Burnout

I had a downfall in the spring and lost something important

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  • This article is also available in Finnish.

I wrote this article for many reasons. For example, it works as a therapeutic form of expression. I also hope that someone possibly gets some help out of this - maybe recognizes themselves or their close ones from my description, and knows to get help. My story is mainly about work-related stress leading to a burnout and its consequences.

History from my job from the past few years

Already for a few years I had been in a leading role at work projects. At times, in ICT business it is really unclear what should be done, but still the deadlines are coming and the overall stress many people have feels like foul air. In a modern low hierarchy ICT company out of this kind of chaos rises, depending on personality factors, someone who takes the lead. This is what happened to me - I can't just watch if I'm not able to do my job as a basic developer due to the surrounding chaos. That's when I try to get a grip of the chaos and take a leading position.

I remember saying at work, already one and half years before my spring downfall, I need to have something a bit lighter to do for a change. In retrospect, this was the first clear warning sign. At some level I knew that, without breaks, I'm not going to be able to keep on doing similar things forever - rescuing chaotic projects, that is. In front of me stood, however, yet again another challenging project requiring a lead for a few months. So I did it with great energy and success. But I still didn't understand that I seriously needed to just stop and say no for a while. Alas, after the short project I found myself designated to a 16-month project, which ended up as my ruin. Originally, it was supposed to be just another small project for a couple of months, but once again after starting to dig through the chaos, I realized it's going to take a lot longer. But I didn't back off.

Eventually the project ended up in an acceptable state, but not only did the schedule and budget go haywire, I had to fight with a team completely unfit for the job. Here is where the low hierarchy model of the ICT business really backfired: I became the de facto person responsible for almost everything, but I didn't get any power. The company itself didn't exactly require this kind of stuff from anyone. The official policy was that just doing your regular hours should be enough. But the policy doesn't mention any roles, and in practice, when doing this self-directing, self-organizing thing, it is kind of assumed that everything works exactly like it did - someone just takes responsibility and starts to lead things. Due to my character and stress tolerance my downfall was delayed and delayed, but at the same time, little by little I lost my ability to do not work-related things due to the looming burnout. I used almost all my energy doing work that either wasn't objectively speaking meaningful or at least didn't feel meaningful. Nevertheless, I just kept on pushing forwards, perhaps hoping things would turn out more meaningful some day and it would all pay off.

The spring burnout

The first time I officially sought help was in January 2019, from a psychologist, after returning from a vacation to Tenerife, during which I did experience some moments without work stress. Unfortunately I guess I was a bit too rational and healthy-looking after the vacation, and maybe the psychologist didn't have enough experience to ask the right questions, so things stayed at "it's going to be alright" level. The worst was yet to come at that point. When February came closer, we went into production with the chaotic project, and of course there were a bunch of problems, which basically were left for me to fix. In February, I took a vacation to Thailand with a 22-hour notice. This was actually again something that misled me. All the time I knew I was really stressed out, but I just couldn't understand how deeply. The fact that I was able to go on a quick vacation somehow made me feel as if things were under my control, but they weren't.

After lying a week in a hammock I realized how insane thoughts I had had about the work. For example, why did I take the return flight from the vacation so soon? When booking the flights I had thought maybe I have some time to double-check certain things before deploying stuff into production when I get back from the trip. Unfortunately, again this realization brought me false security about the level of control I had over things. I had another visit to the psychologist, and now that even I had realized how insanely I thought about work at times, we both were left with a feeling things will be alright at some point, for I had now seen the light.

Unfortunately it didn't get alright by itself. At no point were the conditions suitable for that. In reality, already in January I had passed the point where I could've managed without any changes or help. My symptoms were having a really strong effect on my relationship also. At home, I was unable to function like I should have. For example, I couldn't even make myself go and play board games with my partner and our friends. In retrospect, if one doesn't even have the energy for relaxing small things like that, something is wrong.

How a burnout feels like I could sum up like this:

