I've written about occupational burnout and recovery over the past few months. I've been focusing a lot in my writing on how to detect burnout early on and how to work to get in recovery mode. I've been in the recovery mode of burnout for some time now and thought it was time to write about what burnout recovery feels like and the unexpected upsides it carries with it. For those unfamiliar with occupational burnout, it is a state of prolonged physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that results from prolonged stress or overwork. The symptoms of burnout may often mirror those of depression and burnout can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems. Articles like this can be a nice way to widen your perspectives about issues like burnout, but please also contact a medical professional if you are experiencing burnout or any other health issue.
Occupational burnout is often described by those impacted as something that creeps up, becoming incrementally worse and often eventually impacting their lives in dramatic ways. Those impacted write and speak about taking months or years to recover. After working high stress, high travel roles for several years I finally moved into a recovery phase in my life last summer. Almost 6 months into my carefully managed burnout recovery period, I'm starting to feel energized and excited about life and projects again. I wanted to write in more detail about what recovery has involved for me and what unexpected benefits I've gained from burning out.
In speaking to my peer group about burnout I've gotten to hear many different approaches to recovery. Some who had the capital and opportunity took large periods of time off work. Others got really into meditation. Or mindfulness. Or keto diets. As I wasn't able to stop working and am stubbornly unwilling to give up my weekly takeaway, I pieced together a recovery plan that I hoped would work for me. I changed roles, finding a company that had a blessedly humane approach to working hours for its technical teams. I cut out all new speaking and travel opportunities and I began looking to outsource tasks for support projects I was unwilling to abandon. Before burnout I had been offering a great deal of unpaid tech community facing support through 1:1 meetings and calls, content creation and working to support individual projects. As part of my recovery mode I cut almost all of this support to focus on getting better.
Deciding what to cut back on as part of my recovery from burnout was incredibly challenging. Actually following through with it was surprisingly easy, thanks to how little energy I had. I didn't have the energy to beat myself up about giving up tasks I loved. I was just too tired. I found myself too tired for guilt, too tired for self doubt and tired enough where I was comfortable saying no to new work. As I've bounced back from burnout these unexpected benefits have become increasingly visible.
In the past I've often found myself overextended because of my unwillingness to say no to amazing projects, people or opportunities. How could I turn down an invitation to speak? Or worse, how could I fail to help someone asking for my support? Saying no became instantly easier as I accepted that I was burned out. Burnout became first a shield, then a welcome excuse to say no. I began mentioning that I was overextended or burned out early in conversations that might have led to being asked for help.
As I've begun to feel more like myself over the past months, the practice of saying no has stuck with me. My pre-burnout reflex to being asked to do something was a near instant "Yes, but...". Now I reflexively meet new requests for my time and energy with "No, unless...". This shift in approach has allowed me to slowly and cautiously reintroduce new activities as my energy levels have returned without overloading myself.
Mimicking depression, burnout often results in dampening the emotional range of those impacted. For me, this meant that I had a difficult time enjoying my life through the screen of extreme stress. As this stress has been removed and reduced, my ability to enjoy my improved life has returned slowly. I've carefully guarded my emotional energy, saving it to spend on the things that are the most important to me. Having less emotional energy to spend and spending it strategically means spending less on things I don't value.
Spending most of my emotional energy on my close relationships, a 9-5 job and self care has highlighted many less valuable or toxic uses of my energy I'm now passing up on. Engaging with assholes on the internet, trying to help the unwilling, and unproductive arguments of almost any kind aren't a tempting use of a limited resource. Hoarding my emotional energy has encouraged me to build a filter, applying all interactions to a quick test. Is this something I care about, relative to the other valuable things in my life?
Less Fear, More hope
Having less emotional energy to spend has resulted in my having less fear in my life and work. Why not pitch that big article, or seek payment for a passion project? The worst outcome would be a rejection. With less emotional energy in the budget, rejections have become less scary. Burnout and a carefully planned recovery mode have given me the gift I never knew I wanted. I've become more focused on a sustainable use of my energy, saying no more often and guarding my time. Guarding my emotional energy has resulted in a temporary sort of fearlessness. I don't have the energy or will to invest in rejections of myself or my work. And as I continue to recover I find myself enjoying my efforts and success again. Burnout has made me bulletproof. Very, very tired, but still, bulletproof.