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Wellbeing

Published November 8th 2021

Why Self-Care Hasn’t Fixed My Burnout, But Changing Jobs Has Helped

I was having a conversation with a friend when the b-word was first brought up.

I’d been telling her that I was tired, that I was struggling to make sense of simple activities.

My brain felt heavy, several steps behind my to-do list.

I was worrying and becoming more self-critical. I wasn’t sure if I liked my new job.

“You sound really burned out,” she said. “Have you thought about getting signed off for stress?”

I was quick to disagree.

I’d only been there a couple of months, and I was just trying to meet people and get a grip on what I was here to do.

It was a step up seniority-wise, so it was a lot more responsibility to take on.

In hindsight, I should have seen it coming.

I’d quit three jobs at fast-growing startups within the nine months to launch myself as a freelance writer — and that’s not even considering the global pandemic.

I’d thrown my full energy behind each fresh new start, and put immense pressure on myself, never considering that the jobs weren’t right for me in the first place.

I knew I was exhausted and anxious, but I figured I’d be proactive on my self-care, so I took regular walks and started meditation.

In my eyes, I was doing everything right to shield myself from burning out — but everything still felt wrong.

And as it turns out, it wasn’t just me.

Over the last couple of years, burnout has been rising on a global scale.

We’re more stressed, anxious, and exhausted than we’ve ever been.

And when we search online for the antidote to burnout, we find page after page of websites prescribing self-care.

This narrative isn’t only wrong, but harmful.

Because as it turns out, a little bit of yoga and meditation isn’t the silver bullet for burnout — but finding its root cause is.

What is burnout?

Originally coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as...

“a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

In a general sense, burnout is characterized by feeling increasingly exhausted, negative about your job, and less motivated to work. 

"It’s the everyday stuff that begins to wear people down to the point where they’re saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be here anymore.'”

explains psychologist and burnout researcher Christina Maslach. 

Anyone can get burnout, at any time.

If you’re continually exposed to high levels of stress, you could be at risk.

It doesn’t just impact people in the workplace, either — a 2017 study found that carers and parents also experience burnout.

What are the key symptoms of burnout?

Burnout isn’t considered a medical condition, but it can have a strong impact on your physical and emotional wellbeing, impacting your sleep, appetite, and mental state.

Physical symptoms of burnout

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Getting ill more frequently
  • Increased headaches or stomach issues
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Changes in appetite

Mental and emotional symptoms of burnout

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Increased pessimism or cynicism, or feeling like your contributions don’t have much value
  • Loss of motivation
  • Increased self-doubt
  • Withdrawing from social events or responsibilities
  • Increased reliance on ‘escapist’ coping mechanisms, like food, alcohol or TV

While burnout isn’t considered a medical condition in its own right, you may still want to consult a medical professional to discuss possible causes and treatment options if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

What burnout feels like for me

Burnout feels different for everyone — but for me...

Burnout robs me of my focus

My attention span gets shorter, and so do my moods.

I end up flicking distractedly through different tabs in my browser trying to get some work done, all the while getting more and more anxious about how little I’m accomplishing.

Burnout exhausts me

My mind, full of stress and anxiety, whirs at night, making it hard to stay asleep.

And when I do sleep, my exhausted brain dredges up lucid dreams in full technicolor and minute detail.

By day, I feel robotic.

Putting the supermarket groceries away or unloading the dishwasher can feel like monumental feats.

Burnout makes me apathetic

As the burnout gets worse, I start to withdraw.

I find myself saying “I don’t care” a lot more, because making decisions feels exhausting.

In meetings and social events (the ones that I don’t choose to avoid), I feel deadened, outside of myself, and totally distant.

Burnout saps my creativity and memory

Research is still uncovering how burnout impacts the brain — influencing everything from our memory to decision-making skills and how we regulate emotions.

As the anxiety and lack of sleep catch up with me, I start to lose the ability to do the one thing I usually feel capable of: write.

Every sentence is clouded by a haze of exhaustion and indecision as I mentally search for a word that I know begins with ‘b’ and ends in ‘t’, but I can’t remember what it is.

