Lessons learned from chronic stress and burnout

Series of a business executive in suit with battery indicator to show his energy level, from fully charged to drained and exhausted. Conceptual vector cartoon illustration isolated on grey background.

I am sharing this experience, hoping that it can help others prevent or recover from chronic stress and burnout.

I share the causes of the chronic stress and burnout I experienced, the signs that I became aware of and the practices I used on the road to recovery.

This article is split into the following sections:

Signs, Symptoms and Causes

  • The first signs that something was wrong
  • Lack of self-awareness
  • Signs and symptoms getting worse
  • Lack of meaning
  • Factors that caused my chronic stress and burnout
  • Change of circumstances

Effective recovery from chronic stress and burnout

  • Managing stress to build resilience, health, and wellbeing
  • Situational/organisational factors

Signs, Symptoms and Causes of Chronic stress and Burnout

 

The first signs that something was wrong

It was 2009, and I was visiting my parents and brothers in England. It was a Saturday; I was out getting some food and snacks for the evening. At one point, I found myself standing in the supermarket trying to decide on which packet of crisps to choose. In 2009, I spent most of my time in Denmark and back then it felt like there were three flavours of crisps: salt; cheese; or the exotic option: sour cream and onion. I missed salt and vinegar crisps; pickled onion; chilli and lime; and prawn cocktail. These became comfort foods when I visited England, in addition to other healthy choices such as fish and chips; Indian curries and a full English breakfast.

It was taking me ages to decide which crisps to choose. I started to feel frustrated, which evolved into sadness and pity. I realised how my brain was frozen, with the simplest of decisions. I knew that this was not the only decision; I had struggled to make recently. 

Weeks before, I became aware of how hard it was to focus my attention at work. I felt exhausted. I was downing coffee, yerba mate and maca root tea in the morning; in the attempt to fire my brain up. I was often waking very early in the morning, and even if I slept through the night, it was hard to switch my brain on when I woke up. I cut out stimulants after 13:00 and prioritised reading or something relaxing before getting to bed by 23:00 (during the week); unfortunately, my sleep was still troubling me. I experienced feeling anxious, and I worried more than I had before.

Short walks in nature during lunch, helped provide a moment of relief, although the afternoons dragged on. Short runs around the local lake at the weekends helped a lot, although I struggled to fit this in during the week, as I prioritised work above everything else. There was little self-care, and I allowed my work hours to consume nearly every waking minute I experienced.

Lack of self-awareness

For some months, my girlfriend and my mum expressed their concerns about my work rhythm. I had not paid much attention to their worries as at the time; I felt that I could keep going. I considered that I could keep pushing myself harder and longer. Heck, my colleagues seemed okay, so why should I not be able to deal with this work rhythm (really, I had no idea of my colleagues’ work patterns as we all worked remotely).

Signs and symptoms getting worse

 

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I slowly became more aware of how tired I generally was and how my mood was generally low. I experienced more occasions in which I could not make simple decisions or overcome small challenges. I distanced myself from others and my self esteem dropped. I had an increased craving for foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat. My alcohol consumption increased.

This growing awareness helped me realise that my “always on” approach to work, was not working. I should have taken my girlfriend and my mum’s concerns more seriously, but unfortunately it was too late. As I will explain below, chronic stress and my resulting burnout; built up over long periods (in my case, approximately 2.5 years). Many people, like myself, do not realise something is wrong until the symptoms become severe.

Mild, short-term stress can be beneficial. We become more alert, energised, our thinking rate increases, concentration improves and our motivation and performance increases. The problem occurs when we experience prolonged stress with no intermittent recovery (rest). Unbroken high stress and the resulting high alertness, breaks down our body and brain and can lead to exhaustion.

Burnout is considered to be a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. Burnout is not classified as a medical condition. It is seen as a psychological syndrome.

One sign that differentiates whether you are experiencing chronic stress rather than burnout, is the outcome of considering whether you are still motivated and have some energy left to try to get everything under control, or to deal with the pressure you are faced with or not?

If you are experiencing burnout the outcome of this consideration will most likely be that you are not motivated and instead feel like any further attempts are hopeless, you are too exhausted to try, or you simply do not care anymore.

You could also ask yourself whether you feel over-engaged or disengaged?

Lack of meaning

The world, as I knew it started to collapse when I began to think about whether there was any meaning behind the effort I put into my work. Surprisingly, I realised that burning the candle at both ends did not contribute to anything that I considered meaningful. I was sacrificing precious, quality time with friends and family, and I was not caring for myself, for any good reason or a sense of purpose.

