The one tool that saved me from burning out

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I’ve been conspicuously radio-silent for a while, and that’s not like me. I love writing. Maybe you guys haven’t noticed, but I sure have.

I didn’t have writer’s block.

In fact, I have at least 10 partially written blog posts just waiting for my attention. Why couldn’t I just “do the work” and finish a damn article and post it? What was wrong with me?

And then it dawned on me. I had a really crappy 2017.

It started with a trip to the hospital in the middle of the night last Spring, followed by gallbladder surgery which took me off work for a couple of weeks and prevented me from playing my favourite sport for 6 weeks (mixed rec league slo-pitch softball), then being forced out of a job I was truly passionate about (it’s a long story), and shortly after, having to drop everything and drive 5 hours to get my dad out of the hospital, out of his apartment, and into a retirement home back here, only to have him back into the hospital a month later. And just when his situation got stable-ish, my sister and my dog got diagnosed with cancer.

My FREAKIN’ DOG, people!

Seriously though, I hadn’t realized how much cancer affects not just the patient but the entire family. Navigating the different systems? Holy crap. And don’t even get me started about all the mental health repercussions, how everybody reacts differently, and how it brings out the crazy in everybody. Cancer sucks. #FuckCancer (yes, there’s a charity named FuckCancer. Isn’t it amazing? Thank you, Stephen Amell.) And for those wondering, my dog is fine now – minus $3K & an amputated toe – and my sister is doing better (Hooray for the Canadian healthcare system! At least we don’t have to deal with medical bills) though she’s not out of the woods yet.

Connecting the dots backwards

Because I consider myself an eternal optimist, I have a tendency to overlook challenging situations. I make light of them. I find ways to overcome them and I move on. Unfortunately, I almost ended up burning out not because of one difficult situation, but because I failed to add up all the challenges that I’d faced over a relatively short period of time and see that they were compounding and were slowly crushing me.

I consider myself pretty self-aware. I journal regularly, especially when I’m going through something difficult. I knew I was going through some rough times, but at some point in the Fall I started to notice a few things.

The biggest one was that I wasn’t performing as much or as well as I was used to at work. At first, I thought it was because I’d started a new job that summer and I was just ramping up, learning curve and all. But by the Fall, I should’ve been able to get rolling. I started feeling really guilty and shared it with my boss.

“I’m concerned that I’m not doing enough. I know I’m capable of doing more.”, I told her.

Bless her soul, she responded “I know what you’re capable of. You don’t have to prove anything to me. You have your family to take care of. Your workload will remain the same or I can take more off if you need me to.”, I cried when I heard that, grateful for her support, but also already showing deep cracks in my resilience armour.

That was a pretty obvious red flag.

I’m a pretty strong mental health advocate, but I wouldn’t be a very good one if I didn’t lead by example and take care of my own mental health when I truly needed to.

Signs you’re headed towards burnout

If you know me, you know that I believe in synchronicity. Shortly after that red flag went up, I found a link to a wellbeing checklist that was shared in our internal newsletter at work as part of our weekly mental health tidbit.

I thought “Ah what the heck. I’ll fill it out just for fun and then ask others if they’d done it. It’ll create conversation.”

Seeing the result was like someone splashing a glass of ice water in my face. Right then, I resolved to take some time off as soon as possible.

The checklist works like this: there are a series of categories and it asks you about all types of symptoms that can affect these areas. The more boxes you check, the more you’re at risk for serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and burnout. I checked 27 boxes out of 61. That’s almost half.

Here are just a few signs to look for

Some of them seem obvious, like:

  • I’m having trouble sleeping well, or am sleeping all the time
  • I feel like I have little or no control over my life
  • I have difficulty concentrating at work
  • I feel like I’m letting everyone down at work
  • I frequently worry about work even when I’m not at work
  • I feel like crying all the time
  • I use coffee, alcohol, or drugs to help me get through the day

Though I didn’t expect excessive coffee to be one of the signs. Everybody drinks coffee all day long… don’t they?

What struck me were some of the less obvious things to look for:

  • I don’t feel rested when I get up in the morning
  • I have problems with digestion, such as stomach bloating, pain or gas
  • I often feel guilty about letting my team down
  • I’m finding it difficult to read and remember what I’ve read
  • I find it difficult to start tasks
  • I don’t laugh with my co-workers anymore
  • I don’t feel valued by a lot of the people I work with
  • I don’t understand why I can’t get my work done

What to do when you think you’re headed towards burnout

If you’re self-aware enough to suspect something is wrong, do yourself a favour and fill out the wellness checklist. And let’s be clear here, it’s not any one particular symptom that will make the difference. It’s how they add up that raises the red flag. The point of the list isn’t to self-diagnose any particular issue either.  At the very least it’ll give you a few points of data to start a conversation.

Talk to a therapist about it. Talk to your boss. Talk to a friend. At the very least, bring that list with you and talk to your doctor. Have a conversation about what’s been going on in your life. Don’t just keep going, putting on a brave face and telling yourself to “man up”. Work isn’t the only thing going on in your life. Sometimes work is fine but it’s the rest of your life that’s sucking in that moment.

And take some time off.

Not just a few days, not even just a week or two. Take at least a whole month off, if not more.

This is not a vacation. It’s your health.

It wasn’t until I started my 3rd week off that it stopped feeling like I was just on vacation and I finally started allowing myself to truly rest. Trust me, you either take that time off now, or end up burning out and then you’ll have to be off work for at least 6 months or even upwards of a full year.

There’s no shame in struggling.

We ALL struggle from time to time. And it’s ok – no, in this age of increasing rates of mental health issues and suicide it’s IMPERATIVE – to talk about it.

There’s no shame in taking time off for your mental health

I happened to be reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly this Fall, and it made me realize that even though I consider myself a huge mental health advocate, I still felt major shame around the idea of taking time off for my own mental health. I suppose it had been drilled into me as a kid. “If you’re not really sick, you don’t miss school!”.

Reading about shame and what it does to us made me realize that I was headed in the direction of actually WAITING for burnout to happen before I would allow myself to take time off work.

HOW CRAZY IS THAT!?

It took a lot of courage on my part to request that time off, and I fight my shame gremlin every day when it tries to tell me that I’m just being lazy. But I still allow myself to sleep as long as I need to, or take naps in the afternoon if I’m tired. I refrain from filling my days with busyness and I take breaks… I take a lot of breaks.

That’s REALLY HARD for a high performer like me.

I always feel like I should be doing more. I should be able to do more… But I have to keep telling myself it’s ok… even on those days when I don’t believe it.

Lastly, although as an introvert I’m recharging big time from being away from people, I’m also making sure I’m still scheduling “connection sessions” (you know, not just seeing and interacting with people, but actually being present with them and having real human-to-human conversation) with at least one person a week. Because as we all know, we are wired for social connection, and meaningful connection is one of the strongest protectors against mental illness.

So if you’re out there, and you’re struggling with potential burnout, depression, anxiety, or any kind of mental health issue, please talk to someone about it.

And if you don’t feel like you have anyone you can trust, I am here. You are not alone.

-Mel

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