn’t show anger. And frankly, that job had taken enough from me. So much so, that there weren’t any tears left for the moment when it finally ended.

When I shared with a close friend who was also a coworker how it went down, she was astonished. “Wow Jenn, I was really hoping you would give them a piece of your mind.” I understood why she would say such a thing. By the time I was shown the door, I was suffering from a classic case of burnout.

Here I am, attending a five hour meeting back in May. Good times.

There are some of you out there (surely one of the three of you) who know exactly what I’m talking about. You are nodding your head vigorously, with empathy. You other two – I don’t know how you’re reacting to the word “burnout.” But it’s a real thing. Let’s talk about the symptoms.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Pressure at work is usually the main culprit and when budgets are tight and teams are small, people often find themselves with multiple roles and heavy workloads, piling on the stress. (source)

I found Winona State University’s burnout study in an easy to digest form. There are stages to burnout. These stages can unfold insidiously, and lay waste to your energy, creativity, self-awareness, and motivation.

    I’m just going to list what resonated with me most during each phase. My primary symptoms included a compulsion to prove myself. I was deeply committed to every task. I readily accepted more responsibility than any human should handle, and executed with a deep well of optimism ( < BEWARE of this… there is such a thing as toxic optimism).
    Oof. This happened many times over at my former place of employment. The onset of stress would occur – and then a light at the end of the tunnel would present itself. This was a deflection from the issue at hand, which was that my role was deeply stressful and it simply wasn’t going to change. Those glimmers of tunnel light were red herrings, meant to keep me in my soul sucking chair. Symptoms for me included loss of sleep, increasing job dissatisfaction, forgetfulness, headaches, and an inability to focus.
    HAAAA. Really? Dudes, there are five stages and this is only stage three. It gets worse. The behavior includes feeling threatened or panicked, apathy, denial of problems at work or at home, physical illness, and an inability to overcome debilitating procrastination. Don’t forget the loss of sleep. It prevails at every stage.
    I’m going to list most of the symptoms, here. I felt them all at one point or another, in this stage. It lasted for a full year. Not all of these things occur at once, all the time. But people – burnout is real, and it’s happening. Ready?
    • Development of an escapist mentality
    • Feeling empty inside
    • Obsessions over problems at work or in life
    • Pessimistic outlook
    • Physical symptoms worsen
    • Self-doubt and social isolation
    • Desire to drop out of society
    • Desire to move away from friends and family

Oh yeah, it’s a delight.

    I didn’t make it to this stage. Why? I got laid off. But I was well on my way, and the biggest pitfall here is clinical depression, mental fatigue, and sadness. As if all of the above weren’t enough, chronic burnout could literally put you in the position of being a suicide risk.

Today, I am unemployed, and I am happy. Frankly, I haven’t felt this level of happiness about how I spend my time in a very long while. I’m sitting here, literally trying to think of when, prior to this job, I have felt the weight of my stress so lifted. I cannot pinpoint when that may have been.

Seventy-three days ago, my last day on the job came and went. After almost five years of bonding deeply with a team of people that were all in the same stressful trenches together, I was unceremoniously let go. The only thing that kept me sane, really, were those awesome humans. I believe I staved off the final phase of burnout due to the relationships I forged while on the job.

And during those four years when the burnout was taking hold, I left my marriage. A member of the team I supervised was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She passed away just one year ago. Then, my mom died.

After feeling poised for a very long time to crumble under the weight of all of this, I feel like I’m coming out on top. Once the veil of burnout was removed, my vision became clearer. And this is not painless, either. When you are so used to living in a fixed mental state, largely driven by fear, it’s hard to let go. Stress becomes familiar, as does unhappiness and cynicism. If it’s all you know, how can you fully understand how deeply toxic it is for you?

Today, my body hurts. But it’s not because I have all over aches and pains that seemingly come from nowhere (burnout). It’s because I have done so much yoga over the past two weeks, that the full core of my structure is deeply affected. You know that very specific ache you earn from investing time in your vessel? It’s so satisfying.

I finally started remembering my dreams again, somewhat, because I am sleeping through the night. Yes, I notoriously still awaken anywhere between 3:30am and 4am… but I am in bed early enough to feel rested. And I want to go to bed. I used to dread the idea, simply because the time I was supposed to carve out for sleep was not satisfying in the least.

And today, I danced naked to Ben Harper again. It was different. It was better. And it was followed by Maggie Rogers, Little River Band, Elton John, and The Lumineers. I only stopped because I got cold.

I am figuring it out and forging a new path with my skill set that is surprising – even to me. As the burden of burnout lifts, my view is broadened by my own possibility.

Take your face out of your hands / And clear your eyes / You have a right to your dream / And don’t be denied – Ben Harper, Better Way

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