In hindsight, burnout has been the most tremendous life changing experience I have been given to live, both in extreme pain and newfound joy. In the perspective of “making this worth”, I decided to open up. Let me present you my story, before you tell me yours.
For months now burnout has been a part of my everyday life, whether because I am stuck in it, or people around me are, or we hear about it in the media, or I talk about it. And for months now I have felt the urge to utilise this material, to transform the pain, the loss, the grief, the change, to grow this into something useful and meaningful. Something that can help others and helps our society. Hence this essay that I dare to hope will be the first of many others to come. If you feel your story can echo mine in any way, I kindly invite you to grab your pen and contribute.
I would like to believe we will build the testimonial of a generation stuck between the social heritage of their parents and the utter certitude that change is coming, if not already here. When we speak about burnout, we tell the story of workers, managers, parents and jobless people who suddenly feel deprived of vitality, who don’t recognise themselves in the way society wants them to work, who relentlessly hit the limits of work as it is today.
What follows is my very own exercise in vulnerability, but also in growing and learning.
Should I have to define precisely where and when it all started, I would be in a bit of a trouble. Burnouts, depressive episodes… These things are fuzzy, they are jumbled through so many circumstances and facts which, from both a distance or close-up, might be related, but we can’t really say — and we don’t really want to know. My doctor could tell you that it started, maybe around March 2015, when he started seeing me toing and froing from his practice with all kind of symptoms, heart palpitations, random pain, extreme fatigue, newfound allergies, until the moment he could do nothing more but to convince me to accept a sick leave. However, looking back at the year and a half just gone, it seems like my burnout was around way before that. Months, years maybe. That it was slowly building up, that somehow I have always been a designated victim of it.
The Fall, however, is clearly noticeable, memorable. We are stuck to the wall, our face is crushed against it, we’ve been spending the last couple of months hitting it, nevertheless we manage to hit it again, harder this time, like we were propelled against it. The Fall is not necessarily the lowest we can get, but it’s the very start, the very moment when the body fails, when we fully acknowledge that we are in trouble, and that for the first time there is NO way we can still deny it.
My Fall happened on September 10th, 2015. I was sitting at my desk, utterly exhausted. I mean, even more exhausted than I’d been during the past 8 months. My nights were short, agitated, followed by brutal awakenings. I was on the way of being physically sick and I clearly remember how my joints would burn and how capricious my stomach was. My skin was dry, my hair and nails had almost stopped growing. After months of staggering, my Fall, like many others, came in the shape of a weird event: a customer giving up on a project, something that never happened to me –to us as a team– before. Back when the client requested the quotation, I had a bad gut feeling about this project. “But you gotta pay the staff, right”. So as my boss decided to go for it, I did what we burning-out people do: I accommodated, with a slight background nausea when anticipating what could happen. But twelve days after the project kickoff, the customer suddenly gave up, acknowledged that we would not find a common ground for good collaboration. She made a brave decision, the one I couldn’t take. She asked for all the source files, she thanked us, paid us and I never heard from her again.
It’s like drinking litres of coffee during a sleepless night, everything is fine as long as you don’t stop, until one innocent moment when you lower your guard and close your eyes for a second. And boom, you’re done. The mix of extreme weakness and relief I suddenly felt was The Fall. And so I fell.
“Marie, you must back off for a moment and get some rest. You have a bad influence over your colleagues and your negativity is ruining the atmosphere.” The tone in which my manager called me out the following day was a blatant sign of his total inability to show empathy anymore, as often when we are burned out or in the middle of an extended period of stress. And everybody knows how much stress can be contagious. Cynicism as well. Nevertheless, he was right: even if I didn’t have a single drop of energy left to care about the atmosphere at the office and the way I interacted with it, I had to back off, at least for my own sanity, my own survival.
