I am totally exhausted. I have been working harder than ever lately. I guess I have layoffs and fear about the economy in the back of my mind all the time, so I feel like I need to keep pushing harder every day. I’m now tired of working into the evenings and weekends, I miss my family and for the first time in my life, I have chronic headaches. And the worst part is that I find things now take me twice as long to do. How can I get my energy back and hold onto my job without making my self sick?
You are officially burned out, my friend. It happens to the best of us, and it’s as real as any other illness. Once you’re there, however, you have to focus on recovery to get back to the life you once knew and actually liked. It took you a while to do this to yourself, so keep in mind that reversing the situation won’t happen overnight.
I often hear people wonder why their quick fixes don’t work, like my friend Sam who had been under enormous work pressure, barely slept for a month, and then questioned his lethargy. “But I went to bed early last night and slept for 9 hours,” he insisted. “How can I still be tired?” If you went without water for two weeks and finally had a whole Dixie cup full, would you expect to be completely hydrated again? Of course not. And so it is with the mental, emotional and physical depletion to which you’ve driven yourself.
Before you exclaim that you “didn’t drive yourself to this knowingly,” understand and accept that yes, you did. You are the driver of your body, your time, your resources and your wellness. You knew your pace wasn’t reasonable, but you ignored it. You knew you were eating antacids like breath mints, but you swallowed them anyway.
Before you lament that you “had to go work for Pete’s sake,” and what were you supposed to do…”be the one parent who didn’t show up to the school fundraiser?”, acknowledge that yes, you had to go to work, but nobody told you had to work until 9 pm and through the weekends to keep your job. Driven by fear, you did it anyway. And no, you didn’t have to go to the school fundraiser. Driven by guilt, you did it anyway. And if you really couldn’t avoid one or the other (if you were on a major work deadline or served as the chair of the fundraiser, for example), you certainly didn’t have to take on both.
That’s the rub when it comes to burnout; we have to confront the fact that we do it to ourselves. If we have any hope of avoiding it in the future we have to understand that burnout is a direct result of our choices.
I am an authority on this topic because I have driven myself to burnout more times than I can count. You tell yourself you just have to keep going; that it will slow down at some point; that it’s just a busy time. Two months later you find yourself in your bathrobe, sitting in a chair, staring at a blank wall and eating cereal out of a box.
But looking back, you really did see the signs…you just ignored them. I remember my last big burnout experience that came after two months of non-stop work and extended business travel. I found myself sleeping ten hours a night and was still barely able to drag myself out of bed. While normally I could write a press release in an hour, tops, I soon found that I could barely pull one together a week later.
Always one to do my makeup at red lights or in parking garages (yes, I’m one of those women), I lowered the bar even further; tinted moisturizer was all I could muster. Lipstick? Forget it. You have to look in a mirror and focus to put on lipstick. I attempted to bring the bun back into hair fashion because I simply didn’t have the energy to plug in a hair dryer. I’m a lover of high heels and professional dress, but khakis and loafers (resembling my Grandfather’s slippers) became my wardrobe staples.
I whined to my friends, nagged at my husband and barked at my kids. I was depleted in every sense of the word, and the worst part was I knew that I knew better. I took some personal time off and spent a week doing nothing but sleeping, exercising, reading magazines, cleaning out closets, helping kids with homework and watching movies. And I started to feel better.
How can you start feeling better? Can you sit down and have a heart to heart with your manager (provided he/she has a heart)? Explain the work hours you’ve been keeping, that it’s not a sustainable or realistic pace, and that you don’t want to see that pace negatively impact the productivity you’ve been working double-time to put forth. Ask about budget cuts and layoffs, and try to gauge the reality of your fears.
If your manager tells you that your fears are very real and that this pace is required to keep your job, start looking elsewhere for employment. If you end up divorced with an ulcer and a Prozac prescription, keeping your existing job may not seem like such a win after all.
Try to be a better steward of your time. If it’s crunch time at work, clear your weekends of obligations so you have an opportunity to re-charge. Limit your volunteer endeavors for now so you don’t start to resent them as one more thing that drains you. I promise you that you will still get into heaven, and that the Volunteer Brigade at the school will only bash you for a day or two before they move on to criticizing someone else’s PTA faux pas.
To avoid playing chauffer to your children all week, get clever with carpools or resist the urge to sign your kids up for five after-school activities in the first place. While you may be striving to make sure they’re well-rounded, what you’re actually teaching them is to live life at the breakneck speed you have imposed on yourself, which has burned you out in the process.
Put some energy into restoring and sustaining your wellness. I’m not a big journal person, but I do keep a book by my bed and every night I list 5 things I did that day to keep myself well in some way. While I’d like to tell you it reads “walked 5 miles” and “ate fish and veggies” and “did Pilates” everyday, it doesn’t. Sometimes it reads “Made the choice to stay calm and not freak out over the juice spill on the couch,” or “ordered the latte with skim milk” or “played the hula hoop game on Wii Fit with the kids.”
While I’m thrilled that the idea of “self-care” has made itself known in recent years, we still pretty much pay lip-service to the concept. If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one else will. Your boss thinks you’ve got this covered and your family prays you do too, so substitute bliss for burnout.
Today, ask yourself an important question: What would a fulfilling life at a reasonable pace looks like on a daily basis?