Or worse — I’ll type a word that’s totally wrong without even thinking about it (real talk: I typed the word ‘butter’ instead of ‘bullet’ the first time around in this introduction).

Then, when it seems like it can’t get worse, the critical voice starts — the one that tells me I’m not very good anyway, and this feeling is just justification about how not-good I am.

These feelings aren’t special, or unique — but for me, they were vital clues into the things I needed to change in order to start recovering.

How I’m overcoming burnout

When I first started planning this article, I was thinking of calling it "Why self-care didn’t fix my burnout, but changing jobs did".

But the truth is that I’m still in the thick of it.

While quitting those three jobs was a necessary part of my personal recovery, it’s not the whole story.

I still don’t have all the answers on how to overcome burnout — but here’s what’s working for me right now.

1. I took a look at what wasn’t working and made brutal changes

When I quit my last job after three months in August 2021 to go freelance, I had no safety net.

But I also realized that if I stayed, things wouldn’t get better.

The anxiety that I’d made another bad decision would keep building, and the stress of finding a new job was too much to bear.

I had no energy left, so I opted out — and I realize that is a luxury not everyone has.

But for me, my root cause was that something with work wasn’t working.

I couldn’t do it anymore, so I didn’t.

2. I’m learning to scale back

I was the type of kid that teachers always called "conscientious".

And when you combine that with a personality that tends towards worrying, it’s not a great mix.

So I should have been prepared for the fact that when I fixed one root cause of my burnout, I inadvertently caused a new one when I became a freelancer: overwork.

At the beginning of going freelance, I was scared I wouldn’t get enough work.

I routinely overbooked and undercharged, forcing myself to work "just one more weekend" to hit new income targets or deadlines.

Ultimately I realized that in order to best help my clients, I needed to help myself first.

I’ve started saying "no" a lot more.

I’ve set boundaries on when people can contact me. I’m more cautious with taking on new work.

3. I’ve identified my stressors and how to complete my stress cycle

Self-care has become a rising trend in the last few years.

If we’re not finding out how to do it, we’re looking for new ways to optimize it.

And that makes sense — as reports of burnout rise globally, lots of people are doing everything they can to make themselves more resilient for the good of their health.

But new research by Emily and Amelia Nagoski is showing that self-care doesn’t work for burnout because it’s not completing the stress cycle on a physiological level.

This means that even when I removed the stressors from my life — the jobs that didn’t work for me — I still hadn’t dealt with the residual stress.

As they put it...

“You have to do something that signals to your body that you are safe. Or else you’ll stay in that state, with neurochemicals and hormones degrading but never shifting into relaxation. Your digestive system, immune system, cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system and reproductive system never get the signal that they’re safe.”

For me, dealing with the stress involves tapping back into my body.

Each day, I try to do a walk or go rollerblading — a hobby I’ve picked up again as an adult that leaves me tired, but exhilarated.

And every night before I go to sleep, I practice breathing exercises to activate my parasympathetic nervous system.

I inhale in for four counts, hold for four, and exhale for six — and I repeat that for a couple of minutes until the world feels a little more still.

4. I’ve stopped saying "should"

As I got further and further into burnout, I discovered a new root that was triggering my behaviors so far — my love of the word "should".

Then, I broke up with it.

From an early age, the word "should" (and "must", come to that) has centered my world around arbitrary rules:

I should go to the gym today.

I should be earning more.

I should be able to get this work done easily.

I should stay in this job longer than three months.

Boundaries and some rules to live by are always good. But I realized my "shoulds" were destructive, socially conditioned behaviors and obligations that were overshadowing something more important: my instinct.

It might sound a little too much like something out of a self-help book, but when I stopped saying that word, I realized my instincts were telling me that I could leave that job.

I could go to the gym today — and really, it gave me more ownership on making the decision if I actually wanted to at all.

Ultimately, there’s no "right" strategy for overcoming burnout.

I only know that overcoming my own burnout has meant shedding the "shoulds", and making my work more sustainable.

But I do know there are a lot more people out there who don’t know what this feeling is, why it’s not going away, and who feel as helpless and stuck as I did — and that makes me feel a little less alone.

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