In this Fall, I was not alone. It had been weeks and months that things were slowly sliding downwards and that all employees within the company were affected by a tangible stress. Was there anyone to blame, in this fine web agency packed with clever, benevolent, motivated, open minded and humane people? Was there any choice, any decision, any behaviour that we could have designated as The Reason for our Fall? And maybe avoided? This is still an open question. I still remember with joy the fantastic months of 2014 when we were thriving individually and collectively, when every single person was reaching their maximum potential, simply because we were so confident in each other. Trust infused our daily universe, trust in ourselves, in each other, in our customers. We felt safe. We felt empowered as individuals as much as a team. We loved our jobs and the achievements we’d reach together. How do you manage to burn out in these conditions? We just had covered a whole pinboard with postcards, one for each of our success stories of the year. We had spent that year pushing further the boundaries of our comfort zones, yet providing such a high level of service that we would have come to the office even if we’d stop being paid. Yet every single team member ended up suffering, consciously or not, and 4 gave up in a row, leaving just one single employee behind, along with the boss. As of today, I am still baffled by these facts, as if I can’t understand what happened. I only can now thanks to an intense facts based therapy assisted by expert help.
It takes time to face the facts, mainly because those facts start small. You can’t really connect them until a certain point, and it takes time to do so. Until then, you carry on, relentlessly. It starts with a little itch here and there, then you are already way down the gutter when you notice your whole skin is just a massive rash. Itch by itch, I lost the trust in my manager and he lost his trust in me. Itch by itch, I got tired of my customers, tired of the tasks I was assigned with. Itch by itch, I lost sight of the usefulness of my role, of the purpose I had given myself through design, if I had any. Every day I would be left absolutely unable to see meaning in the work I was doing. I felt I was like pushing stones and pebbles up a slope, each of which would relentlessly fall down again. Tasks fell one by one, unrelated, out of any tangible context. Because of micromanagement, I was totally disconnected from the projects they belonged to. Customers were unreachable, hidden behind another layer of management that I couldn’t spike through. Unable to sense what was happening with my clients, unable to use my empathy, my work started to lose its legendary quality.From day to day, I tried to cope. I used to spend hours picturing myself starting a totally different career: a dog shelter owner, a wood craftswoman, a sign painter. Anything that could drive me away from the nonsense of going to the office every morning to witness the vacuum of my daily life as a digital designer who was not given the tools to do her job properly. Yet, I was still going, very slowly but still walking, staggering through my daily life, which contributed to more denial, and yet another deeper plunge into burnout.
Of course, work was not the only reason. Burnout has many roots plunged in the dark land of our own history, or in the intricate soil of our relationships. Lack of self-confidence, a health issue that eats up space, someone close who needs help and we are the only one able to provide any, a difficult grief… it can be anything. I was drowning a little more every day in my personal life, desperately trying to cling to an ideal I was not able to achieve, rather I was merely able to survive my perpetual dissatisfaction. As far as I can remember I had never been myself, I had no room to be, so I was constantly striving in a thick inner tension, both personally and professionally. I had to do something, yet I was so stuck, so deeply stuck that no solution seemed plausible. Luckily my doctor triggered the first step of my escape from this whole world that was slowly killing me.
The first day of my sick leave, I woke up distressed. Shattered. I had been convinced that my survival would lay in getting some rest, but I was suddenly unable to find peace anymore. Though years of daily work routine, I had forgotten how to rest. Work had dragged me into a world where peace of mind was non-existent. I was alone in my apartment and I had to face myself, face my immense solitude and the massive amount of pain spiking through my body and mind. I had to function without work and its reassuring schedule. I had to exist by myself and myself only, and not through my job title or the tasks I performed every day at work. I had to find the inner motivation to hold on to only myself, even though I was convinced I was not enough. The first three weeks were absolutely awful to experience. Every morning was an ordeal and a deeper plunge into the darkness of this pit I was thrown into. Burning out means you suddenly lose your grip, it means everything you would usually cling to is now out of reach. Nothing makes sense anymore. Getting up seems useless. The idea of seeing people is utterly exhausting. Losing personal connections can happen very quick. Before the very act of falling into burnout, it is very common to be so exhausted and deprived of vitality that we give up our social life, our friends and our hobbies. I was alone, facing all the tension that brought me to burn myself out completely.
