What is burnout?
According to Mayo Clinic, job burnout is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Although, it’s not a medical diagnosis, the symptoms and potential effects of burnout are very real. In May 2019, the World Health Organization classified it as an “occupational phenomenon”. Healthline cites the signs of burnout, all of which I certainly had, as: exhaustion, isolation, escape fantasies, irritability, and frequent illnesses. Exhaustion is just as it sounds, being completely drained physically and emotionally. Being so drained and overwhelmed, people who are burnt out tend to isolate themselves from others and avoid socializing with friends, family, and coworkers, or stop altogether. In isolation, you may start daydreaming more or fantasizing about what life would be like if you left your job. The seemingly insurmountable stress and increasing isolation can make you irritable and all of the things you may have been able to tolerate before are now insufferable. Finally, the stress can lower your immune system making you much more prone to getting sick and also open you up to “mental health concerns like depression and anxiety,” according to Healthline.
My symptoms of burnout
Exhaustion: I was always fatigued. Even though I was waking up some days at 5am to go to the gym, other days I was up at 5am staring at the ceiling thinking about my life choices. In the evenings when I got home (in the days of commuting), I would take “pre-naps” on the couch by 9:30 in the evening only to wake up around midnight or 1am and get in bed for a few hours to wake up and dwell on life and work.
Isolation: This intensified this year. I started spending more time alone in my room, and trying to avoid my loved ones so they wouldn’t see that I was breaking down in tears on a weekly basis, sometimes more than once a week. Even my manager noticed that I was slowly withdrawing, barely smiling or speaking. When she’d ask if I was okay, I’d just say yes because I didn’t know how to ask for help; I didn’t even know I needed it yet.
Escape fantasies: This one is pretty simple, I consistently (and still sometimes do) would think: wouldn’t it be great if I just hit the lotto tomorrow. Talk about F you money. At least twice a week I thought about quitting. Not resigning, quitting.
Irritability: Everything about my job pissed me off. Even the things I thoroughly enjoyed doing and the people I loved working with. It all became a chore and I would often wig out on the people closest to me. When people say this is the last straw… I felt that. Every. Day.
Frequent illnesses: I’ve gotten sick more times in the past 3 years than I have in my entire life. In 2017 I had viral pink eye, not bacterial, this was a virus that caused pink eye. Let that sink in for a minute. In 2018, I felt like pure death with a cough that lasted about two months. In 2019, I got so sick after working late before thanksgiving that I had to go on a steroid to prevent my throat from completely closing up, restricting my airway. And finally, earlier this year, I contracted a virus(?), it’s actually still not known if it’s a true virus or how it’s contracted, pityriasis rosea. With this, I broke out in hive-like bumps all over my body. It took the bumps well over 2 months to go away, but I digress…
The stages of burnout
Psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, who coined the term in the 1970s, identified twelve stages of burnout with his colleague Gail North. These two noted that burnout doesn’t really happen all at once, but is the culmination of many factors over time and occurs in these twelve stages. They are: excessive drive or ambition, pushing yourself to work harder, neglecting personal care and needs, displacement of conflict, no time for nonwork-related needs, denial, withdrawal, behavioral changes, depersonalization, inner emptiness, depression, and mental or physical exhaustion or collapse.
How burnout affects the Black community
In preparation for this episode, I read quite a few articles on the subject of burnout. A quick Google search that included “burnout affect Black workers,” churned out tons of articles about how companies and organizations can support Black employees; most written over the summer of this year, 2020. While it’s way overdue that the impact of stress and burnout on Black employees is considered, we’re going to overlook that for the sake of getting through this episode.
As I went through some of these articles, one in particular stood out to me from The Cut. The author spoke to five Black women about how their jobs were burning them out, the physical and mental effects of it, and how they were able to cope with it (or not to be frank). It’s crazy how these women were able to speak from their own experiences and it’s as if I read an account of my own life back to me.
The general vibe is that we don’t deserve to be tired or haven’t earned it. Ultimately, as Black women, we biologically age at a faster rate than white women due mainly to repeated perceived stress that contributes to the shortening of telomeres. This includes stress from work where the average person spends about 90,000 hours of their life. And this work-related stress is a larger group of stressful life experiences that Black people in the US are disproportionately exposed to with greater frequency and greater duration or intensity than white people. Sometimes it can feel like we bear the weight of the world on our shoulders and I’d like to let you know you’re not alone.
