5 Lessons I Learned from Experiencing Burnout

Fiona Fletcher Reid
By Fiona Fletcher Reid,
updated on Jan 24, 2020

5 Lessons I Learned from Experiencing Burnout

Overwhelmed by your workload? Maybe it’s time to put your health and happiness above simple success at the office

I lay in bed, struggling to wake. I was tired from the evening before. Had I eaten dinner? No. I’d had a bottle of wine instead, to relax. A few days earlier during a driving lesson, I had driven on the wrong side of the road. I didn’t know why. On that same day, I had screamed at a work colleague over something insignificant – something about tomatoes – and had to apologise later.

I thought about the busy morning ahead. I wanted to recoil from all my work responsibilities, but I couldn’t see a way out. I fantasised about falling down the stairs or being hit by a car. Anything that would incapacitate me and give me some time off work.

Two hours later I sat at my desk to work through my list of tasks, but I couldn’t get started. I couldn’t attend the meeting. I couldn’t pick up the phone. I couldn’t face my team. I hid in the toilets and cried for what seemed like hours, then I phoned my GP and made an appointment.

It turned out that I been unknowingly living with burnout for more than six months. My symptoms included (but were not limited to) agitation, tearfulness, physical and mental exhaustion, frustration, and a sense of hopelessness. But through this difficult time, I can now take some positives in what I’ve learned from living with burnout…

1. Being off sick doesn’t mean you are bad at your job

I first started feeling the symptoms long before I asked for help, and the main reason I avoided reaching out was that I didn’t realise it was a health issue – I thought it was a competency issue. I thought that I was overwhelmed and stressed because I was under-qualified. But after taking three months of sick leave, I attempted to return to work and I couldn’t carry out even the simplest of tasks. That was proof that there was something medically wrong with me. I then knew for sure that my brain wasn’t functioning normally, and I found that strangely comforting.

2. You’ve got to vocalise your issues in the workplace

During the six months that I was quietly crumbling away, I thought it was obvious to everyone around me. After an extended period of sick leave, I was asked to meet my employers to discuss what had been going on. It was only then that I realised they had no idea how much I had on my plate. I couldn’t really complain about the lack of support, because I hadn’t given the slightest hint that I needed any. You’ve got to be explicit when you need support, and chase down your employers to help manage your workload. Otherwise, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

3. Work achievements aren’t everything

Burnout hit me hardest after I took on a lot of extra responsibility at work. No one forced me to step into the role; I wanted to prove to my employers that I was capable. I pushed myself because I wanted to be a high achiever. When burnout took over, depression and anxiety quickly followed, and I quit my job to focus on recovery. It was only then I figured out that work achievements are no substitute for health and happiness.

4. Stress means something different to everyone

The things that weighed heavily on me during my period of burnout are things that some people take in their stride. Moving house. Managing a team. Dealing with customer complaints. This concoction of stressors, combined with my inability to take care of myself, was a breeding ground for physical symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, and fatigue. In turn, these made me less able to carry out my work, which made me more stressed. I’m now more aware of my triggers, and schedule in rest days to compensate.

Rest is important to help you physically recover from burnout, but it also gives you a chance to gather your thoughts

5. Work shouldn’t define you

Although leaving my job was essential to my recovery from burnout, being unemployed came with its own set of problems. Without my career, I felt like I had no purpose, and no identity. I feared making small talk with anyone, as I thought I had nothing of value to add to the conversation. I had put all my eggs in one basket, and when that was taken away, I was left with nothing.

It took a lot of soul-searching to figure out who I wanted to be outside of work, but it means that now I have a string of hobbies and interests unrelated to my job, so I’ll always have something to talk about!

How to recover from burnout

If you recognise or can relate to my five lessons, then it could be a sign that you’re in need of some support, too.

Talk to your doctor
Burnout is now an official medical diagnosis, so don’t be scared to bring it up with your GP. They will be able to offer you advice on medication, treatment, or lifestyle changes that could improve your symptoms.

Set clear boundaries
Think about where your working day needs to start and finish for you to truly relax. What measures can you put in place to make sure this happens? Try not going to work early, avoiding emails after 5pm, practising mindfulness on the bus home to switch off, or making yoga a non-negotiable event on your schedule.

If you’re overwhelmed with the sheer volume of work, then pass it on to someone you trust. Accept that letting go of this control might result in some errors, but assuming that this doesn’t put anyone at risk, then it’s all part of the process. If you have no one to delegate to, then raise the issue with your employers. If you’re self-employed, consider outsourcing basic admin tasks to a virtual assistant.

Take time off
It really is that simple. Rest is important to help you physically recover from burnout, but it also gives you a chance to gather your thoughts, and get a sense of perspective. You may like to think that your workplace will fall apart without you, but once you realise that the world continues to turn, it can be an important lesson in learning to prioritise your health over your job.

Reconnect with hobbies
Nurturing your creative side is so helpful when it comes to expressing physical and emotional turmoil. Painting, dancing, knitting, and gardening are all simple ways to dial into your deeper self, and work through negative feelings.

For more information on burnout, or to find a counsellor or coach who can help, visit

Fiona Fletcher Reid

By Fiona Fletcher Reid

Fiona Fletcher Reid is a freelance writer and author, whose new book, ‘Work It Out’, is available now (Welbeck Balance, £9.99).

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