So I dived into my own history and tried to find what were the roots of this malaise. The biggest thing I realised is that I was not living my own life. I was living someone else’s, I was living through others, my parents, my friends, my workmates, my boss. Every single day, I would agree to shape my life in accordance to their wishes and demands. Every single hour, I would silence my own needs, desires, aspirations and replace them with what I thought was important: what they wanted from me. I was desperately trying to bargain their love by disavowing who I was and shaping myself dependent on what they wanted or needed me to be. I was living in the fear of injunctions and assumptions, fueling my brain with imaginary situations and worst case scenarios that would paralyse my decision making skills.
Tension is, to me, one of the main reasons why we burn out. Tension is us refusing to see the truth, tension is us playing a role and accepting we are somebody other than ourselves. Not being oneself never ends well. We go to work persuading ourselves that everything is fine, that we still like what we do, we say « yes » when we so often mean « no ». We go through a life we don’t want. Tension builds from tiny little disagreements, itsy bits of ego floating around that we didn’t notice or handle properly, injunctions we fall a victim to.Alignment is key, yet I was not aligned with myself — if I’d ever been. So yes, my slow descent into burnout was not just due to a work overload (I wasn’t that overloaded), or just to conflicts of value with my superior (we had been working together for more than 7 years when things started to go south). So in the end who is to blame?
“Is it my fault?” is the most recurrent question I’ve asked myself. It is only a year later that I can ascertain that it is not ONLY my fault. It can’t be only because I haven’t been caring enough for my own health or that I didn’t know how to say “no”. Yes, through work and therapy I could spot facts and major events that contributed to my fall. I could eventually stop blaming myself and shed what was not my fault to see precisely where my weaknesses were. Not to blame myself, just to understand where I sometimes consciously chose to close my eyes on some things. Thanks to the help of an amazing therapist, I could analyse decisions and behaviours of the people I worked with to help me acknowledge the emotional grip they had upon me and link some key events within the company to my pain and other’s pain too. I forgave myself for not having been able to see things coming, or to have denied seeing them coming.
Still, I can’t be the only responsible for my fall and I am not, even if in the past I was so weak I’d fall victim of emotional abuse. I hate weakness. I hate it because it’s still considered as something intrinsically negative, something we should fight and eliminate to leave only the strong and the resistant. In the meantime weakness, sensitivity, vulnerability are so significant and we keep on finger pointing them as they were the plague of our century. But burnout is not a matter of weakness. It catches up with the most powerful among us, the ones that we’d never expect to fall. It crushes them like empty soda cans under a giant’s foot. Burnout doesn’t spare anyone, be them “weak” or not.
Whose fault is this then? How can we overcome burnout as a society, as a species? Why does it even exist in the first place? How did we let it happen?
Furthermore, how do we heal from burnout? Doctors don’t really know. They have barely gone through the syndrome anyway, a lot of them don’t recognise it or prefer to see depression episodes. Psychology/psychiatry professionals are very often not trained to deal with the specifics of an occupational related depression or burnout. France’s Ministry of Health has launched a enquiry commission about it, with the aim to see if burnout should be identified and recognised as a occupational disease. It would mean a lot for an gigantic amount of workers who suffer on a daily basis and who would benefit from a specific help which takes into account the occupational dimension of their pain. It would have meant a lot for me to have it recognised as a professional sickness, but unfortunately my doctor’s reason for putting me away in sick leave was “depression and severe relational anxiety episodes” which was just touching the surface of what I was experiencing. In the meantime, people who burn out have to recover on their own.
Through all the testimonials I’ve read, all the people I’ve listened to, there are obvious measures that can be taken. An immediate extraction from the incriminated work environment is crucial, as is a crucial and complete rest, outside of any pressure system. And sometimes, family itself can even be a pressure system. The syndrome asks us for a total dedication to its disappearance, and even if I have seen some rare cases where people recover without leaving their jobs or making some distance, most of the victims must make some drastic decisions and shed a lot of their old life behind. But the healing is not done through a secret and universal remedy, because burnout is such a particular journey, almost an intimate one, that everyone has to work up their own solution.
