1. The need to prove yourself
Demonstrating her worth through work was a major factor in Sarah’s burnout.
“When I first started working in consulting, I was always keen to show I could do the work, volunteering for projects and taking responsibility,” she recalls. “Then it started to become who I was – I was the person who always led the project and got the bonus. And if I didn’t do that, I wasn’t me. My identity became tied up in work success – I forgot there was anything else.”
2. Working harder
When a person works hard and isn’t fulfilled by it, or doesn’t feel their work is recognised, they will strive for fulfilment and recognition by working even harder. “I used to feel that if I just tried harder, I could make it work,” says Sarah. “In reality, all I was doing was pushing myself towards burnout. I was so focused and stressed, I wasn’t even being as productive as I thought I was.”
3. Neglecting your own needs
When work takes over, you can fall into bad eating and sleeping habits, like never taking a proper lunch break and going to bed only once you’ve finished work.
Sarah found switching off at bedtime particularly difficult.
“I didn’t sleep properly for years,” she says. “My mind was constantly going over the day and what I could have done better, or I was thinking about all the things I had to achieve tomorrow. Long-term sleep deprivation took its toll and my health definitely suffered.”
4. Ignoring problems
If someone is heading for burnout, they will likely ignore problems and conflict. But that doesn’t mean the problem or conflict has gone away. The underlying negativity is still having detrimental effects, as Sarah found when she ignored a major problem at work.
“I got a new boss whom I didn’t really gel with and he didn’t give me the support I was used to. Instead of talking to him or HR and actually addressing the issue, I thought it was a sign that I wasn’t coping so I it pushed aside and carried on, working even harder. Looking back, I must have been a nightmare to be around – I was snapping at everyone because I was feeling so insecure.”
You may ignore emerging health problems, like headaches & migraines that you didn’t use to get, or extreme tiredness – feeling as tired when you wake up in the morning as when you went to bed even though you slept through.
5. Losing sight of what’s really important
You may think that “work/life balance” is an overused phrase, but it really is vitally important. When someone’s life is completely taken over by work, they lose sight of what’s really important. They withdraw from family and friends, and dismiss previously enjoyed hobbies because work is the only focus. Admitting burnout and taking steps towards recovery is helping Sarah to rebuild her relationship with her sister, which broke down when Sarah was always “too busy” to see her.
“I’d always been close to my sister, but our relationship deteriorated because I was giving my all to work. I remember the day when I actually shouted at her about how busy I was, telling her she was being completely unreasonable for expecting me to go to her son’s party. She was really hurt, and she flung back at me what I couldn’t see for myself – that I was overworking, under pressure and very unhappy. It took full burnout for me to accept that she had been right.”
6. Out-of-character behavioural changes
Sarah became emotional at the smallest thing.
What was happening to Sarah was that all her mental power, including the ability to regulate her emotions, was being used up at work. Nothing was left for normal life, which made even everyday occurrences hard to cope with.
“I remember getting a letter from the corporate credit card company,” she recalls. “I’d paid too much that quarter and they were going to add credit to my account. It should have been a good thing, but I was in tears – I thought I couldn’t even manage my credit card, so how could I be any good at work? It sounds so silly now – I can’t believe I reacted the way I did.”
Her colleagues noticed. “A few of them said to me - you’re heading for burnout, be careful – but I was in complete denial. I didn’t want to hear it. I thought, yes, it is really stressful but I’m managing,” says Sarah.
7. Inner emptiness
Even though Sarah was working hard, she became unfulfilled by her work. “I thought it must be because I wasn’t working hard enough,” she admits. “Looking back over that time, the opposite was in fact true, and I was working far too hard. I had lost a sense of who I was – I only knew myself by what I’d done. A nightly glass or two of wine supposedly cheered me up, but all it was really doing was blinding me to the real problem.”
Depression is a natural progression from inner emptiness. If you've lost sense of your own worth, and are only believing in the worth of your work, it’s easy to become depressed. “I was exhausted and feeling very low,” says Sarah. “Nothing inspired me. I felt lost and unsure, and yet I didn’t realise I was depressed.”
Eventually, chronic stress will burn you out. For Sarah it went like this. On the Friday, she’d got a migraine. On the Monday, it was still there. “I felt exhausted, my head hurt and I just wanted to sleep,” says Sarah. “I decided to take the week off work. Unheard of! I kept wondering what was wrong with me, and on Thursday I went to the doctors. The Doctor said I had burnout syndrome and signed me off work for 3 months. That was two years ago. I’m still off work and am only just talking about going back part-time.”
Sarah has this advice for others who might be on the path to burnout.