How I knew and why I was getting burnt out
Even though I adore my company and the team(s) I work with, I started to feel so wrapped up in my career and being successful that I felt like I didn’t know who I was. I was always so tired from work, the actual work and my commute, that I didn’t have energy or the drive to do the things I enjoyed and was genuinely interested in. Over time, I was barely getting dressed the way I normally did. I hardly even ironed or steamed out wrinkles. Mind you, I’m a girly, girl to the extreme so I relish in putting on my makeup and choosing an outfit for the day, so that was really hard to see. Every full-time job I worked after college, I was consistently putting in hours beyond a typical 9-5. Most days looked more like 8 to 8, and obviously later in busy seasons (if you’re in finance, you know exactly what I’m talking about). And it’s not that there wasn’t time to do other things, I’m hyper-aware that people are able to do many things in a day with the same amount of free hours, if not less. I was putting so much energy into my career and my jobs that I was stifled by the time I got home. I love to work out and be active, particularly first thing in the morning. I went to the gym at least twice a week pre-pandemic at 5am and it gave my morning a sense of peace that helped keep me sane during the day. In the evenings, if I’d make it home in time and wasn’t too exhausted, I’d hit my dojo and train with my mixed martial arts fam.
You know when you go to the beach and you pick up sand? The feeling of when you spread your fingers apart and the sand seeps through the space between each joint. It felt like my life and identity was the sand and I felt increasingly trapped by my work. The pandemic definitely didn’t help at all since my safe, happy place became my workplace as well. I live in a fairly small space and work from my desk in my bedroom. Besides barely getting dressed most days, I spent a lot of time in bed crying and obsessing over how stressed, tired, unhappy, and unfulfilled I felt. I’ve flat out wept, I mean completely bawled more times this year than any other time in my life, not counting grieving periods. After having this happen so many times, I knew it was time for a change.
When I knew it got to be too much
Before I got to the breaking point I hit this year, I had a mini-breakdown in the beginning of 2018. I was working later than all of my direct peers at the time, going home at crazy times some nights, exhausted, stressed, and feeling like I wasn’t learning or advancing in my career. Because I knew it wasn’t sustainable, I started trying to change my outlook and spent time looking for another job. During this time I relied on prayer and God, started listening to comedy and self-improvement podcasts, and began meditating daily. By the time my birthday came around in May of that year, I was feeling a lot better and had several new job prospects that made me confident enough to feel like I had a way out and wasn’t just stuck. Unfortunately, this feeling didn’t last and this year I realized I was in a pattern that I’d keep repeating if I didn’t get to the root of my issues.
The impetus for me getting external help this year was realizing that I can barely function and focus at work because of my anxiety and feeling like I was having an existential crisis every day at work. I did really well, excelled even, before the pandemic. As I briefly mentioned before, in the midst of it all, I found myself losing all semblance of myself as the few things I had been doing routinely were being ripped away from me due to lockdowns and 5 months ago, I couldn’t really tell you what I was interested in anymore because I didn’t know. I didn’t know myself and in addition to feeling overwhelmingly lost, I felt guilty because in this day and age, I should’ve just been happy to have a good job at a company that was doing well and my health and that of family and friends. Emptiness. I felt empty inside, confused, and lost.
I reasoned that it must be my job function, and that maybe it was time for a career shift into a field with more autonomy and something I was just a lot more interested in. When I got my MBA, I studied with a concentration in management information systems and was introduced to an interesting new world (to me) of tech and how business could be melded with tech in an array of different careers. It was absolutely amazing and I found myself enjoying the tech-aligned courses so much more than my accounting and general business classes. Long story short, I thought if I could figure out what my next career move should be, I’d feel better and could create an exit plan from my current career. I signed up for a three-month product management coaching program with an excellent coach who I’ll link in the show notes. I lived for every minute of it, was applying to other jobs, looked for opportunities within my current company, and talked to endless amounts of product managers to get their perspectives. I thought this was it, made a plan, and waited for my anxiety to wane… but it never did. I was still crying every Sunday night before I’d return to work the next Monday. My job, my life was still stressing me out. I took a look in the mirror and finally realized that this was so much more than just not liking what I did for a living.
