My personal experience with corporate burnout
As I write this introduction, the rest of this blog post is already written. When I initially wrote it, I never intended to post it. Writing has always been a way for me to sort through my own thoughts so this was just a way to mentally sort through why, for the second time in an 18 month period, I was dealing with corporate burnout. Once I had it all down on paper, I felt a weird need to share this. Not because I think my experience is unique, but because I know it isn't. I know this is something a ton of young professionals are dealing with but no one is talking about openly. As you'll find out by the end of the blog post, I actually have no answers, tips or tricks to share with you about what to do if you're going through it. All I can provide you with is a promise that as I navigate this journey, I will candidly share my thoughts and experiences. Hopefully, some time in the future, we can look back on this from a better place and value the learning experience that this experience was. For now, please know you're not alone, your mental health is important, and I'm always here to both share my experience and listen if you need it.
I don't think it's any revelation that both society and corporate culture glorifies being busy. I can't tell you how many times someone has asked how I am and I just sigh and say 'super busy'. If I'm being honest with myself, I've always worn that as a badge of pride. It felt like it was my way of demonstrating that I had value and people needed me for something. For me, and I think many others, this really comes from a place of vulnerability. A lack of confidence in your value and self worth.
Companies take this vulnerability in their employees and use it to continue to push us into more. Packed calendars, late night emails, joining meetings on vacation are all behaviours they celebrate.
I dealt with severe corporate burnout in February 2019. After taking the month of September (2018) off for my wedding and honeymoon, I came back to a project that was behind and a mountain of work that I couldn't seem to dig myself out of. Week in and week out of 60+ hours per week, when Christmas finally rolled around I was beyond ready for a break. Unfortunately, as is the case with many of my vacations, that did not happen. It started with answering a few emails and slowly turned into joining meetings that inevitably came with hours of prep work. I was always on edge, constantly checking my emails and never wanting to leave my laptop long enough to go enjoy holiday activities. The last day of my holidays I found myself sobbing to my husband, I was more tired than at the beginning of my holidays but I was now looking at another five months of work before my next vacation. I had no idea how I was going to make it. As the weeks passed, I kept going downhill. Any moment I wasn't working I was participating in social activities that I felt obligated to attend. In an effort not to let anyone else down, I was really letting myself down.
In February, an unexpected surgery came up that forced me to take some time off work. I can't tell you how guilty I felt leading up to the day of my surgery, I was in the middle of a busy project and I knew it would make things more difficult on my team having me off work. My surgery took place on a Tuesday around noon and due to the length I didn't wake up until around 6pm and stayed in the hospital overnight. I was quite groggy all night but in the morning when I opened up my work emails it was an avalanche of frustrated emails and follow ups because they 'hadn't heard back from me yesterday'. This might have been a result of the pain meds and anesthesia but that was my first experience with a panic attack. I was so overwhelmed with the expectations people had for me and the realization that I couldn't meet them was crushing.
To give you some context on me, from a young age I would categorize myself as a people pleaser. In particular, with people of authority like parents and teachers, I always got such a rush from getting a 'job well done'. The flip side of that is I felt crushing shame and disappointment when I received criticism, even if it was constructive. Over time, I've learned to really value criticism but to this day I choose to meet it head on with the overwhelming desire to prove that I can not only make the improvements but I can do even better than what they are asking.
You can imagine that this personality trait of mine has served me well in the workplace from a progression stand point but has certainly not served me from a mental health perspective. Sitting in that hospital bed, I came to the realization that I can't be everything to everyone and if that was the expectation from my current position at work then I needed to get out.
I spent my two week of recovery job hunting and found an internal transfer within my company. I was able to move from a client facing role to an internal support function with the promise of more realistic expectations and a work life balance. Sitting with my new boss on the first day of that position, I felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders as she explained to me her family's recent health challenges and how it's changed her work life balance perspective. She warned me that my career progression would look much different, which might be hard as my peers moved up, but over her career she found the internal fulfillment significant more rewarding.
As a reader, you're probably thinking "Great, she realized what was wrong and changed it. What a good conclusion to the story". Unfortunately, this is hardly the end. I spent the next four months loving this new role but the doubt slowly started creeping into my mind. I convinced myself that leaving work on time meant I was 'bored' and 'not being challenged'. Society and my company had ingrained into my mind this concept that busy is better and that's how you should define your worth. Every time I met with someone from my old group, I envied how they were able to say that they were so busy and things were so crazy. I know that sounds ridiculous after what I had just gone through, but the mentality of your worth being based on how busy you are was just so deep within me. I started having trouble sleeping, the fear of my peers moving forward and eventually surpassing me made me feel like a total failure. Why had I worked so hard for the last seven years to just give it all up now?
By the six month mark I was back to my old group. When people in my life questioned my decision, and kindly reminded me what I had just gone through, I met them with frustration. I couldn't understand why they didn't see that this wasn't a move I wanted to make, it was a move I had to make.
Fast forward ten months (and one global pandemic) to present day and I just had my second experience with corporate burnout. This time instead of a hospital bed, it involved a vacation where I spent the majority of time inside on my laptop, but the root case was the same. I had let other people's demands and expectations of me take priority over everything in my life. While a toxic corporate culture that values your productivity over all else is certainly a factor, I can't ignore the role my own personality traits and actions have played. By constantly saying yes and prioritizing everyone else, I couldn't be surprised that my cup had finally run dry.
Whenever someone complains for an extended period of time, as much as I try and lend a sympathetic ear, my final question is always "so what are you going to do to change it?". As much as there are a lot of things that happen to us, we are still response for our actions and response.
So what am I going to do about this situation you ask, great question. Honestly, my current answer is I just don't know but today is the day I start trying to figure it out. I have a feeling this is going to be a long road with a lot of steps that will push me outside my comfort zone. Hopefully it will all be worth it and I can look back on my current situation as just a small setback in my journey. Only time will tell. Hope you'll join me as I try and figure it out.