‘I had so little insight into my own needs’ – my burnout story
This is a story about burnout – the personal account of a friend of Luminate’s detailing the events that led up to their burning out, how it manifested, where they feel their workplace fell short, and their road to recovery.
Defined as a sense of complete mental, emotional and physical exhaustion, burnout is the result of excessive stress over an extended period of time – with work often being a large contributing factor.
Please note that this story may be distressing to read if you’re currently experiencing burnout or struggling with your mental health – please take care of yourself and consider whether now is the right time for you to read it. Please also note that we’ve left out any identifying details about our friend or the organisation they worked for.
WHERE DO I BEGIN…
I’m finding this difficult to write because looking back at that time makes me feel emotional. It took me a while to get better and even now, 9 years later, I still get intrusive thoughts about it.
I worked as a Business Development Manager in a charity supporting people with disabilities.
Initially, things were great. I was working with an interactive, intelligent and motivated team, and there was a real buzz about making things happen. We were a small tight group that worked really well together.
The majority of my work was tendering for new government contracts, which was an intensive process. Because we mostly won the contracts, this then meant another intensive process of interviews, presenting to governmental panels and operationalising within around 8 weeks – so, finding, refurbishing new office premises and all staff to be TUPE’d over to our organisation. Mostly under duress so, unfortunately, we were the ‘baddy’ to them.
I can remember being interviewed by a local government panel for the first time and very much overpreparing. My nervousness made me feel ‘jangly’ inside – that’s the only way I can describe it – maybe it was adrenaline. This was the first time I felt like that and it wasn’t apparent to anyone else – I seemed to hide it well.
Still, the successful award of the contracts made it worthwhile and increased my self-confidence. Working outside my comfort zone was exhilarating when it had positive results but working outside your comfort zone for too long leads to more and more consistent feelings of stress. Nevertheless, at that time I enjoyed the work and felt like I was dealing with the challenges.
Soon I was promoted to a senior position within the organisation; to manage several teams in different regions, from the midlands to the south coast. But the Business Development department still needed a lot of my time as we continued to tender for new contracts.
I had no administrative or personal support during this time, despite asking for it repeatedly.
There was a lot of conflicting pull (for my time) from senior management and the new teams that had been TUPE’d over.
Some good colleagues/friends had been ‘managed out’ of the business or had left because it was too stressful an environment. As the organisation restructured, I was moved to my own office in a different building where I didn’t know anyone – this isolated me, and I started to feel quite lonely and a bit down. Plus, as I was out of the office so often (meeting with my various teams and government bodies), I just didn’t have time to cultivate other work relationships.
I set up regular support and supervision meetings with my team managers but started to find I didn’t have the time type up my notes to give to them – first point of slippage.
I think I always presented positively to my own manager. I was full of ideas for how we could grow the business and a kept calm demeanour, so maybe she thought I was capable. Her stance was ‘be bold, be brief, be gone’ so I never had much time with her. However, I did ask her many, many times for administrative support and was always told we couldn’t afford it – as a charity we needed to pull in our belt.
Over time, when I met with some of the government bodies, etc., I found it difficult to concentrate for any length of time and I didn’t challenge them where I would have done previously – I just didn’t have the energy. My mental and physical reserves seemed to be eroding and I wasn’t recharging them.
I had been offered this opportunity and didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to feel shamed and embarrassed by not doing a good job. HR, to their credit, did ask me if I was OK on a few occasions when I popped into their office to discuss staff issues. I always said I was fine as I wanted to appear in control, but inside I was ‘jangling.’
By now, the ‘jangling’ had evolved in its intensity, and I can only describe it as internal shaking; like the feeling you have after you’ve just thrown-up – distressed and weak and watery limbed.
I sometimes went back to my office and would just put my head in my hands, unable to start work on anything. I was paranoid that if anyone walked through the door and saw me, they would get the wrong impression. But still, I congratulated myself on just how much stress I could deal with.
