“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions; your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system.” ““ Sam Keen
We’ve all been there. The job that we may have taken to escape from another situation, the one we settled on because times are tough and having a job these days just seems like a blessing.The one that we thought we would work at “temporarily” until we found something better. Maybe it started off great, those first few months were similar to a brand new relationship: you wanted to share yourself, impress your co-workers and boss, show them that you have a “can-do” attitude and are willing to go the extra mile.
Then you feel like you have gone an extra hundred miles. Then a hundred more.The new turns into the norm and maybe the norm turns into hell. The little oddities and imperfections we were so happy to ignore those first few months, now drive us to resentment and aggravation. Requests or extra work become metaphors for how you feel taken advantage of and you begin to ask, what does it all mean? Is this good for me? What role am I playing here? How can I get out?
Whether its the job that underpays us, understimulates us or emotionally abuses us, it just isn’t working. We want something new or have maybe just outgrown where we originally started from and start to feel mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. Every day seems to be a bad day filled with stressful or triggering events. You begin to feel like the majority of your work is useless and these feelings spill over into your “other” life, when you actually get to be in your “other” life. You’re tired, you feel like you’re “failing,” and maybe you’re beginning to start coping by drinking more or picking up a few other bad habits. When burnout happens – it has to be dealt with.
Theres always a bit of emotional baggage to this process – work burnout should be looked at like the seven stages of grief. The first four usually define the first stages of work burnout.
1. Shock and Denial : Whether it creeps up slowly or hits you like a ton of bricks, there is always the feeling that maybe you aren’t doing something right. Its a great way to start the grieving process: it’s a way to protect us from the toppling bricks that make up this idea of “who we are,” Sure, we aren’t our job, but when you dedicate forty or more hours of yourself to anything, don’t you feel like part of you resides there? You’re attached, but attached doesn’t mean you care. This attachment can lead to the excusal of certain behaviors. When you are immersed in something so heavily, it becomes harder to confront what seems “normal.” Years ago, I worked with an emotionally abusive woman who would scream things into my face, like, “I can get you fired whenever I want,” and I would completely deny the reality of the situation. I needed that job and everyone had always said, “That’s just how she is.” Well, if they could so easily accept it, why couldn’t I? I rationalized it: I’m the one that’s sensitive, this paycheck is more important than how I feel. This is how the “real world” is, and I just need to accept it.
2. Pain and Guilt : As the shock wears off, you realize you’re depressed, frustrated, or miserable.Maybe you wake up one morning and the thought of going to work makes you feel absolutely awful or you have to escape to the bathroom six times a day to break down and cry. When grieving, its always emphasized that you don’t hide your pain – that you accept that things feel scary and chaotic and you aren’t happy. But doing this in the workplace is a bit harder. There is still the need to keep it relatively cool. But there’s also the guilt – maybe you just can’t “hack” it like all the other quitters. Maybe you just need to give it “more time.” Only you are able to fully judge whether or not its a temporary feeling.
3. Anger and Bargaining : Sometimes the resentment and frustration gets so bad that it ekes into your routine. Maybe it’s self-directed, maybe directed at coworkers, possibly even directed at friends and family. Why doesn’t it seem like anyone understands what you are going through? You begin to bargain: OK, I’ll stay here for a year and then I’ll look for another job, If I leave, then I’m only cheating myself. Okay, if I can make it through today, I’ll deal with everything tomorrow.
4. Depression, Reflection, Loneliness : The worst part of the burnout. Where is the confident person who was able to get anything they wanted? Everything seems so unattainable now. Browsing jobs can seem like an exercise on what “you aren’t” and qualifications you don’t have. A resume sent out with no response can make you feel like you have failed. All the crap you put up with at your job seems to have made it into your self-worth.
Take yourself out of the narrative for a moment. What do you imagine your work environment like without you in the equation? Are you scared of being labeled as a “quitter”? Have you internalized the misery and negativity and feel like you aren’t good enough for any other job? Do you like what you’re doing or is it just a means to pay the bills ? Are you “your job”? Do you need certain changes made for things to be more sustainable or do you need something different all together?
These are all hard questions to ask. And there are two ways to go about it. Like your job, but feeling under-paid and overworked? Start with the basics. Is your boss someone you can confide in about these concerns and possibly relieve some of your stress? If not, you might have to take things into your own hands to make things manageable until you have a plan. Set boundaries – don’t say yes to every little thing that comes your way and emphasize a strict day off policy if you can: when you’re off, you’re off. Have vacation days? Use those suckers. Take advantage of every perk you have – it might be health insurance, it might be free coffee, but milk it. You never know where you’ll be down the line and there is no worse feeling than realizing that while you may be happier, you really should have gone to see the dentist when you were covered. So what happens if you’re past this point and everyday feels like a new trauma?
First, try to take things slower. Give yourself time to relax and deal. Its hard because when you are feeling desperate, any attempt at chilling out is almost perceived as laziness. But you need to chill – to do what is best for you. Reflect on what is making you feel so awful and how you can deal with it until you are able to move on to another environment.
Second, get support- whether from sympathetic co-workers or friends and family outside the situation that can offer objective support and advice. Being able to just talk about how you feel will help. It’s hard though, sometimes we want to self-protect. Once, at a job that I felt completely drained by, I would come home to my partner and be utterly silent. He would ask me how my day was: “Fine”. Actually it wasn’t fine, it was awful, but I knew if I started talking about it, I would have to again confront the awful way I had felt all day. I didn’t want to burden him. Bt thats what the people closest to you are there for- to be burdened sometimes.
Lastly, reevaluate. Not just what you need in a work environment, but what you want and what matters to you. You may not find it at the next job, maybe not even the one after that. But you have to keep rediscovering what makes you happy, what is important to you and how you can pay the bills without destroying yourself.
The last three steps in the grieving process are about moving forward. Things are supposed to still hurt, but you have emotional, mental and physical energy to move past what was a dark period.
5. The Upward Turn : You still feel like if one more person asks you for something, you might up, turn, and slap the dog shit out of them. But instead of reacting so much on yourself, you might be reacting more towards your ways out. Sending out resumes? Good. Saying no to things you just “can’t” do ? Good. You come to realize that there is light at the end of the tunnel – you just have to hold on long enough to see it.
6. Reconstruction : Through the miracle of possibly having an “out,” you begin to feel functional again – maybe not at your actual job, but through finding alternatives to other paths you can take. You seek solutions instead of meditating in the “dark space” of where you once were.
7. Acceptance and Hope : Maybe your situation at work has changed. Maybe you got a new job or are at least picking up interviews. Maybe you have just finally come to deal with the fact that you hate your job and until you get another one, you just have to be a trooper. Acceptance isn’t happiness. It just means you are making peace with the situation around you. This doesn’t mean you will ever feel awful again, but maybe now you have the experience of how to better deal with it or to recognize when you start to spiral into a burnout.
To all the Persephone folks out there now, fighting the good fight against burnout, dealing with burnout or becoming free from burnout, I salute you. It ain’t easy, but as the old adage goes, nothing worthwhile ever is. Almost.