Bordering on Burnout

I well remember sitting at the first Transforming Together International Coaching and Mentoring Conference being held at Waikato University in April 2015, listening to a psychologist describing the symptoms of burnout. I was shocked but, funnily, also relieved to realise that she was telling my story. I wasn’t there yet, but I was bordering on burnout, perilously close to the edge.

I had spent the first term of 2015 wondering if something was seriously wrong with me. Every morning I woke up and struggled out of bed with a body that ached all over. I walked around school feeling completely divorced from the world. I still managed to do my job quite well (proof I wasn’t there yet), but there was no joy, no feelings of fulfilment and only occasional excitement. I love hard work and I am passionately committed to what I do; but that term, I did my job and there was no pleasure in it. With my family, I was physically present, but I was all alone, lost in my own bubble. I was numb and couldn’t feel anything…zilch, zip, nada, nothing! I was tired…so tired. Too tired to even watch TV or movies or do the things I most enjoy. Even they brought no respite from this unrelenting nothingness. All I wanted was to be alone. Was I suffering some incurable disease? Was I dying? I didn’t know, but something was very wrong.

That, for me, is what bordering on burnout looked like. I was staring into the great abyss. Not burned out yet, but close. What wrong turning had I taken to get to this point?

I have always had a huge capacity for hard work. But eight children, becoming a principal, completing a doctorate, opening a new school – one big thing after another, without any recovery time in between – took their toll, along with aging and everything that entails. I kept going, as though I still had just as much energy as I had ever had, and slowly, over time, without conscious knowledge, like a wind-up toy whose battery is getting low, I wound down and ran out of energy. The thing about burnout is that it creeps up on you just as age does; and sometimes they creep together. That’s what happened to me.

Why was I relieved to discover this? Because now I knew what was wrong with me. Once something has a name, a label, you gain power over it. That thing has been exposed and now you can do something about it, do the right things differently. I was also grateful, because though I hadn’t been fully aware of what was happening to me, I had taken some actions, such as reducing my working hours a little, and that had helped – perhaps, stopped me from falling over the edge into burnout.

Looking back, I now realise that a couple of significant losses and no time to process the grief were significant contributors along with the perennials of overwork, stress and lack of time to and for myself, lack of quiet time - which for an introvert is an absolute imperative.

I would like to say I have turned over a new leaf or that I have this thing beat. Unfortunately, recovering from near burnout is a slow process and, anyway, life doesn’t seem to work quite like that. My strengths as an educational leader are a double-edged sword, because they also contribute to my weaknesses and so the propensity towards overwork and burnout still remains. I find myself dipping in and out towards burnout, but now that I know the signs, I take action. I am trying to write a new story of my life and develop a new narrative, but the human condition still impacts and it is an ongoing struggle to live according to the new narrative on a continual basis.

Self-knowledge helps. I have a lot of natural insight, both into others and into myself. But that is not enough, because I also have deeply embedded weaknesses and blind spots. I am so grateful for mentors and coaches, colleagues, friends and family, who keep me grounded and remind me by their presence and words, of what is important in my life. They are a mirror in which I am able to see my reflection from their and others’ perspectives. They show me the things I cannot see for myself.

So how to avoid burnout?

  • Know yourself – your strengths and your weaknesses
  • Be aware of the symptoms of burnout
  • Take your “burnout” or “wellness” temperature frequently – take action accordingly
  • Spend time doing things you love – other than work
  • Find quiet and solitude
  • Listen to what trusted colleagues, friends and family are saying
  • Never be embarrassed to seek help
  • Exercise
  • Take control and actively manage your time

I am slowly feeling alive again. I am no longer numb and living as though in a vacuum. My life brings joy and pain – but at least, once again, I can feel all of it. I am trying to keep the words of Parker Palmer close to my heart:

“Self-care is never a selfish act - it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” 
― Parker J. PalmerLet Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation