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Burnout - my story

Have you ever worried that you might run out of yoghurt in ten days’ time? I kid you not; this is a concern that has regularly preoccupied me over the past five years (although no longer, thankfully). The yoghurt story is the one I tell people when they ask how I came to be where I am – a driven, career-focused, ladder-climbing teacher in senior leadership in London quitting the job that was the pinnacle of a meticulously executed plan in favour of moving home to Cumbria and retraining as a running coach and mountain guide. The short story: I wanted to no longer worry about my future self’s yoghurt needs. The long story: this piece is about how I burned out, and how I learned to recognise this and begin to recover.

I went to a party back in London last weekend. Late in the evening, the sun starting to go down, I tentatively mentioned to one friend that I thought I might have burned out. She looked at me incredulously. ‘Jen. You might have? You used to say you didn’t have time to even breathe.’ This is truly how I felt. That I did not have time to breathe, eat, use the bathroom, maintain proper contact with my friends and family. And that’s how I came to be so bothered by yoghurt – a genuine fear of being so busy that I wouldn’t have time to order groceries in a week’s time. Time was my most precious and jealously guarded resource, and there was never enough of it.

For about three years, I managed this situation. I loved my job – really loved it. It didn’t matter about not being able to eat/breathe/buy yoghurt because I was enjoying myself so much. I loved the busyness, I loved the sense of having my own little kingdom (I was Head of Sixth Form in an amazing girls’ school), and above all I loved the students – I still really miss them bouncing in and out of my office with an extraordinary array of questions, problems, achievements, puzzles, worries and news. The problems started (or perhaps, bubbled to the surface) when I changed jobs – I accepted a promotion into what I thought was my ‘dream job’, in charge of pastoral care in another excellent girls’ school.

So what is burnout? It’s certainly a term I hadn’t heard used before it happened to me, and I was surprised to find out that it has a definition, and specific symptoms – not just a general sense of being overwhelmed and exhausted. I’m not a professional in this area, but I did do some research. It was as recently as 2019 that the WHO defined burnout. It’s not a disease, or an illness, but an ‘occupational phenomenon’. They call it a ‘syndrome linked to chronic work stress’, and cite causes such as sustained overworking or an unreasonable workload, a lack of clarity about one’s role, and a disconnect between someone’s own values and the values of their organisation. The symptoms include feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.

I’m a teacher, and we don’t really think much of ‘feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion’ – that just sounds like the end of every Christmas term, ever. The second two were more worrying, and the more I read, the more I recognised. As I said, I loved my job, and I was and remain passionate about pastoral care, children’s wellbeing and safeguarding. But increasingly I found that I was struggling to get up in the morning and drag myself into work. None of my projects excited me – even the big ones that I knew had the potential to really make a difference to my students. I felt like I didn’t matter, and my job didn’t matter, even though this was manifestly untrue. I also relate big time to ‘reduced professional efficacy’. Over a period of two to three months I transformed from being someone who was energetic, proactive, decisive and rigorous to barely being able to leave the safety of my office. I cried at work every day because I felt so overwhelmed and out of my depth. I feared my inbox – how quickly it filled up, and the complexity of the issues within it. I dreaded pastoral emergencies (which happened almost every day) because I knew they would require me to operate at a capacity I just didn’t have. I was forgetful, irritable, and most distressingly of all, I lost the ability to make decisions. Colleagues came to me regularly for support in handling tricky situations, and I found myself completely incapable of making the decisions they needed to help them. These are all symptoms of burnout.

Luckily, despite my job being stressful and overwhelming, my boss was supportive. The first time I cried in her office, she did not patronise me by talking about how we could ‘lighten my load’ or ‘help me prioritise’. She simply sent me home and told me to take whatever time I needed. So, after wrestling with the guilt of not being able to support my colleagues or students, I did take that time. Initially, I thought I was just ‘low’, in a period of depression brought on by stress at work and the pressures of the pandemic. It was later that I learned that the symptoms of burnout are very like those of depression but with one key difference: the only way to deal with burnout is through lifestyle change.