  • You end up in a state with almost complete incapability to act. I guess this depends on your personality. My own stress reaction is to freeze and kind of get lost in my own world, or "space out". For others it might be fight or flight, not even knowing what they're up against. Then you might make impulsive decisions you can't even explain afterwards.
  • When the burnout is on, you're living like in a haze. You're cruising with the autopilot, on a highway to hell. At some level you know something should be done, but you just simply can't. You don't have the strength to do anything which doesn't come from the autopilot. Another psychologist actually mentioned this as a typical symptom - the inability to act or react.
  • When you realize you're having a burnout, you've already been there for a long time. You realize the thing too late. I only realized mine in May, even if already in January I would've needed immediate help. This is actually one of the worst things: you're fighting an invisible enemy. For example, if you are recovering from a surgery, you know you are living the hard time. Whereas with a burnout, you or others around you might not understand something is not as it should, and things just feel hard unexpectedly.
  • Also, the professional help may not react in time, if you yourself haven't yet realized how deep you are, and are unable to express the level of distress convincingly enough.
  • Your close ones may notice some changes in your personality. I am an extrovert and very open to experience, "always ready to go". But, save the super quick trip to Thailand, all these traits of mine were gone in the spring. My partner noticed this as a negative change in my behaviour, but didn't understand the reason for it, which created more suspense between us.
  • The physical symptoms were for me the last straw. Sleepless nights and a resting heart rate of 120 beats per minute finally rang the bells. Things like this are by no measures normal, and shouldn't be just ignored shrugging one's shoulders.
  • I read a couple of articles about burnout in the local media, and recognized some of my feelings from them. Peer support and spreading information is really important. One of the articles was an April 27, 2019 article from Yle about a man who had some sort of burnout with his extreme sports lifestyle [1].

What do the healthcare professionals say

Officially, a burnout is not recognized in medicine, but the symptoms related to it are explained as depression, somatization problems or some kind of inadaptability. In autumn, after visiting another, apparently a more experienced psychologist, it turned out there is actually quite a lot of information about the subject, and there are a lot of common factors recognizable. For example, in Finland they use the Bergen Burnout Indicator assessment among others [2]. My own case and symptoms fit the picture almost perfectly.

The Dutch mental health centre U-center has a description of burnout [3] which I wholeheartedly agree with - the following quotes are pretty much equivalent to my own summary above:

You are constantly in “survival mode” with the result that you become overloaded. There is no room left for reflection, connecting with others, processing things, or simply switching off and enjoying.

You have lost all ability to be flexible, and are cut off from your emotions. You feel panicky and are irritated at everything, which often has to do with your unstable moods. Just doing the shopping takes hours because making choices and decisions has become incredibly difficult. Even just taking a break from everything seems impossible.

A burnout doesn’t just happen. The foundations were often laid years ago and bad habits creep in gradually. Gradually you are stressing your own body: constantly focusing on things that have to be overcome, constantly busy with surviving, setting the bar too high and absolutely not being allowed to fail.

As the friend or family of someone with a burn-out, there are various things you can do to help. Remember to also look for support yourself, because learning to cope with a loved one suffering from a burn-out demands a lot from you.

Especially the last one is important to notice. People suffering from a burnout must realize they might be quite a burden to their close ones. And on the other hand, close ones of a person suffering from burnout must understand the state in which the sick person is. The articles I read, for example the one by Yle above, didn't quite mention what kind of repercussions a burnout might have.

When a close one burns out

Discussing with my psychologist it turned out a typical symptom in a burnout is a change in personality, and close ones may notice it. Even if they may recognize there's something different about the person, they don't necessarily understand it's a burnout symptom, because the symptoms have gradually creeped in. This is what happened to me also - my partner was wondering where did my spontanity and capability to react go. In retrospect the answer is clear: burnout took 'em. Perceiving the change can be extremely difficult, however, especially if with some things you're still able to function. For example, I still was able to do my job somehow, or even seemingly well, basically doing the work of many people. In reality, however, my capability to function was gone if the task didn't come off from "the autopilot". A person going through a burnout hasn't necessarily changed ultimately, but just having a stress reaction in their own personal way. When the stress is relieved, the ability to think and function returns to normal.

It's important to realize that when a person is having a burnout, they really are in that state. If in that state they are unable to act or react, then that's how it is. Blaming or nagging about it just makes the situation worse. The sick person is strengthless to do anything about it just by themselves, and the extra pressure just makes things worse. Herein lie two problems, though. First, the situation should be recognized and understood, which I already stated is difficult. Second, the healing process always begins with the sick person's own will.

But how to get the sick person to awake, realize their situation and commit to getting long-term help, even if at first they might not get it? Thinking about this a lot, I understood that while I was suffering the burnout I wasn't living according to my values. The work, out of which I got hardly any meaning to my life, took all my energy, and at the same time I was neglecting for example common time with my partner, and obviously my own health. I would have perhaps needed a question, phrased like this: "are you living according to your values?" My bells might have rang from that. Unfortunately, I don't think anybody asked that question directly. The professional health care people said things will be alright, and back home with the relationship things turned sometimes into nagging when neither one had any energy left. Even if there is no particular single factor or nothing ill-intentioned is said or done, long-term stress will affect a relationship negatively. So, if your close one is important to you, and you notice in them some possibly stress-related changes, ask them that question. Quite often you hear that a person is feeling their best when they are living by their values, or at least feels ill if they aren't. I only awoke after the symptoms turned physical and unbearably strong, accompanied by a chance encounter with related articles in the media. It's worth asking yourself every now and then: what are my values, and am I living by them?