Getting external help
This isn’t sponsored by this company, although I’ve heard it sponsored on many other podcasts, but when I decided it was time for me to get professional help, I turned to BetterHelp. At the time I started (almost 2 months ago now, phew), I was talking to my friend about therapy and she was telling me what a great experience she’d been having with BetterHelp and how she “goes” weekly. You can’t see me but I’m using my air quotes because everything is virtual now so she’s not really going anywhere… but you catch my drift. There’s a service offered through my job, but I genuinely wanted professional mental help separate from anything else I’m connected to so I can feel like I’m in a completely safe space. I’m not going to lie, this method is pricy. They have an option you can choose if you’re unable to afford their services, but I didn’t use it because to be quite honest, I know I can afford it.
Anyway, prior to starting therapy, I listed all of the issues I was able to identify on my own. I explained that I didn’t understand why work stressed me out so much, but that I wanted to get to the root of why. Honestly, eight weeks in, I’m still not sure why I placed all of these rules and restrictions on my life and why I need to do so much to be successful. Logically, I know that I don’t have to work 24/7 to achieve my idea of success, but darn it, I felt like I needed to try. I needed to be that constant hustler and have the financial freedom to take care of myself and my family. I still want that, but I’m learning to give myself more grace and not care so much about what other people think of me. That’s none of my business really.
Each week my therapist gives me something to work on. In one case, this was as simple as not reading every single care label of every item before creating piles and putting them in the wash (yes, I really did that). At a basic level, I have fewer laundry piles and take less time to do my laundry. However, at a high level, I’m relearning that rules don’t have to be so rigid they place restrictions on my life. Some rules are just guidelines and there’s no need to create unnecessary stress trying to follow guides to the t. I get the feeling the next thing my therapist and I will be working on is why I care so much about the opinions of others but that will be another story for another podcast. Lol.
The Importance of Self Care
In all of this, the biggest realization I’ve made is that self care is vital to self-preservation. Not taking care of myself causes me to be the worst version of myself for myself. And when I’m not myself, y’all, I’m a complete mess. In that case if I’m not crying, I might be flipping out, short-tempered, and emotionally void. To show up in this world the way I want and have the impact that I want, I need to be the best version of myself.
When I’m the best Liv I can be, I’m clear on my goals and productive, but not pressured to get things done. And I do things well when I’m in that state, let me tell you. Plus, you’ll actually want to do things. When you’re in the throes of burnout, just getting out of bed can be the hardest task of the day. Learning to take control of the things that I can control and eliminating unnecessary stressors was something I knew to do logically, but just needed that extra push to know how. Ultimately, I feel a lot lighter. Even though I’m not healed by any means, I can attest that taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health and should be one of your top priorities.
Going to therapy, getting back into journaling, meditation, and prayer, and spending less time at work and more with loved ones has been paramount. I’ve started posting on my blog again after a month(+) long hiatus and found some new passions. I don’t feel hopeless or like I have no control of my life or who I am anymore. Being able to reflect on my life and priorities helped me gain clarity and now here we are.
If you can’t afford therapy, I’d urge you to consider meditation, yoga, or just chilling the flip out and listening to some music for a few uninterrupted minutes a day. Before I started my current job and was feeling this way, I did all of the above and they each helped. The hardest thing to do when you’re burnt out is change your mindset, but know that even tiny shifts are better than nothing. If being alone with yourself and your thoughts is too much for you, try finding a good show or podcast to follow. Self-help ones with positive affirmations are good, but I found comical podcasts to be my jam. Just take care of yourself, sis. Nobody is going to care about you, your career, your family, your life, as much as you. Go be selfish and take care of your most important asset. Peace. ✌🏽
Business Insider – Disturbing Facts About Your Job
Harvard Business Review – How Organizations Can Support the Mental Health of Black Employees
Healthline – A Guide to Burnout
Mayo Clinic – Job Burnout: How to spot it and take action
National Center for Biotechnology Information – Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?
The Cut – Black Women on Burnout
XO Necole – Why Black Women Should Never Ignore Burnout