Some years ago, I went through one of the most challenging times in my life. I was working full time in a quite demanding sector while completing a postgraduate degree in finance.
My work weeks were busy; my study arrangements hectic. My sense of duty and time management skills helped me to carry on, but that wasn’t enough.
I ended up being overworked, overstretched and exhausted. I couldn’t concentrate on anything; I barely slept. Nothing in my habits, work, or relationships gave me joy or purpose anymore.
I also experienced physical symptoms such as shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Sometimes I felt so overwhelmed I couldn’t move.
While in the midst of the storm, I met a career counsellor. She helped senior students figure out their career perspectives after graduation.
I opened up about my struggle. I was quite candid about how lost and scared I felt, and how difficult it was for me to make any plan about my future.
I didn’t expect to experience anything like that at such a young age. I mean, it’s usually over40 super-busy corporate managers with a non-existent work-life balance who end up burnt out, not a twenty-something pupil, isn’t it?
The counsellor advised me to take a break and not to worry too much about my future. Life is long, and mine would not end the following day anyway.
Something she said is still with me today. Referring to my “too young to burn out” comment, she hinted that going through such a tough time at a younger age is preferable.
For her, the older you are, the harder your recovery. That’s because ageing involves a growing amount of responsibilities. As a result, the fallout of a rough period is way more severe when you are older.
At that time, hearing so didn’t go down well. I felt she was dismissing my distress just because I was young. My fewer or minor responsibilities made my pain look milder in an imaginary “pain scale”. I walked away annoyed and never returned.
Several years have gone since our conversation. My opinion hasn’t changed: burnout is awful at any age. I would wish no one to experience it “sooner than later.” I would wish no one to experience it – period.
Going through such a hard time at a young age taught me some lessons I wouldn’t have learnt otherwise. So she might be right after all…
Lesson #1 – The younger, the better (?)
I would argue this is true, but for different reasons than those brought up by my university counsellor.
Burnout tests your boundaries and reveals the ones you better not cross. It’s more than a philosophical matter; it’s a physiological one.
Exceeding your limits makes you feel miserable and adds nothing to your performance or success.
If you reckon you need 8 hours of sleep per night, switch off your devices and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Then do the same habit-check for food intake, exercise, leisure, social relations, and so on.
The sooner you acknowledge your limits, the better you can play your life around them going forward. That will prevent you from ending up in misery-land at a later stage.
Lesson #2 – You become more self-aware
Burnout made me realise what I fancy and what I absolutely reject. Too bad it took so much pain for me to do so, but I am grateful nonetheless.
You are so exhausted that nothing – nothing – appeals to you. You feel drained, done, doomed – and any other d-word you can think of.
Truth is, you do still have passions. There will always be something out there that intrigues you or sparks your creativity, or gives you joy. That is what you must pursue.
At the same time, you become very aware of what makes you upset or willing to run away – that may be the same thing or circumstance that led you to burn out in the first place.
Having a clear understanding of what you want and don’t want in life is an asset. Burnout may not be the best way to find out, but it definitely allows you to be more mindful when it comes to life decisions.
Lesson #3 – You become more sensitive
Hardship changes your outlook on life. You see other people’s struggles differently. You are more understanding and less keen to judge people upfront.
You become more sensitive to suffering in others because you ache so much yourself. That’s called empathy.
Is that a fair reward for going through such a hell? We could argue about it. But experiencing weakness myself at a young age made me a kinder and a less judgmental adult. And I am grateful for that.
Recovering from burnout
All good, but what do you when you are in the middle of burnout? How do you get back on track?
1. Stop resisting
Burnout happens gradually, and you do see it coming. Your first reaction is to ignore the signals your body is throwing at you.
You fight back because you feel you can’t stop. You can’t skip deadlines; you can’t fail; you can’t disappoint people.
Or can you?
Stop resisting. It doesn’t help you and only makes things worse. Acknowledge that you have a lot on your plate and take a step back.
What’s the worst-case scenario? Nobody will remember if you didn’t reply to that email at 10 pm. But the harm you will cause yourself if you keep disregarding your needs will have long-lasting effects.
Admitting that you have a problem is the first step to fix it and move on.
2. Reassess your priorities and put yourself first
Get back to the basics:
- Eat well;
- Exercise or move your body regularly;
- Get enough sleep.
When at work, keep in mind that your priority is your recovery, not the next task on the list:
- Take some time off to recharge your batteries.
- If you can’t stay away from your commitments for too long, set clear boundaries. No overtime, leave work at work, no phone calls or emails at night, etc.
- Learn to say “no.” You can either talk to your coworkers about what’s going on – if the environment allows so – or politely state you are unavailable to take on any additional responsibilities to focus on what you are already busy with.
Focus on yourself:
- Regain your space. Have “solo sessions” to enjoy your favourite activities. Equally, spend some quality time with your loved ones and those who care about you.
- Ask yourself what really matters to you. What is working in your life, and what you would like to change? Look at the things that make you happy, but don’t fuss about finding conclusive answers just yet. Look for the right questions instead.
- Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Nobody can operate at full speed all the time. The need for a break does not equate to failure. And it won’t last forever. You will be back – and stronger than ever.
3. Ask for help (but don’t let others override you)
Be it for professional advice or an intimate conversation with a friend, do reach out.
Open up about what makes you feel miserable. That will help you identify causes and explore coping methods when you are just too gutted to think straight.
Different people offer different perspectives on things too. That may help you examine options you didn’t consider at first.
Always remember to stay true to yourself, though. Don’t let anyone override you. You are the ultimate decider of your life, and you know what’s best for you.
4. Take your time
Recovering from burnout is a slow journey. Not only you need to heal the consequences of it (lack of sleep, work-life unbalance, etc.), but you must understand and address its underlying causes.
But you can – and will – come out of it. Just don’t rush through the process.
Slow down and allow yourself to take a break. No, one week off work isn’t enough. Neither is an entire month to be fair.
You need to take back control over your life, not holidays. That’s why you should build new and healthier habits.
Be honest with yourself and acknowledge what isn’t working in your life. Then fix it or change it. And any time you find something that makes you happy, ask yourself why.
It does take time, but it’s worth it. I promise.
“For all evils there are two remedies – time and silence.”A. Dumas