This was radical. Accepting this idea was to accept that I could not continue with the life I had, or the one I thought I wanted. It took me months to untangle my sense of self-worth from the prestige and challenge of my difficult job. In the end, my solution was also radical. In the space of four months, I quit my job, sold my beautiful flat in London and moved (unemployed!) to Cumbria. I’m writing these words from my ‘mobile office’ (aka Bertie the campervan), parked up at the foot of the Kirkstone Pass. I’ve just been on a beautiful trail run with the most incredible views, wondering at how my life choices have gifted me such an amazing Wednesday morning. I feel inner peace: that I am completely myself, where and when I’m supposed to be. And interestingly, I don’t feel any less valuable, strong or inspiring, or any less of a leader than I did when my Wednesday morning comprised assembly followed by a series of complicated pastoral scenarios and doing battle with my inbox.

What about if you (understandably) are not keen to quit your job, sell your home and move 250 miles from your existing life, friends and support network? There are still options if you think you’re flirting with burnout – remember the root cause of it is chronic work stress, perhaps caused by an unreasonable workload, lack of clarity about your role, or a mismatch between your values and those of your organisation. Do you have the option to talk to your line manager? There might be opportunities to discuss exactly what is expected of you, or pass on a project to someone else. It might even be that you could pivot into a different part of your organisation which is more aligned with the ways you naturally work and with your core values, or that you could switch to working part time. Many people feel that asking for help or to change their workload is a sign of weakness. My feeling is that it takes strength to stand up and say that actually, you’d rather have a life alongside your job, and the chance to spend time with your family, your football team, your bridge four or your chamber orchestra (whatever floats your boat) – and be part of the revolution that says we’re more than our job titles. If you’re reading this and thinking ‘but I don’t have a bridge four, football team, chamber orchestra or significant other’ – is that something that could help you? It’s counterintuitive to think that taking on something extra will help when you already feel overwhelmed, but interests outside work force you to make space for them and give you the sense of fulfilment that you might be lacking otherwise. Of course, if change within your workplace isn’t possible, it’s worth remembering that there are many, many workplaces out there, and they would all be lucky to have you.

Something else that helped me was talking about it. Initially (when I thought I was depressed) I worked with a therapist, and it was she who introduced me to the idea of burnout. I also signed up for a group programme with my leadership coach (Alex Webb, who runs TLRDynamics) called ‘Regaining Your Mojo’. For five weeks, I spent an hour on Zoom every Monday morning with a group of about a dozen women, working through what Alex calls our ‘Ikigai’ – a Japanese word that means something like ‘our direction and purpose in the world’. We rediscovered our values, thought about who we are at our best, explored our roles and relationships, and recognised which people, places and situations give us energy, and which drain it from us. This group helped me to see that I could be the strong, inspiring, supportive woman I want to be in a myriad of ways – not just in the job I had at that moment. Alex is still running the course, and I massively recommend it.

Finally (it’s got to appear somewhere!), the social media comparison game. We all know intellectually that social media is where our friends and acquaintances put their highlights reel, not their worst days. But I’m not sure that we absorb this fully into our psyche when we’re scrolling away. Be honest with yourself about whether your social media are fuelling a feeling of ‘not being enough’ or ‘needing to do it all to be able to be considered successful’. I recently went on an Instagram purge: I unfollowed every account that I recognised as making me doubt or critique myself, regardless of how much I like or admire the account owner.

So, nine months on from my burnout, where am I? Honestly, I think the recovery may just be beginning. I’ve recognised that this is what happened, which means that I think I’m ready to give myself space, time and kindness, without guilt for wanting or needing any of these, and without worrying about what comes next.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this or found it helpful, please feel free to share.

Image credit: Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash

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