It’s taken me a while to write about this, largely because this was a really difficult time of my life. BUT, I figured that if I expect people to open up to me then maybe I should lead by example, so here goes…
I want to stress that EVERY STORY OF BURNOUT WILL BE DIFFERENT.
So, later in the article, I’ll try to relate aspects of my particular experience to more general causes of burnout and ways of recovering for you. When I look back with emotional distance and my specialist burnout knowledge now, the red flags were flying so high!
My Burnout Story
I suppose my story starts way back in the late 90s (don’t panic, I’ll try to keep it concise!). As a single mum of two girls, working part-time on the Tesco shopfloor, I started an Open University course to flex my brain a little.
I think I’d just been interested to see if I could hack a university-level course, not really expecting it to go anywhere. But I got hooked and within 4 years I had a BSc in psychology.
Through this time, I started to suffer with my health, especially with (sometimes pretty awful) back, pelvic, and leg pain. I went from being someone who walked everywhere, ran and went to the gym several times a week, and worked a physical job to having to leave my job, gradually drop most exercise and spending a lot of time resting.
So, studying became my salvation in a way – something to focus on so I didn’t feel so useless when laid up; a way of retaining hope that the future would be better. It was also something on which to hang my self-esteem - I felt awful for not being able to be the mum I wanted to be, but I got a first in my degree so at least I was achieving something!... and hopefully investing in our family future too.
I then started a master’s course at my local university. After being awarded a Distinction in MSc in Psychological Research, I secured funding to start a PhD there.
I’d recognised that, with health issues still persisting, it would be hard to stay at work. However, academia was an area where you could work pretty flexibly. We’re more used to home working now in this post-Covid era, but in academia even in the 2000s, it seemed that no one cared too much if you were in your office or not, as long as the work got done and you were available to your students when needed.
Halfway through my PhD, I had to take a substantial amount of time off ill. That really should have been my wake-up call that this workload or lifestyle wasn’t working for me. But I did what many people do when burned out – I rested till I felt just about well enough to return to work again, then carried on as before, without any major adjustments.
But I got there – PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience (emotion and motivation) awarded in 2010. Then a job as a lecturer with the teaching team at the same university at which I’d studied. They were a fantastic team of very committed and innovative individuals, and I was chuffed to bits to be a part of it.
For a while, work was going fairly well, I took on a larger contract and had my own module to organise with exciting new plans to update how it was taught.
But at some point, my ongoing health issues again took a downturn. In what was a fairly competitive culture (trying to get published and secure grants, chasing promotions, impressing with innovative teaching techniques and favourable student feedback) I didn’t want to highlight that I was struggling and needed anything ‘extra’.
I waited a couple of years before having no choice but to ask for what would be termed ‘reasonable adjustments‘ for disability. I arranged to have a high stool on stage when lecturing so I could sit for some of those 1-2 hours (that stool turned up around 50% of the time it was meant to) and I had an easy chair and laptop in my office so that I could change sitting position and move away from sitting upright at my desk (6 weeks of chasing up to get that laptop).
I was now increasingly working from home – a lonely experience for a naturally sociable person and definitely not my choice of how to work. In 2014, I desperately pushed on, holding out for the end of the academic year in May. I made it, turned in all my marking, and took time off feeling hellish. I thought I’d be back after a few weeks off. I was very wrong.
Most of the next year was spent in bed or on the couch. I was only really going out for food shopping, or to visit my parents a few miles away. I was so mentally and physically exhausted that anything I needed to do had to be done by midday and then my energy would crash till early evening when I might rally a bit… or not. I was regularly struggling just to shower or make simple meals. I couldn’t concentrate on TV or books as I was so brain-foggy. By the time friends had finished work, I couldn’t face the exertion of having to have a conversation, so I was very isolated.
As time went on, my mood sunk lower It felt like I’d broken myself and I just wasn’t recovering.
A year after first going off ill, I was no better and so I gave up my job in academia in 2015. I was gutted; I thought I’d never recover from that. A job where I had so much flexibility, and I still couldn’t hack it. My girls had had to help more around the house than most children, and from an earlier age. And I’d given up the time I could’ve been with them to try to have this failed career… I’d f*%ked up. I felt like a terrible mother, daughter, and friend, etc.
On hearing I was leaving, my colleagues arranged a lunch for me. A very lovely thought that I appreciated - there were cards and gift vouchers, but for me, it also felt very odd. Everyone I’d seen leave and have a ‘do’ before had been leaving for some exciting new post; it was a celebration. But I had nothing to look forward to, my career was over.
How did I recover from burnout?
I’d already done a 6-week mindfulness course years before but had been confused at the time by their inability to explain why I had to focus on the pain. Somehow, I came across a book called 'Mindfulness for Health', specifically geared towards people with health issues.
