In 2012, I was put on sick leave due to a burnout. The road to recovery was long and difficult, and my progress was slow. This is the story of how it was for me. I will also tell you something about what the research shows and what can be done in an organisation to help prevent burnout.
When you read about burnout you often get the feeling that it is something that springs into being rather suddenly, like a match catching fire. That the onset of symptoms (exhaustion, reduced performance and cynicism) of a burnout is a process that is rather quick, like the match burning out.
“The mental and emotional exhaustion was present for a long time...”
However, when thinking back on the time preceding my burnout I have always felt that this was not the case. My mental and emotional exhaustion, as well as my reduced performance, was present for a long time before I was put on sick leave.
The way I have always perceived the process was that the exhaustion crept up on me and got worse as time passed. The more exhausted I got the more stressed I got as I made more mistakes, and forgot steps and things I should have done. I also got more insecure in myself and my role, as I also started doubting the quality in the tasks I did complete flawlessly. I started to double check, and later triple check, everything, making every task take even longer. As time passed I got more and more behind on my work due to this which lead me to work more hours.
This set off a big vicious downward spiral of never-ending proofing of my work; more work hours; lower and lower self esteem and belief in my own skills and knowledge; increased exhaustion; and more stress.
“The work week just wasn't enough...”
The work week just wasn't enough and evenings and weekends were spent working more often than not. I also got little to no proper sleep as I couldn't disconnect from work and when I did sleep, I often woke up in a panicky feeling, convinced I had made a mistake in the work I just completed.
Of course this only served to feed my mental, emotional and physical tiredness causing more problems at, and with, my work leading to more self doubt and loss of self confidence.
“A sad smile”
My self doubt went so far that I even held my tongue in a client meeting when I understood that the client had misinterpreted the figures we had provided in a report. I just doubted myself too much to dare say anything: Perhaps I don't remember the variables and the maths behind the figure correctly? I can, after all, not remember double-checking the variables included in this index, or how it is calculated. Maybe I made a programming error and used one wrong variable? I know I double checked it all but why didn't I check it again before we went into the meeting? They are probably right, I should just be quiet so I don't embarrass my boss and the company.
After the meeting, when my boss asked me about that specific part of the discussion, I told him that I had kept quiet even though I "had a feeling" the client "might have been wrong". This just because I wasn't sure I was right, there was no "being sure" in me any more.
My boss looked at me quite astonished that I hadn't said anything. Then he shook his head with a sad smile, a smile I will never forget, and proceeded to clear up the misunderstanding with the client.
“I couldn't put one mental foot in front of the other”
As you can see, the progress of the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that is part of burnout, was slow. It was like walking up a perpetual, gently inclining path, for over a year before I got to a point where I couldn't put one mental foot in front of the other. Then I finally went to see my doctor and broke down in tears of exhaustion in her office.
“Action needs to be taken early”
In a meta study by Dr. Christina Guthier, published in 2020 and a part of her award winning dissertation at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, has confirmed what I experienced, and then have observed for years: burnout builds up gradually over time and it has a much higher impact on work stress than vice versa.
This means that in order to prevent employees from burning out, action needs to be taken early. When the more obvious symptoms of burnout start to show it is very hard to prevent it from happening.
So what can be done to prevent the burnout? One effective tool is to look at the combination of worked hours and performance data. Those who show the combination of continuously, a few weeks is enough, working longer hours while the performance goes down need support. Sit down with each and every one of them, and have a solution oriented conversation to hear what support they need in order not to burn out.
If you would like to find out other ways you can help prevent burnout in your employees, get in touch today.
Read the full press release on Dr. Christina Guthier's research findings here.