wellness

"I wasn’t really living": My slow descent into corporate burnout.

In July 2017, I took a two-week holiday from my leadership position in a top-tier consulting company. Little did I know that would be my last day in a corporate role. 

Fast forward three years and I was still struggling to regain my physical and mental health. 

This is a story of how devastating burnout can really be.

While you're here, watch the Mamamia team open up about the last time they cried in the workplace. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

To really understand the story of my burnout, we have to travel back to years before I really noticed and took action. 

I always seemed to have boundless energy. I was a high-achiever, highly motivated, and I cared deeply. Add in some people pleasing and perfectionist tendencies and you have a winning combination... for burnout, that is.  

I now know these are all classic indicators of the type of person who tends towards burnout, and didn’t I just fit that profile completely.

All of these traits kept me succeeding in my career. It’s an employer’s dream to have someone willing to put the job and the welfare of others before their own health and happiness, but looking back, this is not a great strategy long term to enjoy a long and fruitful life.

The year before burnout was brutal. Burnout is by-and-large a hidden illness, and true to form, I kept the worst of what I was feeling hidden from those around me. 

An outside view would be that I was killing it and consistently received promotions and praise for a job well done. But my world was shrinking down to just work and home. I was frequently so exhausted I would flop into bed after work, missing meals and family time, desperately trying to recover for the next hectic day in the office. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Spending so much of my free time recovering left me feeling socially isolated, and any social engagements I was forced to attend were frankly exhausting.

At the same time, another weird phenomenon started taking hold – the constant low-level thrum of stress. You may already know the kind – the teeth grinding, anxiety inducing, mind numbing stress that ends up being a constant companion. 

Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline help us thrive and provide energy to burn for a period of time, and who doesn’t love that? But over time the effect wears off, and that’s when the real hell starts to kick in.  

My slide into burnout was a long one, but once my body really decided it couldn’t cope, it took only a few months from having a promising career to complete and utter exhaustion.

I was the picture of health and confidence on the outside, but my emotions started leaking out at the most inopportune times. The crying was the worst – I’d wake up crying, schedule time to cry during lunch and then again on the way home. I started withdrawing at work, looking for ways to isolate myself as much as possible. It all felt like I wasn’t really living, more like just getting by.

The definition for burnout can be quite vague. We’re told it’s about exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and negativity and a growing loss of confidence and self-efficacy. Some people in burnout get really irritated, even angry. Some have feelings like sadness or grief. Some just disengage completely, feeling like they’re just going through the motions. My symptoms were a winning combination of exhaustion, emotional grief and disengagement.

The crux of my burnout came whilst having a coffee with my manager. He was complimenting me on the successful project we’d just completed and to his absolute bemusement I burst into tears. It was too much to bear - my self-esteem was at an all-time low and those compliments… they hurt! How could no-one know how messed up I was really feeling?

At my wits' end, I went to my doctor who diagnosed anxiety and depression and prescribed anti-depressants. The effects of these drugs made getting through the day even harder, and my symptoms became even worse before finally settling into a numb feeling. I didn’t have anxiety and depression; I was burnt out – a condition my doctor knew nothing about.  

Listen to 8 Minutes To Change Your (Work) Life, where host Deborah gives you some tips on how you can improve your workspace in a few easy steps. Post continues after podcast.

ADVERTISEMENT


This is indeed a story of how devastating burnout can really be, but it’s not the end of my story.

Looking back, I can see my burnout trajectory is probably quite typical. I’m not sure why I didn’t notice the signs that my health was suffering at the time. Why I put the needs of others before my own. Why I kept my game-face on and didn’t notice the long slide into burnout. 

On the outside I always looked the part, but on the inside I can now see cracks leading to burnout appearing years before I actually succumbed to the effects.

These insidious effects of burnout are what do the long-term damage – leading to a trifecta of serious health issues, career disfunction and relationship breakdowns.

I stopped working not long after this, out of necessity - not my own choice. That two-week holiday stretched into quite a few years and a whole lot of soul-searching. I needed a major rethink on life and what I really wanted out of it. It's changed my goals, how I live my values and the people in my life. I’ve sought advice and opened my mind to new ways. I’ve read countless books, listened to podcasts and found new ideas which inspire me.  

Burnout is not weakness. It’s our most promising and active who are prone - people who care and are good at what they do.   

But at some point, cracks that have been papered over will appear and be ripped open. Different stages of life involve evaluation of what’s working and what needs changing, and burnout has a way of forcing that process.

I didn’t expect this to happen to me, but it did, and I’ve learnt to manage the effects. I was fortunate, able to emerge from burnout with a revitalised sense of purpose and adventure. I even now call it a course-correction and a gift.

Resilient people learn to recognise the signs that change is needed - when you need a break, a change of scene, a new job, a tree/sea change or a new location. I’d urge you to listen to that little voice inside of you. The one that tells you unhappy truths or suggests ideas that are well out of your comfort zone. 

It’s only by listening that you might just recognise the wisdom, steering you away from burnout into a happier and more energised future you.  

Sarah Vizer is the creator of Beyond Burnout. Find out more at www.sarahvizer.com.

Feature Image: Canva.

Looking forward to a brighter future? Complete this survey now and go in the running to win one of six $100 gift vouchers!