All of the book was helpful but, in particular, I had to learn self-compassion, to let the guilt and self-criticism go. I realised that if I knew someone else that was suffering in a similar way and that had tried so hard, there was no way I would heap that guilt and judgment on them, the way I did with myself.
That wasn’t a magic wand moment, but more the start of a very slow, steady return to some normality. As I learned to be kinder to myself and just notice the symptoms without emotion or over-analysis, my mental health improved. Then, as tends to happen, my physical health started to slowly improve too.
I picked up where I’d left off with past training in therapeutic counselling. Just one evening a week of 5 hours initially, but my god that felt hard going. But I now had hope and I was seeing some improvement in my physical and mental energy.
I’ve done some deep reflection on where I found myself back in 2014-5. I’ve had to learn to be more assertive, to care less about what people think, and most importantly, to be more self-compassionate. I’ve had to give myself credit for what I achieved rather than constantly criticise myself for what I couldn’t do, or push myself to unnecessary perfectionism.
The good news is that there is such a thing as post-burnout growth. You can carry on in the same way and keep burning out. Or you can use those experiences to carefully:
- Reflect on what went wrong for you.
- Reassess your self-beliefs and your values and behaviours.
- Reconsider the kind of workday/organisation that feels right for you.
What were my red flags?
As I said, everyone who burns out will have a unique story to some extent, so I’ll try to relate some of my specific factors to more general ones. (Also see my other burnout blogs.)
Study and work became a key part of my identity
I didn’t HAVE a job, I WAS my job (this job even came with a change of title! – it made me a Dr. Is there any other better way to identify AS your job?!) This can happen when someone is very conscientious, keen to impress, and boundaries between home and work are blurred.
The blurring of home/work boundaries
Almost everyone on the team was working and answering emails out of hours and working more hours than contracted. That was the culture, and I was no different, I followed suit.
Marking often came in all at the same time, sometimes with tight turnarounds, often meaning working weekends and bank holidays.
And, of course, I was ultimately working more from home than from my office. In fact, I was regularly working not just from home, but from bed (just FYI, that’s terrible for your sleep – don’t do it!). I was also having to spread my workload over 7 days in order to cope, meaning I never got a whole day off thinking about work.
No activities outside work
It’s not hard to see how work became so important as something on which to hang my self-esteem. As I increasingly struggled, all other hobbies and socialising were dropped. Life was solely about ensuring I was well enough to work. And, I was working so close to the limit of what I could endure that it always felt like a real possibility I was going to let down the team by not being able to work, or missing important deadlines.
We know that having activities and socialising outside work that replenish and relax are incredibly important. It’s not just physical rest we need to stay well and engaged.
However, all my energy went into work or chores, almost zero left for anything pleasurable. That’s just not a sustainable way for anyone to live long-term, and I suspect depression or physical symptoms of burnout are pretty inevitable.
Lack of physical self-care
As fatigue and pain increased, I lacked the energy to do the things I usually did to care for myself. Walking and physio were reduced, and my diet was often terrible.
Most days, when I stepped out of my car after the half-hour drive home, I could barely walk to the few metres to the door, the back pain was so intense. Sometimes I would take morphine on the way in and lie face down on the floor until it kicked in. When it took effect, I’d get the edge taken off my pain so I could move more comfortably to the loo or to get a drink. However, it also came with the side effect of making me dizzy and nauseous, so I was then stuck in bed.
I couldn’t make even the simplest meals after several hours in work, so increasingly I relied on junk food. Sometimes I would buy chocolate and eat it in the car on the way home as I was so tired I couldn’t even face using cutlery (plus I had severe pain in my jaw too and chocolate was easy melt-in-the-mouth food!)
Then the next day, I’d put a smile on my face and do it again (only, if I’d taken morphine the night before, the next morning might start with nausea and vomiting.)
Lack of self-compassion
At the time I actually had a really helpful GP and consultant, but I’d had some terrible experiences with healthcare professionals over the years. Years earlier when off during my PhD, I’d also had to attend a tribunal to persuade a panel of 4 that I genuinely was too ill to work and should be awarded benefits (that took around a year’s fight)
I may have been wrong, but I also thought I’d seen a change in some people’s attitudes to me in the workplace - as if in the past I’d just pulled a very significant, selfish sicky.
Not hard to see where all the shame around being ill came from!
Lack of confidence and too much people-pleasing ,
In hindsight I really should have had the assertiveness to sit down with HR and an occupational therapist and properly discuss what support was available to level the playing field a bit for me. I wouldn’t hesitate to tell someone else with a hidden disability to do this now. I was too concerned with what people would think.