I burned myself out 1 year ago. Today, I am still alive. I survived. Because the only thing you can aim for when you burn out is survival. We end up killing our bodies with stress and the only thing they try to do is subsist. I had to go through an isolation phase, away from my job or anything related to it for at least several months before I could recover any will to do anything resembling to work. The first time I reopened Photoshop, I went through a panic attack that took several days to go off. My creativity was gone, my brain was stuck in panic mode. It took me more than 6 months to be able to hold 3 hours of work in a day, more than 1 year to recover my full ability to go through a normal work day.
My survival is due to two major skills I had no choice but add to my quiver: forgiveness and letting go. I could only start to heal by forgiving myself and I still do it every day. I forgive myself for all the failed mornings when I could not function properly, and all the ones to come. I can’t do as much as before, I can’t do as much as I want. But a day has only 24 hours and I’m already doing my best. I forgive myself when something took more time than expected, or when I couldn’t do it at all. I forgive myself for the friends I have let down or the distance I have installed between myself and people that, in hindsight, brought too much tension or hidden pain in my life. Today I forgive myself for having made my life and self my only priorities, because I had no choice, and because my life is so much better this way. I have been so harsh with myself for more than three decades, accepting things that would harm me, seeing them as normal. I am indulgent and accepting with who I am and with my mistakes. I am forgiving with people, I am empathetic and always, always consider one person’s context before making any kind of judgement. I don’t judge anymore anyway. Accepting failure, and unexpected change as inherent parts of life, giving up my limiting beliefs and forgiving myself were key in my recovery and they are now an integrated part of my daily life.
Today, one of my beliefs is that we shaped a world that decided that vulnerability is bad and that only the strongest can make it, that people who feel and fail are wrong. But how can you succeed if you don’t fail? How can you go through life without accepting that you are not perfect, not bulletproof? How can you make use of empathy if you don’t let anything or anyone spike through your shield? Vulnerability is the one and only key to knowing oneself, else we lie to ourselves and spend our existence playing a part, far away from who we really want to be. I don’t approve of that. I don’t approve that people hide who they are and hide their sensitivity, their depression and cut through sick leave and push themselves back on track (67% of French workers do and favour their job over their own health…), just because it would harm their career if they didn’t. I don’t approve that some managers blackmail their employees if they show signs of weakness and keep a record of who’s most sick and away. I don’t approve that people refuse to go on sick leave, even though their doctor strongly advises it. I don’t approve that the only way of making a career is pushing oneself always higher and harder, holding others down, trampling on their faces. If you want to make a career, that’s what you have to do, they say. How did we end up raising the concept of career as such an important pedestal we would have to stand on if we want to belong, to be accepted and taken seriously? How did we agree to throw away our own health, our own survival and the one of others around like that?
I refuse to fail as an individual. Society tells us that we burn out because we were not resistant enough, books tell us that we can overcome burnout as individuals, they give us so many pieces of advice to restore a healthy life, healthy relationships, so we are not harmful for our companies and coworkers anymore. They want to get rid of burnout because it costs a lot of money. So companies invest into 3-day seminars about stress management, they give away coupons for yoga classes and invite their employees to learn how to meditate. They have the key to solving burnout: just always blame it on the individuals. Never blame management because it refuses to put itself into question. Not because, when an employee suggests that something could be improved, we don’t listen to her. Not ONCE have companies asked themselves globally how it is that they nurture toxic setups that lead to resignations, long term sick leave, or even suicide? The Japanese have a one-of-a-kind word used to describe “death by work”. Karoshi. When you die because of an overload of stress, starvation, sleep deprivation because of work. But one doesn’t need to live in Japan to face the terrible consequences of death by work. Those things happen today, as we speak (FR). I can’t let this happen anymore, I refuse to be part of a world which doesn’t care for its workers.
Along my way towards healing, I progressively developed an acute awareness about how the concept of work moulds our lives, and with it, an absolute refusal to let work harm, control, define or kill us. I became almost allergic to people asking me “what do you do for a living?” because for a living, I aspire to be happy and to help building a better world. That’s what defines me, not the occupation I had to pick in order to earn enough money to comply with society’s constraints. Salaried work makes for 80 percent of our global income, yet only 50 percent of all work achieved by human occupation is actually rewarded with money. But yet, salaried work is seen as the only way to subsist. It defines all the aspects of our social status. In less than 30 years, having a job has become the one and only preoccupation of everyone above 18. Without a job, you have no place to live, no bank account, no allowance to any kind of loan, nothing to describe who you are, no reliability, no existence.