The road to recovery

In the beginning of May, after finally truly realizing the state I was in, I took some measures. I visited a doctor and got myself a recipe for beta blockers to stop my heart from pounding in the night. These I highly recommend. They aren't sleeping pills per se, but if your problem is an increased resting heart rate, they will help you. I also got one week of immediate sick leave to allow myself some resting time. Summer came to Finland early, weather was super beautiful and flowers started blooming everywhere. My road to recovery started with a path full of beautiful rhododendrons - I visited this nearby rhododendron park at least three times at the turn of June. I also bought myself a new MFT camera, which I had been planning on buying for the longest time. In general, I did things I enjoy tremendously - I was walking outside in the beautiful weather, photographing beautiful nature. I was still living very much inside my own world, however, and were in no shape for example to help my close ones with their needs.

I also couldn't seem to get off the catastrophic project that easily - again something which would've required strength and determination. Instead, I opted for another strategy: I set myself a clear goal after which the project didn't need me anytime soon. I was hoping my mind would consider the project done after that. With a colleague of mine, we made a clear list of remaining work to do and assessed how long it'll take us to finish. I then booked myself a whopping 8 weeks of summer vacation, starting right at the moment the work was estimated to be done. Incidentally, this also happened to be the day of our company's summer party. Even my doctor wrote I didn't seem depressed at the end of May after doing all these plans. Things were finally starting to look better.

Now, my original plan of getting rid of the stressful project seemed to work. I spent the first two weeks of my vacation pretty much just lying on my friend's couch and eating good food - I was also recovering from a very bad cold I had got sometime earlier. After that, I pretty much didn't even remember what I had been doing at work for the past year - a nice realization of how foggy my mind had been. I also decided to quit all the project related chats and everything, and promised myself I'm not going to touch that project anymore after the vacation. I was done with it.

I've heard some stories about people having a burnout, but many stories fail to mention one important thing. The worst thing about a burnout isn't wandering deep in the work-filled fog, but the possible collateral damage. Coming home from the summer party, I noticed I had lost someone of the utmost importance. I say noticed, because the actual realization came only later after emptying my mind off the work-related stuff. When under heavy stress, people resort to three basic reactions: some freeze, some fight - and some flee [4]. At the same time I was starting to get back into this world from my own, and getting back my ability to act, my partner suddenly leaving was something I wasn't ready to deal with at all. There's no doubt me being absent-minded during the burnout was the biggest immediate reason for it. Come to think of it, my burnout might have been somewhat contagious, or maybe it was just bad luck accumulating, such as a bathroom renovation which began with just a one-week notice also at the end of May. In any case, being deeply in love and finally starting to feel the beauty of things again, out of the blue I was struck by a lightning bolt shocking me deeply. Thus, my 8 weeks of summer vacation wasn't really spent resting for the autumn, but trying to understand what had happened and coping with it somewhat miserably with the little strength I had left after the spring. I still wish things would turn out differently or I would at least understand them better. I also wonder if the outcome would be different if instead of the invisible enemy, burnout, I had been fighting some other, more prominent an illness.

Now, at the end of August, I'm back at work, but nowhere near my normal capability - in fact, I don't think I could do even half the work I used to. It'll probably take months to recover. All I've done so far in the couple of weeks is turn down some projects which have smelled like stress miles away. Judging by that, I guess I learnt at least something, but it's hardly a silver lining. I don't think a burnout has one, and if it does, I think it should be possible to find it without hitting rock bottom first. With wisdom and empathy, one might get their priorities in order without catastrophic consequences. At the moment I'm taking it really easy and concentrating on my well-being, trying to find something nice to do at work to keep me from falling again.

For the chance person reading this, the lesson of the story is that the sorrow from the repercussions of a burnout - whether it's losing or ruining someone, or something else - probably cannot be solved by just taking a few months off work. The consequences might come out of the blue, shock you to your core, mess with your mind and have a lifelong effect on you. This is why a burnout is important to recognize as soon as possible, and better be safe than sorry. You rarely hear of someone who has spoiled themselves by taking a long vacation!

Sources (all retrieved August 31, 2019):
1. Yle: Mikko Auvinen, 37, kiersi maailman kovimpia seikkailukisoja, sitten ylikunto romutti kaiken – nyt pelkkä lenkki lähimetsässä pelottaa
2. Terveyskirjasto: Työuupumus (burnout)
3. U-center: Burn-out
4. US National Library of Medicine: Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor

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