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What I learned from burning out in my 20s in a consulting job

I was in my mid-20s when I learnt burnout was a blessing in disguise. It’s a horrible, soul-sapping experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Ever. However, in hindsight it was almost necessary to teach me some valuable personal and professional lessons.

First things first, no two burnouts are the same. Burnout can occur for any number of reasons. There are different causes. But there are patterns. The overarching theme is losing control: control over your time and life. A growing to do list, decreasing motivation to complete it, emails stacking up, smaller tasks taking more effort, meanwhile the laundry pile is starting to look like Everest, kitchen plates are growing new life forms on the leftovers (that’s if you bothered to cook at all or put the takeaway on a plate), and the last time you could be bothered to shower was….nope can’t remember. It’s like the external “stuff” is a growing tidal wave around you, ready to swallow you up any moment. 

Just as the underlying pattern to Burnout is losing control, so recovery is regaining that control.

1.  Stop

Disclaimer: not everyone needs to take time off work. The good news is, you can do lessons two and three without taking time off if you’re adamant that’s not for you. Skip this if you want.

Maybe you’re not sure if time out is right for you yet? I debated it for several weeks before taking the plunge. My concerns were

·       If the only reason I get out of bed is to work, and I take that away, what will happen?

·       Too much will happen whilst I’m off, and I won’t be able to catch up

·       Will I miss out on promotion?

But the real elephant in the question room was: what will I do? As someone who loves their work and job, the prospect of three weeks of nothingness was daunting. I think anyone who tells you time off is the easy option is wrong.

However, I was at a point where I couldn’t function and even though I was technically still in work, I wasn’t much use to the team. So, I arranged time off even though I hadn’t actually answered the above questions yet. When I shut my laptop for the last time that evening, I sat on the floor and cried. Stopping isn’t easy but sometimes it’s necessary; don’t be afraid to explore it.

2.   There are no Burnout fairies

Ok let’s say you’ve stepped off the treadmill and you’re ready to beat the Burnout! Maybe people have told you that you’ve been taking on too much and just need to slow down? They might be right but there are no Burnout fairies coming to sprinkle magic Burnout cure dust into your tea whilst you watch Netflix.

Burnout doesn’t have a quick fix. In fact, it’s just like a physical fire: getting off the treadmill puts out the flames, but now you need to clean up the scorch marks. How do we do that? For me, this started with reading. I’ve read loads but one that stood out was ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ by Mark Manson.

This got me thinking about values (i.e. what really gets you out of bed in the morning). I’m not ashamed to admit that prior to burning out, my values were material focused: get a promotion, earn $Xk this year, buy a Canyon bike (if you’re a cyclist you’ll know 😉) etc. Because my values were materially driven, I was distributing my F’s to “stuff” and then wondered why they only made me feel better for five minutes. This book helped me realize that connecting your motivators to things that can be disproportionately influenced by events you don’t have control over are not fulfilling places to distribute your F’s.

Write down all the stuff you want (it’s ok to want to stuff) then ask, “if I have all of this, now what?” and that will help you uncover the things that really motivate you and leads us to the next principle: meaningful work.

What actually is ‘meaningful work’? In short, it’s any action that contributes to fulfilling your value. Example: babysitting a friend’s child so she can go to a spinning class to fulfill her goal of getting fitter is meaningful work; reaching out to a client with a potentially lucrative opportunity to help me fulfil my goal of contributing to growing the firm is meaningful work.

3.   You are the boss

Understanding meaningful work helps us identify boundaries, the next step is to implement them. You may not be your own boss on paper, but you are boss of ‘You PLC’. You can be an employee and be the boss of your boundaries, regardless of your level.

Look at how eliminating or automating the elements of your role that you find meaningless would boost your productivity, and that of the team. Show how the things you find meaningful are values also aligned to your firm’s goals.

The idea is that by naturally reducing the meaningless work from your day, you’re going to be producing more value-add in less time, allowing you to reduce your working hours. I’m not talking about part-time here, I mean reducing 12-hour days down to eight.

The good news is, you don’t need to wait for complete burnout, or indeed any burnout, to make a change. It isn’t easy. In a world that perceives “being busy + work a lot = productive person” it can feel uncomfortable even thinking about these changes let alone implementing them. But in a world where 75% of people report feeling symptoms of burnout, do you really want to be a sheep bleating your way through life?

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

The author works for a major consulting firm. A version of this article originally appeared on her blog, 'Today Years Old' 

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AUTHORCharlotte Hyde Insider Comment

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