I also wonder whether securing PhD funding and a lecturer position is so hard that you end up just feeling incredibly grateful to be there and don’t want to ask for anything extra.
This can be one of the toughest aspects of burnout to work on. Our beliefs or assumptions about ourselves and the world can be deeply entrenched and, without professional help, they can be hard to even be aware of, never mind change.
For me, there was probably the belief that I shouldn’t draw attention to myself and that most people wouldn’t believe I was suffering and genuinely needed work adjustments.
There was clearly shame about being ill. And even when I was working, I felt judged for only being part-time, as if I wasn't really serious and committed.
My family are hard workers from working-class backgrounds and I think I’d also absorbed the belief that good people push through during tough times. Not that I’m knocking them, they’ve achieved some fantastic things, I just took that to extremes.
And I felt that I would be a failure if I quit. Partly because I couldn't see that there was any other job that would allow me the flexibility I needed and, I suspect, also because I felt there was a culture in academia where the ones who left for another job role were losers, unable to cope with the intellectual demands.
There’s also something psychologists and economists refer to as ‘sunken losses’ – basically the more you’ve invested in something (financially or otherwise) the more loathe you are to walk away. And I'd had to work so hard and sacrifice so much to be there
Lack of social support
As anyone with an invisible illness or disability will tell you, the worst part was not the pain, fatigue, or lack of sleep. The worst part is the social aspect - the isolation and, from some, the lack of understanding.
I was aware that people didn’t understand or didn’t quite appreciate the level of pain I was struggling with (and to be fair, if I hadn’t been there myself, I’m not sure how much I’d be able to get my head round it in someone else either… we’re often not very good at empathising with things we’ve never experienced ourselves).
At this point, the main people I saw in my life were my work colleagues. They were a fantastic, lively and supportive group of people who often gathered at lunchtime. But, I missed their company and workplace support as I was working from home so much. I imagine it just looked like I preferred working from home - but at a time when I was starting to feel low, I felt incredibly isolated.
I was also living alone, and my girls were now away at uni on demanding courses. We spoke regularly but I hated that I wasn’t well enough to go see them very often.
Ignoring ridiculous physical symptoms
Our body tries to signal to tell us we’re pushing too hard, but conscientious people will often ignore it and push through. In my case, I suppose the fact that I had physical symptoms even on a good day, and that I didn’t feel like I had terrible mental work stress muddied the picture. I was used to pushing through to some extent and my thought process was that ‘if I can keep going through this flare-up, it will eventually ease up’.
After a year off during my PhD, I was also conscious of not wanting to take further time off ill for fear of reputational damage.
When we suffer stress, it affects us physically in far more ways than people tend to realise. Stress makes our large muscles tense ready for fight or flight. A great short-term adaptation in times of danger but a surefire way to suffer muscle pain when stress is chronic.
And there’s a double whammy in that, when stressed, we are more vigilant to physical sensations, so pain perception is heightened. Bad news for anyone with chronic pain, and the reason that stress management is such an important part of pain management.
At one point, I had so much pain in my jaw, I could only eat liquids or very soft foods for around 4 months. Many trips to the dentist later it was finally discovered that the pain was caused by hairline cracks through the whole length of 2 teeth, caused by jaw clenching and grinding in my sleep, of which I was unaware (classic sign of stress!). I actually had 3 back teeth extracted that year due to unrepairable cracks caused by jaw clenching.
The workload was heavy and admin support had been reduced at the time. However, we know that it takes more than that for people to burn out. People can have a heavy workload, but having activities outside work that replenish you, clearer work/home boundaries and spending time with supportive friends, colleagues, or mentors can act as a buffer against stress and burnout.
So that’s my story. Yours will inevitably be different, but you may well see similarities. My story had chronic illness as a significant factor but, regardless, some of the factors I highlight above could well apply to other people.
Thankfully this story ends on a happy note. I was forced to take a long hard look at how I was working and how I was treating myself. That means digging deep to explore and gently challenge inherited beliefs, inaccurate assumptions, and unhelpful behaviours.
Training in mental health therapy helped me in that regard and, although life will still have its challenges, I've been in a really good place since.
It was hard to get over leaving my academic career - but all that psychology knowledge and teaching experience has been channelled into a different career - one which I find totally fulfilling and works well for me. It took a long while but I have gotten over having to give up working in academia.
I'm astounded now at what a miserable life I ploughed on with. But I'm lucky enough to be able to say that I love what I do now - I now help others to find a happier, healthier mental place and I live a sustainable, more balanced life myself whilst doing it!
Published by Dr Jill Williams, Rethink Therapy incl. Uptrained Brain 26th November 2023. Executive Coach - Psychologist - Counsellor.