‘Senior vice-presidents are not allowed to burn out’
Readers share their tales of overwork and recovery, as part of our Burnout series
‘One night, the flame inside me went out’
As part of a recent series, Burnout, The Irish Times invited readers to share their experiences of the phenomenon. Here is a selection. Thanks to all those who submitted stories.
‘I’ve had a good, deep look at my life’
I was 17 years in a high-tech multinational company. It was a full-on job and I worked hard for years on end. The “above expectations” appraisals were always there, and promotions followed. I took a big step up the ladder in 2009 when my second daughter was born and the working day started at 8am, finished at 6pm, restarted at 9pm and finished at midnight, Monday-Friday, with a few hours over the weekend for good measure.
Then I was posted the US for two years, which made that working day look like part-time.
On my return to Europe, I took another high-pressure role in the company, but I knew I was drowning. I did everything I could think of to avoid my burnout: vacations, talking to colleagues, mindfulness training – everything and anything – but, I was going down and I knew it.
One night, the lights went out. My mind crumbled, I fell apart, and the flame inside me went out.
I believe we all have a small flame inside us – it glows bright when we love our lives, when things are going well and feeling right, when we fall in love, the days our children are born. Burnout is a word to describe the moment that flame goes out.
You fall in darkness and realise you have lost your way. I was in the bed for roughly three weeks, or so my wife tells me.
I was always a kind, easygoing type so no one would have described me as egotistical but still it was difficult to realise that I was in bad shape, that I was going to need a lot of help and that big changes were needed to rekindle the flame. It has taken more than two years so far.
So here’s the advice I can share in no particular order: get help. Take all you can get, from GPs, psychologists, antidepressants, therapy, coaching, mindfulness. Be open to all of it, take what is useful and leave the rest.
The antidepressants were great for me. It took some time to get the right type and dose but I did keep it in the back of my head to get off them within a timeframe. I have friends who need them to function and always will. That’s okay, but it’s not me.
I avoided false friends like alcohol or drugs. I had a good deep look at my life, with the help of a lifeline, and started to identify what was right and what was wrong.
A lifeline is basically where you write your life story: one page for each year. The first page can tend to be a little short but it gets better and more detailed from there.
Then you start to write the future what do you want, what don’t you want, what elements of your life are you happy with family, friends, hobbies, work, exercise and those which are you unhappy with.
I was a one-trick pony. I worked excessively, leaving responsibility for the kids and all social interactions to my wife. Also, I hated where we were living and actually deep down didn’t enjoy the work anymore.
The people, weather, food and scenery make me glad to be alive
Too many years in the company meant I had lost perspective on my goals versus the company goals, and I had stopped fighting all the colleagues and direct and indirect bosses demanding things from me. At some point saying “yes” to everything had become the path of least resistance.
As long as you don’t give up and give in to that voice that tells you there is no hope, you will recover. The depression was terrible and it lasted a long time but slowly it lifted.
I left the company, I moved to a warm climate with my wife and kids. There, the people, weather, food and scenery make me glad to be alive. The kids settled in well and are thriving here now. We’re selling our old house, I’m looking for a new job, and we’re living off our savings.
My wife has started her own business, and I’ve grown much closer to my parents. I’ve hired a career coach to help me find a new direction for my work, and I’ve regained my smile and my perspective and my flame.
‘When the exams came round I couldn’t have cared less’
I’ve never worked a day in my life and yet found myself relating to the feature on burnout.
I just finished attending a school where I was lucky enough to have teachers who encouraged creativity and reading outside the set course. I discovered a love for writing poetry and fiction. By the end of fifth year I felt ready to leave and couldn’t wait for college.
Come sixth year all forms of expression, sport and friends had to be put aside for study. They were too much of a distraction.
By Christmas I felt so terrible I thought I was developing cancer. My doctor told me I’d “burnt out” and should get back exercising and ease off on the study whenever possible.
I tried, but with notes to rote-learn constantly being rammed down your throat if you want to stay in the CAO rat race, that time doesn’t exist.
I’ve always cared about my work, but when the exams came around I couldn’t have cared less. There was no relief when I finished.
I cleared the first choice on my CAO easily, but it wasn’t worth it.
My doctor told me I had depression as a direct result of the continued negative stress of sixth year. I’m trying to care about writing, college, friends, family and relationships again, but apathy’s a tricky one.
