by Fabian Sautier — 11 September 2016
Over the last couple of years, the so-called “burnout” seems to have become the new modern workforce “disease”. Worldwide, millions of people suffer from troubles linked to burnout. The term was first defined by German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 and described as “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”.
While this definition seems rather precise at first glance, there are many common misconceptions and misunderstandings around burnout. If you have not experienced it yourself, you might be tempted to think about it as a period where someone is “tired” or “stressed out”. However, a “true” state of burnout goes far beyond such rather common signs like stress or fatigue that most people experience at some point of their life or career.
A burnout definition that resonates strongly with me comes from my Doctor who describes burnout as a “state of incapacity”. This is precisely what you can feel during a phase of burnout. In this state you simply are no longer capable of doing things that usually are part of your daily routine. For example, you might feel incapable of dealing with simple tasks at work, having a hard time focusing when writing an e-mail or when people talk during meetings. In later burnout stages, this state of incapacity can also reach life outside of work, e.g. incapacity to see your friends, get up in the morning, talk to people etc.
Yet, burnout symptoms must not be limited to the mind and mental health. Burnout can turn your mind against your body, to a point where the state of depression impacts your biological health. Again, symptoms can be very individual, some people will experience stomach pain, others pressure or ringing in the ears. Others will have sleeping troubles or migraine attacks.
The diversity of burnout symptoms is probably why, from an objective medical point of view, science is still struggling to clearly establish what a burnout exactly is. Consequently, social welfare systems in many developed nations, such as France or Germany are still not accepting “burnout” as legally relevant illness.
Yet, it was the term my Doctor used when I saw him some time ago. My Doctor. And now what?
Looking back, I believe I can identify four phases towards overcoming burnout. This is my personal case, so it might not apply to others universally, yet I hope that putting this article out there can be useful for somebody.
Phase 1: You’re not feeling well in your skin. But you’re not thinking about burnout. The tricky thing about burnout is that it can not be easily identified. When you break your arm you will feel clearly localized pain, so you go see your doctor, he will x-ray your arm, see what’s wrong, put a cast around it and tell you wait until bone has reconstructed.
With burnout the problem is that you know something is wrong but you might not necessarily attribute it to a burnout. I, for example, felt pressure on my ears, so my GP sent me to an otolaryngologist, who did all the tests, yet could not find any biological reason explaining what I felt.
Most of the time burnout will not manifest itself by only one symptom. Symptoms are often manifold and both, psychological and biological. It is therefore important to see the big picture. If you do not sleep well and have pressure on your ears, these things might not be linked at first glance, yet having them examined and treated individually might not lead to any improvement. When not feeling well in your skin, it is essential to listen to both, your mind and your body in order to understand for yourself what it is that you are feeling and experiencing.
This leads me to the importance of self-awareness and weak signals. Burnout comes and grows in steps. It does not overcome you from one day to the other. It is therefore of the utmost significance that you “monitor” yourself and your mental state of mind continuously. This means taking a step back from your daily professional and personal life in order to self-assess if you are feeling balanced and in good shape. Take a few deep breaths and listen towards the inside. What kind of emotions or sensations come up? What can you link them to?
It’s normal to be unbalanced every once and a while, yet when the state lasts longer or even becomes permanent, you need to listen to yourself, because your body or mind are telling you that something is wrong and that you need to get to the bottom of it in order to fix it.
Really listening to yourself can be extraordinarily powerful. It is the first step towards identifying that something is wrong. And once you have identified that something is wrong you can dig deeper and try to work on it. Looking back, I like to see burnout as an invitation to a profound journey of self-discovery and self-awareness.
Phase 2: Accepting that something is really wrong, that it’s not just “being stressed”, but that it might be a little more serious. We all tend towards downplaying our problems. Societal pressures make us believe we have to be strong, acknowledging weakness is never easy, for no one. So you tell yourself that things will get better at some point. Well, the thing about burnout is that it unfortunately does not just go away like this. It needs to be taken care of. And that means that it needs to be acknowledged in the first place.
This can be really, really hard. It was a friend of mine who saw that I was not doing well, who told me to go see a Doctor. At first I didn’t. I was in this state of incapacity, but I thought resting and a few days off might help me get over it. It didn’t. It got worse. At this point the only thing you can do is admitting to yourself that you are sick, mentally, biologically, whatever, you are sick and that unless you take matters into your hands, this situation is not going to improve by itself but worsen.
Phase 3: Ask for help! This was when I went to see my Doctor. I spoke about not being able to sleep, my ears ringing etc. I played it down, until he spoke it out for me: burnout. Not just a temporary period of stress. Burnout. I did not know it back then, but I just had made the most important step towards recovery – having someone qualified tell me what was really going on.
Burnout can lead towards isolation. Yet, outside help plays an essential role in the recovery process. Confiding into your close social network, family or friends, can be a first step out of your “dark hole”.
Yet, from my personal experience I can say that the exchanges that were the most useful for me were the ones with objective people without emotional attachment to me, e.g. psychologists. They can help you to continue your journey of self-awareness in order to identify the source of your burnout, what is the underlying reason. An independent professional can help you ask the right questions, lead you towards finding the answers and thus gently accompany towards recovery.
In my case, this process has been eye-opening. I have learned more about myself, my value system and my professional and personal priorities than anyone could have ever told me.
Phase 4: Recovery takes time. And you are the only one who can say how much. Usually, when you have reached the stage of a burnout, you have not been well in your skin for a significant period of time (with or without acknowledging it). My Doctor likes to compare the healing process with the recovery process of fertile soil. If fertile soil is too intensively cropped and harvested in too short intervals, the soil will be overburdened; fertile soil will turn into scorched earth. The same is true for over-solicited individuals: if they do not have the necessary time to regenerate and repair, they cannot be productive and happy.
It is therefore of the utmost importance that you give yourself all the time necessary. Weeks, months, or longer, in order to re-find your inner balance and stability and eventually recover the great person that you are. No one but yourself will know when you have reached that point. Indicators are when you retrieve the motivation and desire to redo some of the things you could not do during your period of incapacity. It can feel as if the fog around you suddenly starts to clear up and thinking clearly slowly becomes possible again. You start to recover your capacities and soon this dark episode will hopefully only be a bad memory. You can do it!
Looking back, there are positive things that I take away from this difficult period. I have learned a lot about myself, about what is important for me (and sometimes it is not what you tell yourself), my values and belief system.
Sometimes people say that a burnout feels like "losing yourself", forgetting who you are. However, going through the process of recovery can be a journey towards finding and understanding yourself on a much deeper, ideological level. This newly gained self-awareness will make you so much stronger going forward. It will allow you to monitor yourself, to realize with awareness when something troubles you, understand why it troubles you and set the necessary boundaries to put distance between yourself and the origin of your trouble.
This profound state of self-awareness, of what matters to me and what not, of who I am and who I am not, is probably the greatest gift burnout has given me. It is what I want to take away from this challenge. It will be the positive scar that remains.
If you want to share your perspective on this story, you are welcome to use the comments section below. We would love to hear from you!
To go further, we recommend:
All Rights Reserved.