It was only four months ago, during an all-day breakfast with a bunch of great people, when someone said the word for the first time: burnout. The word came at me like a warm, friendly breeze, in a sentence of nice words about taking time for oneself, and it felt like a hurricane inside me. Burnout. Of course. Why hadn’t I thought about this earlier, why not seen it, realised it, taken care of it?
Later that day, when I was back home working, it was still whirling around in my head. Burnout. Burnout. I tried to let it sink in, whilst fighting the deep need to sleep (these are times when I want to sleep all nights, all days).
A few days later, a tiny feeling of relief began to arise. It grew, and I realised where it came from. It was because finally there was a word for it, finally everything I had felt and experienced throughout the months before made sense, like pieces of a puzzle just falling into places. It wasn’t just a random set of symptoms anymore, it had a word, a tag, a label, it was something I could tackle.
Something I could not tackle. I was way too tired, to exhausted, far beyond my limits to even think about tackling anything.
The last days of work before my holidays in December were a complete disaster. I had releases to coordinate, had to interview people for various jobs, and was constantly in meetings from 9am to 8pm, without any chance for a break, except for the occasional cigarette which I inhaled like there was no time left (mostly because there wasn’t). When I came home, I ate a few bites of pasta, collapsed into bed and couldn’t sleep, because my brain was never quitting work and kept me up all nights.
Then I went to Norway. These ten days were the most relaxed ones I’d had in what felt like ages, and I even looked and felt a little less destroyed afterwards.
Still, as soon as I was back home, it all got back to where it was. All the newly-gained energy vanished, the old stress level came back (and I wasn’t even back to work yet). I reached a state where I was afraid of everything: afraid of going back to work, of all new projects, of commitments I had made, – all tasks and assignments which I had loved some time ago, but which now filled me with nothing but fear. And over all the fear, my stress level rose even more. On top of that, everything that’s going on in tech and its culture have been contributing large parts to my mental and physical condition as well, but that specific topic is worth another post at some point.
All in all, the result was a poorly drawn version of myself. I may have sat in a corner of my flat a lot at the time, just waiting for the night to be over, and hoping for nothing to happen.
That’s when I finally decided to step back and look at the mess from another perspective. I knew that I had only two options: going on with the status quo and collapsing sooner or later, – or stopping some commitments, at least for some time. Since I was lucky to be in a position where this was possible, number two is what I chose. Heavy-heartedly, I wrote an email and spoke with someone, and it was decided that I was taking a break from two projects. One break of three months, one for an indefinite time frame. From all sides, there was a lot of support, which helped me a lot (thanks again, folks).
It was only after getting this out, that I realised how hard this step had been for me. I’ve always been someone who defines herself mostly about her work and work results, and I only say “mostly”, because I still have hope it’s not one hundred percent. Saying “I need a break”, felt like a big, big failure. I knew that, normally, this was not a call I’d make. I don’t pause from stuff. No, no. I’m stubborn, I’ve always found my way through.
But this time, something was a little different. Like before, again I just knew I had no choice. But unlike before, I acted accordingly.
Then I went back to work. I was still pretty stressed, still super tired every evening, and still couldn’t sleep. But at least a little of the total amount of pressure was paused. – Which was even better given that I had a conference talk to prepare, which I had already committed to and which now ate up all evenings after work and my weekends. But at least I started saying no more often – no to more conferences, no to more volunteer work, no to unpaid diversity consulting.
Replacing projects with other projects is by far not what I’d call my ideal way to deal with burnout. When I come home from the office these days, there’s usually still more work waiting for me. And I’m grateful for the people in my life who help me at least sometimes not read my emails (thanks). And while I hope I’ll get better at dealing with burnouts in the future, another part of me hopes that this won’t be necessary anymore – although I still think it’s good for me to be prepared.
The main learning that I’m taking out of this is that I was able to say “I can’t go on like this anymore” – to myself, as well as express my limitations to others. For me, this was a huge step. For the first time in years, and maybe ever, I was able to stop – or at least pause for an instant.
To me, what I did early this year was a good step into the right direction. It was the first step, and I am ready to take the next ones.
It’s a ride.