Burnout is a slippery slope...

This is part one of a four part series exploring burnout. In this first part, I share my own story and use it to reflect on the 12 stages of burnout.

I remember the exact conversation when my colleague tried to intervene on my impending burnout.

“Ahhh, you’re still learning how to prioritise.” My colleague stated the obvious as I blinked back at her.

I was still at school late on a Friday afternoon gathering my readers for the next week and feeling flustered that everything was taking me longer than it should.

“You have to focus on what you need for today, or tomorrow. Don’t worry about the rest of the week till you get there."

"Why don't you head home now and come in early on Monday?" She gently suggested.

My heart was still racing as my to-do list wasn’t growing shorter and the clock was ticking, making this conversation seem like an annoying interruption to my vital work.

I was there in the room talking to her, but not present at all. My anxiety prevented me from really taking in what she was saying. I kept on collecting my readers and freaking out about the week to come, never mind the weekend.

2 and half years later, I'd passed the point of no return and had to take a year-long break from my job to recover from burnout. 4 years later, I still haven't gone back to full-time teaching.

I look back now at that conversation and realise that she was 100 percent right. I wished that I’d been able to hear her words and accept her support. After all, she’d been teaching for at least 20 years and had a few tricks up her sleeve.

But what I know now about the stages of burnout helps me to have some compassion for Laura in 2015. There was no way that I could have heard my colleague if I’d tried.

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North outline 12 stages of burnout that I've used to reflect on my own journey. I think when that particular conversation happened I was in the very early stages, and completely oblivious to what was happening.

1. Excessive drive/ambition. As a beginning teacher I had ridiculously high expectations of my kids and myself and I can easily see how I drove myself into the ground.

2. Pushing yourself to work harder. When the going got tough, I just pushed harder.

3. Neglecting your own needs. I’d stay up till all hours and even wake up early to work before work started. Lunch-breaks were there to get some work done away from kids. And I often ran out of time for exercise.

4. Displacement of conflict. I definitely blamed my bosses, my school, and the whole

education system for my struggles. (I’ve since apologised to my bosses!)

5. No time for non work-related needs. A complete revision of your values happens here. I would regularly skip out on family and friends gatherings if I felt I had too much work on, and I stopped doing things that I loved like waka ama and tramping. My cup started to run dry...

6. Increasing denial of the problem. Yup. Instead of owning my choices to laminate heaps of stuff that I didn’t need to, I kept blaming the job for my stress.

7. Withdrawal. I kept withdrawing from friends and family and would only really see people in the school holidays. My partner complained that I had little time for him. Unfortunately, he was right.

8. Behavioural changes. I became more grumpy with my kids at school, and with my partner at home. I lost my ability to regulate my emotions, and would just react.

9. Depersonalization. I experienced feeling out of control of my life and quite detached from my life and my needs.

10. Inner emptiness or anxiety. Bingo. Teaching lost all meaning. Even Te Reo Māori, once my number one passion, didn’t excite me. To fill the emptiness I drank lots of wine. Hence the cover pic!

11. Depression. Waking up in the mornings got harder, I definitely lost my spark, and had very little motivation to do fun things.

12. Mental or physical collapse. I experienced crying on the regular at work, unable to control my emotions. I was almost constantly sick with a cold and in the end had stomach ulcers, almost certainly linked to stress.

It took me 3 short years to go through the stages of burnout, and when I left teaching to “take a year’s break” in 2017, I wasn’t even sure whether I’d be able to return to teaching in the future.

Possibly the hardest part of burning out was trying to explain to colleagues, students and their whānau why I was leaving.

No one wants to look weak, incapable, or incompetent. It’s hard to be vulnerable with the wider community, especially when being an overachiever was part of my identity and mental illlness still had/has such a stigma.

I really didn’t know what had happened to me at the time, all I knew was that I was unwell. Burnout wasn’t in my vocabulary yet.

I guess that's why I’m sharing my story, so that others may resonate and find empowerment here.

I want you to know that there is a world beyond burnout, if that’s what you find yourself in the middle of.

I want you to know that the path to recovery may not be quick or easy, but a full recovery IS possible.

And that it might look very different to what you'd expect.

In the next 3 posts I will discuss:

  • Burnout recovery

  • Burnout prevention

  • and Maintenance, because burnout isn't always a one-off event.

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