3 steps I took to narrowly avoid burnout
“With my tight chest and shallow breaths I wondered, is this what an anxiety attack feels like?”
I woke up with a tight feeling in my chest and it was hard to breathe. My breaths were ragged and shallow and I definitely didn’t feel myself. I’d recently heard a number of people talk professionally and personally about panic attacks and anxiety attacks, now I wondered “Is this how a panic attach feels?”
A few weeks ago I woke up and realised I needed to make some immediate and substantial changes. I was on the edge of burn out. I’d been feeling tired and over scheduled for a few weeks and could see the warning signs but had kind of carried on, thinking I’d address it soon. I’m sharing this with you now because at any one time, if you are a professional person who has achieved any degree of professional or academic success in your life, it is likely that at least one person in your network may be on the edge of burning themselves out in life, work or both. Generally, because of stigma around failure or admitting problems related to our mental health, people may not admit they are having difficulties. Additionally, if this is the first time, you or somebody else is experiencing issues you may not know how to approach things so I hope this will be of some use.
How did I know that I was on the edge of burning myself out in to an Iesha-shaped husk? Well…I’ve experienced it before. Around 2011, I (in)effectively had a massive breakdown. Which affected all areas of my life. I can’t remember if I’ve written about it on this blog before but I was signed off from my job, which at that time was Head of Maths in a London secondary school, and unable to work for a few months (punctuated with a few failed attempts to return). Since then I’ve been much more aware of what I needed to do to prevent a recurring episode so that I can continue to be useful to myself, my partner, my children and any other people who rely on me.
Here is what I did a few weeks ago when I realised that I was on the road to burnout again.
In days of old when I thought I had to be stoic and that feelings were an inconvenience and vulnerability was weak or an admission of failure, I’d have kept my feelings of overwhelm to myself. A few periods of depression and a breakdown or two later I’ve decided that a healthier path is available. I told my partner, I told a friend of mine who I also sometimes talk to about work and career stuff and I told my boss.
If you don’t know what to say, my exact word via text, email or equivalent to each of the above were.
My words to partner and friend: “I currently feel like I’m close to being burnt out”
My words to by boss: “I’m feeling I don’t have very much slack at the moment. I think I’ll need to look at that.”
I’ve learnt that it helps to be very clear. Previously, if I was too vague people assumed I was fine because I’m a high achiever. This way I’m making it clear that things need to change.
Be specific about what you can reasonably do or need help with
This is a tough one. If you are like me, you may have know something isn’t quite right but not know how to fix it. So you keep it to yourself until it is very, very obvious to everybody around you that you aren’t coping. In 2011, I lost my temper with a Year 11 class some of whom if I remember correctly, were repeatedly trying to record me on their phones despite me asking them not to. I exploded. I forget how but it wasn’t good. I walked out of the classroom. I told my team and then my boss that I was going home and walked straight out of the school. Pretty clear, I wasn’t coping (I quietly hadn’t been for several weeks) but probably a bit too late.
If you don’t know what the problem is, make a list of what you have to do and when and put it all onto a physical calendar. I used an A1 year to view one recently. I have an electronic calendar on my phone but I found that I needed to see everything spread out so I could see pinch points and avoid them in the future.
Once you have done this some solutions may become immediately clear or least the reason why you are feeling as you do might be more obvious. If not, then share it with the people you told you were having issues. Together you may be able to work out what is causing the stress. What are you ok keeping on your calendar? What do you need to cancel or rearrange? Which items can be delegated or shared?
For me it was clear that I had a very busy fortnight of almost back to back deadlines coming up from different personal and professional sources and because I’d already been feeling tired and at full capacity for a month or so it was just too much, so I was communicated to relevant people what I would be able to do and what would have to wait.
Schedule in some joy and relaxation
It can be so tempting to try to work yourself out of burnout. Nope, nope, nopity nope. Not enough clear space is probably how you got here. A younger, less self-aware me used to think “I’ve got so many things to do, I just need work a bit more so I can get through it all.”
This is a sure fire way to burnout, breakdown and other bad things. I’ve actually learnt that it’s important to create relaxation time and stick to it. For me, as a sociable introvert, I need that to be alone as well as with other people that I care about. In recent times I’ve been more hardcore and started putting it in my diary as I would any other meeting or appointment.
To help you with this I’d like to share an Activity Planning resource via psychologytools.com to help you think about small enjoyable activities you can plan in to your week. I was given it by Guiliane Kinouani a clinical psychologist and the host and organiser of “Self Care as Resistance” an event that I was recently asked to speak at.
Look after yourself. There is only one of you so avoid burning yourself out. Share this with other people you know who you think may need it.
If you found this post useful subscribe to my email list so you can receive future ones.