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How to Recognize — and Survive — Burnout

One woman remembers the night she hit bottom — and reveals the keys to a joyful rebound

By Carol Ross | July 12, 2012
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Carol Ross is a Bell Labs engineer turned career coach, entrepreneur, speaker, and writer. She has created career development programs to help talented midcareer professionals be more successful in a competitive, increasingly digital marketplace. Contact Carol on LinkedIn or by email.

I remember the exact moment when I burned out.

It was in the wee hours of a Saturday morning last summer. I was in my home office after waking up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep. For two years I had been bootstrapping a startup that was a complement to my career-coaching practice; the new venture was designed to provide university alumni associations with career development programs.

Now, in the midst of this sleepless night, I was trying to find a break in my work schedule. I realized there wasn’t one. Every block of time was labeled and spoken for by others. My time was not my own and I resented it.

I was 50 — and I felt trapped.

In that moment, I realized I had nothing left to give to my business or to my family. I yearned for a wide-open calendar with no appointments, responsibilities or obligations — but I had the exact opposite.

The day before, I had phoned a friend who is a business coach. As I recounted the disappointing results from my startup, I asked her, “Do I sound confused?”

“No," she replied. "You sound tired.”

I burst into tears.  I was tired. Burned out.

I needed to rest.
 
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In her book, Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, Joan Borysenko calls burnout “a painful affliction of good people who are trying to give their very best.”

Bull's-eye.
 
The Signs of Burning Out

In hindsight, there were four telltale signs of burnout, which I ignored:

The simplest tasks had become hard. I was finding it difficult to answer emails requiring anything more than one sentence or a yes/no response. Contrary to my traditional style of quickly assessing options and choosing a direction, I couldn’t make a decision.  

My creativity had vanished. For years, I blogged twice a week — and always had more ideas than  time to write about them. Months before hitting bottom, however, I lost my mojo. I went weeks, almost months, without a single post.

I resented taking on outside work — even to help a friend. Because I was so depleted, I felt put-upon when asked to give time or attention to someone outside my business. I no longer felt the satisfaction of helping anyone other than my paid clients. Health issues began to surface.

When a longtime acquaintance asked to meet for coffee so she could get my feedback on her new business, I requested we do it on Skype instead and delayed our talk for a month. After rescheduling several times, I ultimately told her I wouldn’t be able to connect in the near future.
 
Joyful activities felt like obligations. These included hosting a women’s networking group and throwing a high-school graduation party for my oldest child. Instead of savoring life's tastiest moments, I was ignoring their sweetness.

My Road to Recovery

I decided to take time off and began doing nothing more than whatever nurtured me in the moment work-wise, such as one-on-one coaching.

I thought it would take a month to recharge. When I returned full-time, I felt fine on Day One. By Day Two, however, I knew that I was not "back." By the end of the week, I felt worse than I did before I took a month off. 

After discussing our household finances with my husband, we made the decision to live on our savings for several months. I shut everything down — again.

Three months later, I still wasn’t fully recovered mentally or physically. I hobbled through another two months before returning to work.

Now, one year after I hit bottom, I've embraced real change.
 
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I’m “in the flow” more consistently. As a result, it takes less time to get something done than when I was in burnout mode. I now pace myself, which yields better results than slogging furiously through my to-do list. These days, I rarely feel rushed or anxious around deadlines. Sometimes I even deliver my work early.
 
6 Tips to Deal With Burnout

If you're feeling burned out, I'd like to share six lessons learned during my ongoing recovery process:

1. It takes longer to recover than you think. Burnout comes after a long period of depleting yourself. So “filling the gas tank" isn’t a matter of weeks, but months.

2. Take all the time you need. People will understand. From colleagues who took over my workload, to clients who found it courageous that I would openly take time off, to family and friends who expressed concern, the people who mattered most to me sympathized with what I was going through. 

After notifying my clients and colleagues about my leave of absence, one client wrote back, saying: “How refreshing to receive your message — full of humanity. I wish you a peaceful and restful ‘sabbatical.’ This is clearly earned! So glad you have the foresight and courage to do this.

3. Turn off the noise and tune into your true self. It's critical to create an environment where you can nurture yourself. I disconnected from social media and limited my time on email. I stopped networking. I declined requests from friends asking to pick my brain. 
 
The irony is that I had spent the previous two years teaching thousands of professionals to network. But this unplugging was important. It allowed my mind to quiet down and my soul to be heard, whether it was "Get some sleep!" or "It’s time to go to the library and check out the newest books."  
 
4. Regain your energy, then move toward joy. What you really need is a chance to exhale. Before deciding to take time off, I felt as if I were always holding my breath, trying to keep everything together. When I stepped away from my startup, it was like exhaling for the first time in months — I learned to relax into the exhaustion, instead of fighting it. That meant sleeping in, waking up for a few hours, and then going back to bed. 
 
Once I regained my energy, I was then able to rediscover all the things that give me joy — reading, blogging, gardening, spending time with family.
 
5. Rethink your work. By that I mean you need to reconsider everything about your job: what you do, how you do it, who you work with and the financial considerations. They all factor into the ultimate bottom line: Is it worth it?
 
Two wise consultants/coaches helped me understand how I had sabotaged myself in the past. I now work in my sweet spot. My career coaching practice focuses on the things I’m most passionate about — telling your story, discovering and packaging your wisdom, and finding your voice — rather than covering everything under the sun that I could possibly do for a client. My new role in the startup is chief talent scout and producer, rather than developer and presenter of content.
 
Compared to my pre-burnout days, I’m now working a couple of hours less every day, getting 20 percent more done and seeing 50 percent better results.
 
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6. Be prepared to live differently. Post-burnout, I feel like I’m wired differently. Life used to be an endurance contest, a challenge to see how much I could cram into one day. Not anymore.

Instead, I take little breaks throughout the day — a short walk, a nap, time in my backyard. This allows me to see new options, be more creative and break through mental logjams. 

Even if you don’t have the flexibility that comes with being self-employed, it’s still possible to carve out time for breaks.

How? Arrange to leave a meeting a few minutes early and engage in an activity that recharges you. Yoga stretches are great; so are brisk walks.

My Life Today

It’s been a year since that middle-of-the-night awakening. While I don’t count myself among the fully recovered (I don’t know if I ever will), I am living better than I have in years.

I continually remind myself that life is not a race to the finish, but rather a dance to enjoy.

Shameless self-promotion: If you’re looking to end the burnout cycle, you might be interested in my webinar on burnout in my Break Out of Your Bubble career development program. Whether you sign up or not, I wish you happiness.