Burnout must be addressed. It is not a shame, nor a failure. And if I dare to look at the big picture, at least mine, burnout has been an opportunity. I can’t help but think about this piece by Chloé Martin (FR), a Belgium-based psychologist: she argues that burnout may be a sign of good mental health in a society. People who burn out unconsciously refuse the working conditions they have been assigned, because they make no sense. They react to the absence of meaning and to absurd management layers creating more and more bullshit jobs. They can’t perform a task that came from nowhere, goes nowhere and has no utility. They can’t suffer nonsensical systems and organisations, and even if they can for a while, they always end up losing their vitality through it. Is this the world we want to live in? One that takes away our very will to experience life?
Yes, burnout means a lot of pain. The Fall is abrupt, we lose so much in the process: our health first, mental and physical, but very often a job, a team, even a family and a group of friends. We give up so much, either because we can’t handle our life anymore, or because it was eating us up insidiously. Yes, I have been through a lot, putting into question my life’s very utility to this world. I have spent countless days unable to operate, asking myself what I could do to just soothe the pain and see some sense into what I was doing. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t give up anything I endured. Burnout is also the very act of exploring oneself, and for this, I am really thankful to have been given the opportunity to challenge every single facet of my existence.
I am extremely proud to say that I am happy, and it may be the first time in 35 years of life. How bittersweet it feels to write these words down, don’t you think. Yet I am happy, and this claim is becoming an attitude, and happiness something to live for. I now aim my whole life towards the goal of maintaining my level of joy every day. I chose a strong life drive that influences every facet of it. I succeeded into being surrounded by benevolent people, people who feed my soul and my curiosity, people who respect me and don’t intend to manipulate nor harm me. If they do, I feel no regret into kicking them out of my existence. I make room for myself, a lot of room. Not in selfishness, but because in the past I never allowed myself to have enough. Work doesn’t bear the same meaning anymore, first because I believe we narrowed the concept of work so far that it has become meaningless, and also because I want to find new ways to work. I am still vehemently allergic to the idea of a regular 9 to 5 job in a standard hierarchical organisation. I can’t imagine working with people who don’t share my values. I don’t want work to be a part of my life that eats up all my time and resources. I focus now on using my skills to help people, to change the world we live in, to spread the word that work can be something else than a 9 to 5 hassle, that we have the duty to refuse being dragged down.
Helping people is my current therapy. In spite of all the pain I endured, I gathered a certain knowledge about how we humans can surrender to this ever spreading disease. I find peace in listening to others’ stories. I soothe my scarred soul by helping them to point out where they are on the burnout scale and not surrender to it. I try to change the world I live in by enabling them to understand by themselves what’s wrong with it. We individuals can’t take the blame of burning out. It is time that we rise against this well organised system that crushes our souls on a daily basis. It is time our voices raise above the din.
In answer to all that, myself and my former colleague, now friend, created a Medium publication called “Burnout : rallumons la flamme” and its english equivalent “Burnout: let’s reignite the flame”. With them, we aim to create a community where the victims of burnout can find a benevolent space to open up about their experience. We want to raise awareness of the many victims suffering in silence from senseless work that is slowly killing them. So far, the publication has welcomed testimonials of people who have proved their strength through their vulnerability and gone back through their traumatic experience to share it with the world. I have written feature stories covering essential concepts about burnout, helping people to spot its roots in their companies and in their own lives. I wish to do more, so I started writing a book about burnout and our relationship to work as it is today. Because we can’t stay silent anymore.
If you wish to contribute, I’d like to welcome more stories written in English. This is an efficient way to reach a broader audience and to spread the word. Some people already opened up all around Medium: thanks to people like , or who have openly spoken out about their burnout and depression, I felt empowered to share my story, and now feel empowered to make their message ripple out.
Now are you ready to share your story too? You can reach me here: firstname.lastname@example.org and you can find some guidance in this post. I look forward to reading your stories!