I thought about my options for the future while working for my current employer. I also thought about other potential career paths. How could my work impact others and the wider society? It was hard to find a meaningful answer. It was also hard to see how I could increase a sense of meaning. It was at this point that my level of stress not only increased, but it suddenly felt un-manageable. I started to feel trapped with no idea of getting out of the situation. My chronic stress had resulted in burnout.  

Factors that caused my chronic stress and burnout

 

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I felt like I needed to escape my current work situation ASAP. But as I further reflected, I realised that the cause of my burnout was multi-faceted. In addition to the lack of meaning in my job, there were causes linked to my behaviour and the organisation I worked for.

For example, my lack of self-awareness and self-care was a significant factor. I felt disappointed in myself. The organisational culture and the way I was managed was another factor. My current manager’s primary focus was to achieve objectives linked to the sales of services and products. It seemed like he had little respect for what it took to deliver a high level of quality and achieve the customer’s desired outcomes (I was responsible for selling and delivering customer solutions). I felt like our customers’ demands, and therefore, my role’s responsibility was starting to become more significant than the resources I had access to. I felt like I needed more support from our US engineers, as our projects’ complexity was increasing faster than the training I was receiving. I was feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to deliver what was expected.

Another factor was the lack of clear expectations of my work priorities and what success looked like in my role. We were also a global start-up that lacked some formal processes and procedures that would typically provide more certainty, simplicity, and result in having to make fewer decisions daily.

From my perspective, my organisation expected my attention from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed. Unfortunately, I never considered sitting down with my manager or colleagues and talking about whether this was the case. I did not set work boundaries for myself. I could see my colleague based in Singapore, active on Skype when I woke up and my colleagues in California, was busy when I was ready for bed. I did not manage the use of the technology I had access to. I was not aware of what actually contributed to the sustainable high performance of my brain. My current motto, back then, was to “get a grip and push harder“. This turned out to be a failed motto and approach.

My body’s threat response had become too sensitive, and I spent too much time in a state of high alert. Importantly, my natural brake pedal was not working effectively after such a prolonged period of chronic stress. I needed to improve its functioning again gradually.

Change of circumstances

After some months of consideration, I decided to leave my job. I needed to search for a career and role that would provide me with a greater sense of meaning and purpose. As I moved on, the following factors and practices helped me recover.

Effective recovery from chronic stress and burnout

 

Managing stress to build resilience, health, and wellbeing

 

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The recovery process from chronic stress and burnout is a slow one and requires patience. The duration is different from person to person and depends on factors such as the causes and duration of the chronic stress or burnout; coping styles and sense of agency, and the person’s support network.

It is important to experiment with only one or two changes at a time. Less is more. For many people, prioritising self-care such as quality sleep, daily movement outside, or day time recovery is at the top of their list. Making sense of your situation, accepting it and focusing on what you can control, is an important part of the emotional process. Considering whether organisational factors can be influenced or worked through could provide immediate benefit.

Here are some of the practices I have experimented with to help me on the road to recovery.

  • I took some time out from work to rest, walk in nature and explore my values and what sort of work could provide a greater sense of purpose.
  • I continued to prioritise quality sleep, especially during the weekdays. You can find tips on gaining quality sleep here.
  • I prioritised 20-mins of meditation during my morning.
  • I practised breathing exercises throughout the day for as little as 2 to 5 minutes. You can find example practices here.
  • I put more priority on connecting with others and strengthening the relationships I already had. I spent more time talking with my family and friends.
  • I changed my Physical Exercise. At the time, I had started Crossfit. I felt great during and immediately after the workout, although I felt irritable by about 2-hrs after the workout. I started doing more working in, Yoga, Mobility exercises and Strength training. As I got better, I slowly added more cardiovascular training, such as steady-state running and high-intensity sprints.
  • I started a daily practice of appreciation which I did straight after my morning meditation. You can find an example of this practice here.
  • I reappraised my experience of burnout, giving it a new meaning. I learned to adopt a growth mindset and see how my experience helped me increase my self-awareness and development.

You can read more about improving the function of your natural brake pedal here, and find more tips for effective mental and physical health here.

Workplace/organisational factors

When I returned to work, I put more emphasis and importance on the following.

  • I clarified what my priorities were and how to achieve them (what did success look like). I aligned these with my colleagues.
  • I set clear boundaries for when I started and stopped work.
  • I focused on judging my contribution based on the successful achievement of the objectives I was working on vs the number of hours I worked.
  • I planned 60 to 120-min sessions of focus time, in which I worked on important tasks that demanded the ability to think clearly and concentrate.
  • I planned short mental preparation sessions before important meetings in which I practised the breathing exercises mentioned above. This practice helped me reduce stress and be more present.

 

                                    Image: On the road to recovery – a few years after experiencing burnout

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