I would argue that the education system, in particular sixth year, delivers society with broken people possessing distorted values.
‘Senior vice-presidents, it seems, are not allowed to burn out’
I had worked in the big corporate environment for over 20 years, half of that at the senior executive level, and my career spanned two continents. I had been under enormous pressure for many, many years and then one day, I crashed.
I didn’t see it coming, and it was terrifying when it happened. The day I crashed, I was in a hotel, I had no idea where I was or how I got there, and I was supposed to be attending a meeting. I was absolutely terrified and I was completely lost in a 700sq ft room.
I turned to my company for help, but was ignored and, far worse, isolated and sidelined. Senior vice-presidents, it seems, are not allowed to burn out.
It took close to two years to get back on my feet
People passed judgment, rolled their eyes, and some even said I was “faking it” to take some time off. That could not have been further from the truth.
The burnout was the most terrifying and destructive experience of my life. My health, my family and my career suffered irreparable damage.
I did recover, but it took close to two years to get back on my feet. Judgment-free help was hard to find; society has little sympathy for well-paid, well-dressed executives. But executive burnout is real, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I am sharing this story in an attempt to normalise burnout and allow people to seek the help they desperately need.
‘I have been on autopilot for many years’
I try to live by the mantra, “life is a journey, not a destination”. This can be easier said than done, however.
I am a single mum of a fantastic preteen girl. I am her solo caregiver and we have a tremendously close bond.
Parenting can be a rollercoaster at the best of times and we have best prepared ourselves for the ride. I see myself as resourceful. I work full-time and spend a huge amount of time travelling from the Dublin suburbs to the heart of the city daily. This can be immensely trying, not to mention stressful, and the cost of childcare is a significant financial constraint.
I try and remind myself that I am setting the best example I can for my daughter, by instilling her with a work ethic and, essentially, future survival skills.
Only last year it dawned on me that I have been on autopilot for many years. Our lifestyle has been nurtured and has grown as the years have passed, but quite often I cannot differentiate between some of the years.
People in Ireland are considerate in their comments of “mind yourself” and “look after yourself”. But we take these comments in our stride; do we actually put them into practice?
I have made a conscious decision to break my autopilot mode. I recently went to the local library and borrowed three books on mindfulness, and every spare minute I get I am practising the techniques.
I have been keeping my social media interaction to a minimum, as I believe this to be hindering my chances of embracing my new outlook. All too often we are comparing our lives to others, and this can be a contributing factor to burning out.
I have joined a lunchtime yoga/pilates class. This “me time” has helped me sit tall at my desk in work, and feel I can take on the world again.
‘I was using escape techniques such as heavy drinking’
I suffered from burnout in 2016. I was working in a digital marketing start-up in Dublin, with a rather spurious job title which turned out to put me on the hook for just about anything.
I burnt out due a number of factors. I had a long commute in a car that regularly broke down on the M50. The business itself was poorly managed in my opinion. And every time I said I needed help I was told, “this is easy work” and “I’m not going to micro manage you”.
I was using escape techniques such as heavy drinking. I also had a lot of things going on outside of work that were piling on responsibility. There was a turnover of staff while I was on holidays, and when I came back I went into overdrive trying to catch up.
One morning after working rather late at night I woke up and wasn’t bouncing back like I used to. I couldn’t concentrate and I felt awful. I was lucky enough that I live with quite a close network of friends and family, who all noticed something was up.
My mother initiated a conversation with me about how I was feeling; my father had experienced burnout in his career, and she recognised the signs.
Through talking about my problems I was able to restructure myself
I made the tough decision to hand my notice in. At that stage I cared about nothing other than controlling my mind, outside work problems, and my general health.
Initially I had to train myself to concentrate on things. I had three days of no sleep due to racing thoughts. I had to avoid all loud noises for a month.
But, I never gave up. After finally managing to sleep for a month I signed up for the gym and for counselling classes at a therapy clinic. Through talking about my problems I was able to restructure myself and my goals in a better way. After four months of sessions, I got the all clear to go back to work.
In spring I received the good news that a company wanted to hire me. I’m back in the working world, healthier, with more understanding of business, happier, less stressed and with a network of similar-minded people around me working together towards the same goal.
While I burnt out and suffered from anxiety and depression I know not to let that define me. I’m back from it and now feel that I know myself better.
The company I originally worked for subsequently folded.
