I’m sat on a folded-up blanket on the floor of my office. My desk doesn’t feel right today, I can’t focus and coffee isn’t helping.
My days feel like endless game of whack-a-mole, except the mole is incoming emails, pushed-back appointments and unfinished projects and I just can’t seem to get ahead of it. I feel as though I’m working harder but I can’t catch up. I see the finish, but someone keeps moving the line.
So here I am on the floor, wondering if gravity is to blame for this feeling (Spoiler – it wasn’t.)
I was running on empty, and I think that is what burnout is. To me, it’s an emptiness. It’s mental exhaustion which drains your motivation and passion. It removes the hope that your workload is going to get easier, or that there is a solution to help you get back up to speed.
Stress is different in that sense. With stress you’re still going, drowning in your to-do list rather than being drained or dried up. Motivation remains, and you still try to push through and swim to the surface. Deep down I know things will get better when I’m feeling stressed. It’s temporary. But burnout feels relentless, hopeless and isolating.
Although there’s overlap, I’m sure.
So, let’s go back to that day. The day I was on my office floor.
I shut my laptop. I forgave myself for needing a time out and I went for a walk. I came back and had some lunch, and then a nap. My boyfriend came back and checked in, encouraged me to write it out and journal, and then we played Rummikub until I opted for an early night.
I wasn’t ‘fixed’ the next day. Actually, the next morning was worse. I was falling out of love with my work, something I absolutely love. Days turned into weeks and finally, I stopped.
Today, I feel really lucky. I have a job that allows for some flexibility with my hours, and a workplace that is very supportive when things feel overwhelming. First Steps ED are passionate people.
But still, with passion comes the pressure to do well, to be there and to continue our endless effort of supporting people, colleagues, service users and peers. We still need to pause and fill that cup… And it’s true that sometimes a weekend isn’t enough.
I still need time to remind myself of my values and my purpose, and sometimes I take time away to reconnect with all the wonderful reasons I do what I do. And here’s how I did it before, and how i continue to check in:
- First (as I mentioned) I spoke to someone. For me, it was a trusted colleague and someone I knew could help me see for the wood for the trees, so to speak. Not only did this help me feel validated in what I was feeling, but it also helped me to recognise that I was doing too much.
I had always excused my over-working as enthusiasm, as many people so. It is good to be excited about your work, and passionate about all that you do… So long as that doesn’t come at a cost to other areas and aspects of your life. And sometimes you need someone to tell you that.
- I’m learning to say no. So, I won’t sit here and tell you that I’ve mastered the art of saying no. That would be a lie. Whilst only a short word, it holds so much power. Even when I have said no recently, I find myself overthinking the repercussions, or feeling guilty to whoever’s workload it lands on. HOWEVER. When I am able to reflect, I know that sometimes a ‘no’ can be the best way of supporting my wellbeing and mental health… The world can’t end because of an unanswered email.
- Including breaks within my working day. It’s surprising how beneficial an actual lunch break is. Many will read this and say ‘Duh, I always have a lunch break!’ But I’m sure there will be an overwhelming amount of us who just tend eat on the go – reading emails or articles as you heated up leftovers from last night’s dinner. Fork in one hand and still scrolling the to-do list in the other.
Nowadays I try to take time to make something nutritious, or if I am having leftovers, I’ll use that spare time to read or to go for a walk. So long as it means time away from my laptop, it doesn’t matter.
- Speaking of Self Care… The way I engage in self-care extends much further than my approach to lunchtimes. I have an actual routine now. It’s flexible depending on what I need and how I’m feeling that day – but it is a routine all the same. I know the importance of regular meals and snacks. I like to go to the gym a couple days a week to relieve some of the tension which needs a physical outlet . I journal most evenings to help me be more compassionate to myself (and less irritable to my boyfriend!) And, in all honestly, I recognise the changes in my mood when I’m not engaging in those things.
- And if nothing else, I try to listen more to loved ones and prioritise those relationships. It sounds obvious, but these are the folks that keep you grounded and help you reset when you need to. They’re also the people who pick you up and support you when times get tough.
- Professionals can help too. I’ve recently finished up with therapy which was really helpful for building a new routine and implementing new coping mechanisms to help me manage a little better.
In the words of Adriene Mishler “find what feels good”, and figure out what you can do to avoid burnout. Where do you go here, and what you need to go to get yourself out of this hole? And try and put things in place so you don’t find yourself back here in a couple months.
If you’re worried about a loved one, or a colleague, check in with them. Ask twice. In fact, ask a third time. Even if everything is okay it is nice to know that someone is looking out for you.