My symptoms, which could come at any time, were cold/hot sweats, ‘jangling’, extreme fatigue and an inability to maintain my focus. I was going through the menopause at the time, which I guess didn’t help. But, after a while, the symptoms stayed with me permanently.
I just wanted to lie down and go to sleep. I felt myself failing.
I talked at home about ‘when could I stop working’ but never got an answer to say ‘yes.’ I don’t know why I needed permission to stop but I did. So, I felt I had to continue.
When I got home every night, I immediately fell asleep on the sofa for 2 hours then got up to make dinner. Eventually, I was too tired to make my own food. And at weekends I never missed an opportunity to ‘catch up’ on work – on every journey I would have my laptop on my knees to fill any ‘potentially wasted time.’
I had to discipline people, dismiss them, make them redundant – I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t care, it was just another task.
After 18 months I was so tired I went to see the doctor and, when I started talking, it all came out.
I cried. She signed me off with exhaustion and work stress for 3 months. I knew I was tired, but it still came as a surprise that I was ‘officially’ stressed – that someone recognised that. I went home and slept and slept for 3 weeks – day and night. I was absolutely ‘burnt out.’
After 3 weeks, I knew I couldn’t go back. Work was ringing me asking what to do with the teams.
I went back for a discussion with HR, and they asked for recommendations… talk about wringing the last drop out of you. I advised them on how to restructure and who to elevate to more senior management positions.
They asked me to come back and said they’d create a new position for me, but I didn’t want to go back there and found it hard to focus on what was being said. I felt really ilI and knew I wouldn’t be able to back there.
They asked me if I wanted anything from them and I asked for an apology – of course, it never came. That would be admitting liability and would mean I could make a case to an employment tribunal. I would never have done it. I simply did not have the energy.
I’d lost my sense of myself – my personality, my sense of humour. I felt disconnected from everything and everyone. I saw family, and probably friends too, and seemed to function normally on the outside, but I don’t really remember that period of time.
It took me a whole year to get my physical strength back. After that, I volunteered with a charity part time for about 6 months. When they asked me to apply for the area manager’s job, I turned it down.
A short time after this, a friend introduced me to a small, local firm looking for admin support. I remember the interview – my friend was there with me, talking me up as I started to close down. I couldn’t talk and enthuse as I normally would and felt a stress response to the questioning. I wasn’t as OK as I thought I was.
However, fortunately, I still managed to get the job and that’s been a kind of rehabilitation for me, with only two other people in the company and very little responsibility.
In hindsight, it would probably have been helpful to talk about it to a professional. I wasn’t offered any further support from my GP and, at such a low ebb, I couldn’t think about helping myself. Even 9 years ago, mental health was so rarely discussed, and especially not in a positive light or supportive capacity, so there were no conversations, professional or otherwise, about my mental wellbeing.
Eventually, I knew I needed to build a social life and concentrated on making connections. It’s so easy to let this go and withdraw when you are feeling low. You think you’ll be no sort of company for anyone. It’s difficult to get past this but, I think, so important not withdrawn completely.
These days, I try to be a bit kinder to myself. It surprises me that I cared so much about other people’s needs but had so little insight into my own. Also, I think it’s a shame that I felt such a strong need for permission to give up on that job– knowing, within yourself, to walk away when it’s not working for you is important.
I’m ok now. Some days I feel better than others but don’t we all. I’m still not as good at coping with stress, but at least now I recognise it
If you are experiencing chronic stress or feeling burnt out, please do speak to your line manager and/or your GP.
Unfortunately, our friend’s story is not an uncommon one, with 17.9 million working days lost in the UK due to stress, anxiety and depression in 2019/2020.
The impact of stress on one’s mental and physical health seems to remain underestimated; it is understood as a consequence of modern life and work, perhaps even as a badge of honour.
But we hope this article goes some way to help you recognise that chronic feelings of stress are detrimental to your health, that you should pay attention and trust your response to your workload/work environment and that admitting to feeling stressed and asking for help is not a failing or weakness, but the healthy and responsible thing to do for yourself and for employer.