‘We are in a quagmire of overwhelm’
Two years ago, my widowed mother was diagnosed with cancer and had a fall a few months later. As a child who always put her mother’s wellbeing first, this proved challenging with numerous medical appointments and rehabilitation back into her own home.
Then my father-in-law had the first of his falls; not long after this my mother-in-law had her first turn. The emergency department was visited 10 times in one year. It was down to my husband and I to deal with the three unwell grandparents.
Meanwhile, our teenagers were both doing exams and we were not always there for regular mealtimes and general support; even the dog no longer had its main walker, as my father-in-law was unable to walk far leading up to his death.
The intense stress of this period has meant I have been unable to do the various projects I was previously passionate about, and I have a litany of health issues which doctors say are all stress-related: irritable bowel syndrome, sciatica, vertigo and exhaustion.
My husband is overwhelmed with work too. We have been unable to take a holiday as neither granny could be left. Our life forces are absorbed by our mothers’ and our children’s issues. We are in a quagmire of overwhelm and burnout, with no solution in sight.
‘There’s no acknowledgement of the emotional impact’
I am a social worker working in child protection. There is a culture in this area of working long hours, unrealistic caseloads and working with vulnerable clients where your own safety may at times be in jeopardy.
The majority of people go straight from college into what happens to be the most challenging area of social work. They are handed a large caseload of complex cases without an adequate induction. It’s unfair on the families and the individual workers. This ultimately leads to stress and burnout in a culture of low morale and high staff turnover.
There’s no real acknowledgement from management of how difficult the work can be
I experienced a panic attack at work after a long period of being short staffed in our department. This culminated in months of sleepless nights and stress about work.
The response from management is to send you out sick or on an employee assistance programme. There’s no real acknowledgement from management of how difficult the work can be and the emotional impact on staff.
Staff return to work but the culture and system remain the same. The most experienced workers eventually leave and the new graduates start again out of college.
The cycle continues and people express shock when Tulsa makes headlines again for more mistakes being made.
‘I lied to myself I was sleeping well’
My first burnout occurred as I approached 30. A scout leader for almost 15 years, I threw myself unreservedly into scouting, at times spending every free hour in the week, thinking planning or doing something related to scouting.
It was a relatively gentle burnout, but sad; I had emptied the tank and had nothing left to give to something I truly loved. I resigned. Worse was to come.
I started accountancy at 23 and worked for a well-known international business. I also threw myself with abandon into this. I pioneered and computer-modelled the international business planning process. I got promotions and worked even harder.
I lied to myself I was sleeping well at nights, while getting up in the early hours because my head itched so badly I had to put a gloopy tar-like muck in it to counteract the psoriasis; a towel on my pillow prevented marking.
I ran myself into the ground with overwork and worry, working weekends and staying late. You couldn’t be seen to leave before 7.30pm.
I felt I was heading for a breakdown and had to act, so I started to leave at 6.30pm.
My wife remarked years later that this was a great imposition at the time; she had become used to me not being there and then I suddenly began to appear.
It took many more years for me to realise and accept my compulsive behaviour was a lot of the problem.
Corporate culture is also to blame, sucking people in and milking everything they can. My values were all wrong. I measured my worth by my salary, was over-materialistic and neglected my family life.
I recovered – I was lucky.
‘I work every hour that I am awake’
I lift the fork from the plate to my mouth. I cannot get the food into my mouth. My right hand is trembling too much. I move the fork left-handedly and unsuccessfully to my mouth. I realize my mother is watching me. She says: “You need to get some help.”
I go to a doctor. He prescribes some antidepressants. I take them for a week and then start hallucinating. I can’t watch TV. I go off the medication slowly and painfully. And then I start to live again.
For months before this I am working every hour that I am awake. I’m a community social worker in a poor part of the city.
I’m working on a new approach in the community I serve. Some of it is going well but there are as many steps backwards as forwards.
There is another problem. I’m not earning enough to keep body and soul together. I make a tinned fish and rice or lentil pie on Saturdays and divide it into seven slices. Each day I take a slice. That keeps me going. But it’s not enough.
I used to enjoy getting out into the countryside to slough off the misery of the poverty of others, but that makes me too hungry. I try sleeping through the weekends to lessen the calorie intake but that isolates me.
I go to my boss, who tells me: “It’s a vocation.”
If you feel you are suffering from burnout, discuss the problem with your GP. The charity Aware (1800-804848) provides support on mental health issues