On November 2nd 2016 I thought I had a stroke. In the middle of a conference call, my face drooped and I felt dizzy so was rushed to hospital for a scan. It turned out not to be a stroke but after repeat incidents of these weird seizures, we eventually found out I had burnt my brain by bingeing on cortisol, the stress hormone. It took me the best part of six months out of the office to get these seizures under control and resume normal life. Having now been back at work for nearly five months, I find it absolutely astonishing that I didn't see my very own burnout coming - the writing was on the wall in bold big letters and I seem to have missed it altogether... But then again, I'm not alone: 52% of UK employees claim to have experienced one or more symptoms of overwork or burnout in the last six months.
I clearly won't be able to reverse the burnout epidemic with a blog post but in case it helps some of you stay away from the dark side, here are my six signs you could be heading for burnout, delivered to you on the first birthday of my very own meltdown. I learnt them the hard way so that you don't have to.
1. You are the burnout type
Some of us are more burnout prone than others. If you are a perfectionist or an insecure overachiever type, I'm afraid you have more tickets in the burnout lottery than the average punter. Make sure you watch for what is called the "Burnout Cycle". Are you feeling a compulsion to prove yourself? Have you set your personal expectations so high that you're taking more and more work to support your inner notion of irreplaceability and to get some extra pats on your insecure head? Be careful, as eventually you are highly likely to end up dismissing your own needs for critical elements like sleep, exercise, food, friends and fun as the ultimate sacrifice to prove your heroic performance.
2. Your body is packing up
Are you feeling exhausted all the time? Even after a decent night's sleep? Are you catching every illness that is going round the office? These are sure signs that you have started to take your body too far and that you are compromising your immune system through overexertion.
3. Your mind is on overdrive
Are you struggling to sleep because your head is spinning with thoughts? Do you catch yourself lost in relentless mind chatter in the middle of the day? Do you feel distracted and unable to focus? Have you become more forgetful than normal? When your mind is overactive, it's probably replaying past events or getting angry/upset/stressed about events in future. This over-activation of your fight or flight response is called allostatic load and it's basically wear and tear on your brain and body which in the short term can lead you to burnout and in the long-term it can affect your metabolism, your immune system, and also the aging of your DNA. Not fun.
4. You're acting weird
Are you a little bit more cutting than normal? Does everyone around you irritate you? Do you have a little bit of a shorter fuse? Are you a bit jumpy and jittery? Are you bingeing on alcohol or food or completely starving yourself? If you're catching yourself reacting poorly to things that you'd normally take on your stride and displaying more extreme and addictive behaviours, you're definitely headed for a crash. Also, if people around you are starting to notice and confront you and you feel offended or just fend them off with a cutting "I'm fine", you're probably already there.
5. You feel guilty, overwhelmed and helpless
Are you procrastinating more than normal? Are tasks taking you significantly longer than they should? Are you cramming your diary with work and social events only to feel overwhelmed and cancel at the last minute? Are you feeling guilty because you can't do everything you should and letting everyone down? Do you feel completely out of control and like nobody understands and can help you? Yup, seems like you have got one foot on dark side...
6. But you can't stop
So your body has packed up, your brain is exhausted, you're acting out and you're on the brink of having a full blown meltdown... Yet, you get up the next day and you do it all again. Do you feel like you'd be letting people down? Or that you'd be letting yourself down? Do you feel like stopping would be a sign of weakness or vulnerability? Probably a bit of all of the above would be my guess...
I had all those six signs staring right into my eyes and I ignored them so I completely understand if you're doing the same, being a human ostrich burying your head in the sand and pretending that it will all go away. And it may well do! But then again it may not and you may find yourself in the middle of a big crash that it could take you months to recover from. Listen to your body and your mind. Watch your behaviour towards yourself and others. And make an intervention on yourself or let others intervene before it's too late. As much as it's given me great stuff to write about burning out isn't fun. It not only trashes your body and your brain but it wreaks havoc with your self-esteem and it can be very damaging to your relationships too. So watch out for those six signs and stop yourself from coming over to the dark side...
Keep it balanced team - work hard and stay well. I'm off to celebrate my burnout's first birthday.
Much love and cortisol,