What is burnout?

“A state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.”

Burnout can wreak havoc in your personal and professional life and have a huge impact on the people around you, yet most people are still unwilling to talk about it. From the individual’s point of view, they don’t want to be seen as ‘weak,’ ‘incapable,’ ‘not up to the job’ or any number of things that their internal dialogue is telling them.

Organisations are also reluctant to admit it’s happening in their workplaces, often seeing it as a poor reflection on their culture.  I know this from experience.  In 2011, from a sense of personal frustration due to lack of support from my own employer at the time, I created a workshop for managers on Stress Absence Management.

It followed a six-month period where three of my team members had undergone tragedy in their lives and needed time off.  I had to deal with the HR process and facilitate the most positive return to work possible for each of them.  It was a stressful time and my MD made my life very difficult through his utter lack of emotional intelligence.

At the time, I’d undertaken the Mental Health First Aid course, but I realised that there wasn’t a product on the market that was aimed at managers which would teach them how to better support themselves and their teams, so I developed one.  Companies snapped up my course – but didn’t want anyone to know they had adopted it!

The Superwoman delusion

Unrealistic self-expectation, coupled with a lack of support, can also lead to burnout. Take Bernie Mudie, whom I heard speak at a Mindful Employer conference in Leeds.  A former civil servant, she was head of a large Government department, with 300 staff and a contracting area valued at £4bn.

Bernie loved her job. She willingly worked long hours, sat on a number of Boards, worked with MPs and a wide range of stakeholders.  Then, following a restructure it went from (in her words) “frenetic to supersonic.”

She started to experience memory blanks and initially worried that she was starting to get the dementia her father suffers from.  Then she put on three stones in weight and her blood pressure rose.

In her words, she went from the top of her game to the bottom virtually overnight.  Her return to work was terrifying and she experienced paranoia about her upcoming Stress Risk Assessment.  A further restructure was the final straw, but fortunately she was able to take voluntary severance following her 35 year career and she’s excited about what comes next.

At the end of her talk, Berni asked a question that resonated with me.  She asked “How do people move forward if they don’t had the advantages that I did?…[as a senior professional, people took her condition more seriously].

A (very) personal story

In the late 90s/early 2000s, I had a high-flying sales career, alternating work each week between London and Frankfurt.  Then things started to go downhill…

My brother was hit by a bus and was in hospital for a few months, initially in a coma. Then I had to report a friend missing. His body was found a fortnight later (as a 23 year old, I had to attend his inquest alone). In that same two-week period, my beloved uncle died unexpectedly. Soon after, my employer underwent voluntary liquidation, and I went on to a new job with a bullying female boss.

That final experience was my tipping point and I collapsed at work.  I’d been on auto-pilot for so long that I didn’t realise that I was experiencing burnout.  I was hospitalised for a week and it was then, in 2003, that I decided to move back to Leeds. It one of the best life decisions I’ve ever made.

Life was smooth again for the next ten years, until a close friend took his life.  As usual, I masked my feelings and supported our friends, not thinking about myself very much at all.  You see, I believed my own rhetoric…“I’m a strong pair of shoulders,” “I’m capable.” “I ‘get’ mental health.”

What a joke!  Three months in, something gave and I decided to go to Cruse for counselling.

At the start of my third session, my counsellor said something that made me sit up.  It was this: “Anj, you know all the techniques.  You understand the grief cycle and where you are on it.  Your challenge is that you are so used to being in control and these events were not in your control.  That’s where your issue lies.”

The Ripple Effect

His words had a huge impact and started me on a journey of becoming more in the flow. Now ‘flow’ leads both my personal and professional decisions. I realised the importance of setting healthy boundaries, and allowing myself time to rest or play without feeling guilty, although my old habits created a lot of resistance within me at first.

I want to show others that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and that they’ll emerge stronger, even if it seems out of reach in their present situation.

It never ceases to amaze me how, by being open about this topic, others start to say “Me too.”  The change starts with ourselves.  By being open yourself, you give others the space and ‘permission’ to talk about how they’re feeling.

You don’t need to have the answers, you just need to ask the questions. Open up to having more honest conversations.  This approach, although difficult for our egos to embrace at first, creates a far-reaching ripple effect.  Now go and start talking!

Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She helps women to speak up: for themselves, for others, and for social issues.