What Is “Burning Out” Telling Us About Our Relationship With Work?
Written by Emma Zangs for Forbes Magazine
We do not spend a single day without hearing the word burnout. From seeing adverts on the tube for magic anxiety pills to hearing colleagues mention it in the office, it is everywhere. I wanted to learn more about what burning out exactly means, what people experience, how they cope, if it affects their view on work-life balance.
To answer these questions, I interviewed an ex-Googler who left her dream job after burning out; an entrepreneur who’s been through burnout and is now building his business around mental health; and an artist who’s been living through her third burnout in three years.
Even though the people I talked to are from various backgrounds and profiles, their stories had many similarities. The common threads are about finding balance, speaking regularly to a therapist or a coach and our society’s unhealthy addiction to work.
The word ‘burnout’ is clearly being overused. So much so that it becomes confusing. When a colleague says “I am burning out”, does it mean they need a break? More sleep? Are they anxious? Or are on they on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown?
But a word misused becomes dangerous when it is seen as “a badge of honour”.
James Routledge is the founder of the mental health startup Sanctus, whose mission is to change the perception of mental health by providing therapy and coaching in the workplace. He points out that in general, but mainly in the technology sector,
If you have been through a burnout, it means you are ambitious, you work hard, you give every ounce of yourself.
Amy Jin, Ex-Googler, who left after burning out. Now a life coach in New York City.COURTESY OF AMY JIN.
That is what Amy Jin, an ex Google Business Development executive, thought work meant. Work as hard as you can, give 100% all day and everyday, work through lunches, shorten social time on weekends, have dinner in front of the computer, and hop back on email until late in the evening. Amy would get up the next day and do it all over again, all whilst traveling across EMEA to build partnerships to launch Google Pay. Jin thought that this was the norm for succeeding at Google, that it is what everyone did, and couldn’t bear to let her team down. And this is what work-life balance looks like for a lot of us – work hard, get promoted, push as much as you possibly can because you are the only person that can make your life a success.
During my conversation with Amy, our talk clearly shifted to looking at burning out as a consequence for something bigger. That bigger topic she was hinting at is that our identity is often dictated by the job we have. One proof is when we meet a new person, we automatically ask: “What do you do?” Who we are is not shaped by our job title. The burnouts we experience remind us of that obvious yet often forgotten realisation.
The signs come from within
Nikki Bailie is a sculptor and the founder of YogaSocialSuffolk. For the past few years, Bailie has suffered from several burn outs, got diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, a less sever form of bipolar, and recovered from problem drinking in response to anxiety and stress.
For me it was quite sudden every time but there are triggers and things that I now watch out for. Being overwhelmed definitely is a state that can spiral it all. When I am full to the brick, that’s a sign I need to stop. But my problem is that I don’t stop easily and that’s dangerous because only big events will make me stop.
The most recent “big event” that made Nikki stop was when she fainted on the tube next to her two children. It was a frightening event that alerted her that something was not right. An investigation found a cyst the size of a melon was pressing on her nerves. Talking about it, she is not surprised. She has been through so much, and she developed resilience and strength. Now, she listens more and does not feel guilty to take care of herself.
How did she do that? She explains that the process took some time, but allowing herself to be vulnerable and stop chasing that perfect picture of a wealthy artist, lecturer, wife, and mum was the most liberating moment she ever went through.
The body send signals when something is off balance. When we are not doing what we need for ourselves, or doing something that does not suit us, the body literally stops us. It takes many forms and shapes: it was an operation for Nikki. These physical breakdowns are so strong they force the brain to start reflecting on the situation.
Health Before Work
The epiphany moment for Amy happened a month after coming back from Poland with a strange leg infection. In a 1:1 with her manager, her manager asked her: “Are you happy?” That question hit Amy to her core. Reflecting on her life’s true “why,”, she let go and never went back. A plan was created for her to step back, take a sabbatical, train her replacement, and take care of her wellbeing. Putting aside time for a yoga class in the diary became acceptable and celebrated, and health became her priority.
If working well can only happen when health is managed well,what happens when your business is about mental health in the workplace? James from Sanctus says:
It is not because you are running a mental health business that the day to day of running the business is a piece of cake. I would be lying to say so and like every other business it takes effort to keep an eye on our own mental wellbeing.
Every new person joining Sanctus goes through coaching themselves, as mental health can be an overwhelming topic to deal with everyday. Sanctus also regularly hosts team coaching sessions, but most of all they create a culture where it is acceptable to say: “’I feel shit today”. Routledge says it starts with listening to yourself and others.
I asked about the lessons Nikki, Amy and James learned from their burnouts, and here are the top three:
1.Get professional help. This came first and foremost for all three of them. The benefits are countless. You offload to a professional that can detect underlying issues and illnesses, you carve out moments to self-reflect, and you stop the hamster wheel effect. While surrounding yourself by talking to friends and family is supportive, a professional such as a therapist is detached from your life and will help you go deeper.
2.Prioritise Your Needs. Taking real time off, switching off from emails and calls and nurturing a hobby or passion that has nothing to do with work can make you focus on the output. If you are not sure about which activity to pick, go back to what you liked doing as a child (yes that might mean playing with Legos again), as that would be stress relieving. Find out what your outlet is and make it a priority in your diary.
3.Step Out of Your Comfort Zone. Finding an alternative, something you would normally not do, as this will make you discover a whole new world. Nikki Baillie explains:
I did that with yoga, my family literally pushed me out of the country to go complete the teacher training. I am a rower, I am a kind of girl that think If I don’t throw up at the end of a workout, I haven’t exercised enough. Yoga changed everything, absolutely everything.
Our relationship to work is clearly damaging our health. This leads me to the question asked by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor at Stanford University, “Is our workplace killing us?” The battle between health and work seems to be illogical as both need to exist hand in hand. If we do not look after our health, work will suffer. So why are there not more conversations at work around how we take care of ourselves and prevent burnout? I think it is time for a change in our relationship to work. So why not start small and next time you are at a party, replace the “What do you do?” for “What are you looking forward to in the next few months?”.
Find out more about Amy:
Amy Jin is now a life coach who helps others find their true purpose. She has given talks in London and NYC, and is passionate about the empowerment of women.