in Burnout Triumphants

Burnout in My “Eyes”

Portrait photo of Svetoslav Elenkov

My experience with burnout makes me think of an old Bulgarian saying, which basically translates to: “Bad experience is the best teacher!”

The word “eyes” is in quotation marks, because we feel everything that happens around us through and with each individual cell of our bodies and our emotions, and only then do things run through our conscious.

I’m not that well versed on the topic from a scientific standpoint. I can just share my thoughts and my feelings, and how I felt through that period of my life.

Everyone who goes through the kind of rough patch, that makes you wake up and look around is going to feel it in their unique way. They will recognise there is a problem at different times, they will react in different ways and will experience different symptoms.

The aim of this article is for me to share experience and if I can, help at least one person, who might be on the verge of a professional burnout take measures as early as possible.

In economics, and almost every other area of our life, there are three types of control, that can be exercised on a situation:

  1. Preventative
  2. Current
  3. Corrective

As an economist and as a person who’s been professionally involved in the organization and optimization of business processes and building of software systems (with more that ten years of experience) I can firmly state that the most effective, cheapest and all-round best type of control is the first one – preventative!

However, there’s one problem – it’s hard for a person without the right mindset and experience to understand the necessity and the importance of preventative control. That’s the motivation behind my writing this article. To spark interest and give pointers. Everyone needs to learn their own lessons and everyone needs to make mistakes, but it would be useless for everyone to make the same mistakes and learn the same lessons over and over again.

As a “non-professional” I’ll attempt to describe burnout syndrome in my own words. Every person has felt the pain of hard, long physical training. Depending on the intensity and longevity of physical strain, and on our build and preparation, muscule soreness also varies in intensity and longevity. When things are really serious, we might lose all ability to even move our bodies due to the pain.

For me, burnout feels like muscule soreness, but in my brain. I can’t stop thinking, I can’t relax, and I can’t practise any control over my mind.

The ideal situation is for us to know and understand what burnout is, so we can create an optimal rhythm of strain, so that we don’t even feel the symptoms. This would be “preventative control”. When we feel the first symptoms of burnout, we still have a chance at prevention, because the initial symptoms do NOT feel bad at all. They can actually feel like rushes of energy and extremely high efectiveness. When we have lots of work, we just do it and set even higher and more ambitious milestones. This leads to a sensation of satisfaction and an adrenaline rush. That’s all great untill we see the hard work we put into our professional development take a toll on our health, our families and our private life. This is just a warning light which basically tells us work has been our top priority for elongated periods of time.

The key word in the last sentence is priority. Burnout is a state, that doesn’t unravel in a day or two. It’s a process which takes at least a few months before it gets more serious. In my case around eight months.

I want to emphasise again, that every human will experience it in different lenghts, with different symptoms and feelings. That’s important. What is true for everyone is doing lots of work in small amounts of time can cause burnout. In my case, the reasoning was not just in work stuff, but a more complex combination of changes in my health, my professional life and my private life. The main reason for my breakdown turned out to be overworking, dissatisfaction and a clash of moral values due to changes in the running of the company I was working for at the time. How do I know that? My state got significantly better when one day I decided that it was enough and finally quit my job.

Im once again adressing the types of control and the symptoms.

I will share the symptoms I experienced in chronological order.

  1. Extremely high efectiveness.

At the time I was required to jump around different projects – analysing business requirements for one project, helping developers for another one, planning tests for a third one, typing documents for a fourth one, training new colleagues for basic functions and problems and so on. I felt there was a problem when I couldn’t remember basic facts and parameters about a task I had worked on a month before, but I could easily remember details about projects I had worked on two years before. Psychologists may have a different explanation, but I believe it’s firmly connected to doing huge amounts of work in small periods of time. Let’s look at the following example. When sprinting, we can run about a hundred meters before we have to take a break. In marathons, if we have the right training we can run for hours. Life is more like short bursts of sprinting with different intensity, and then breaks inbetween. Most managers know that when we are excited, we are more productive than ususal. More creative as well. The question is wether our breaks are long enough. My position was not in management. I was responsible for processes and projects, not for managing teams from an administrative point of view. I knew that I couldn’t keep up with that tempo for a long time and there were several talks with my executives. The problem was that the company’s managers replaced the department’s directors four times in just two years. That was why I couldn’t reach a good tempo for myself for a long time.

An important fact – everyone is responsible for themselves burning out. Our circumstances are just a starting point, how we react and wether we get hurt or not is in our hands. We always have a choice, given we know our priorities. I took more than I should have, because honestly, I liked the work and the team. But after so many changes I was just holding on, scared of change. My fear was also present due to a musculoskeletal system disease.

  1. Thoughts about work related problems, after work.

I will separate this symptom in two parts.

  • Fully conscious thoughts.
    Quite often I would read and/or write documentation “in peace” outside of working hours, just so I could “catch up”. This is a moment where it’s pretty obvious that there is a problem, and it’s getting out of control. It’s also the first moment we can recognise it and take preventative measures – lowering our tempo.
  • Thoughts about work problems, we cannot stop!
    Even though we’re not at work anymore, we can’t turn our minds away from thoughts about problems and viable solutions. As if everything is “life and death” and we believe that it’s only a matter of fixing this one problem before we can finally settle down and relax. However, as a manager I once had said – “When they see you can dig, they give you a bigger shovel.” The last situation is valid only for employees. Entrepreneurs do all this to themselves, due to a bad mindset. I will remind you again – everyone experiencing burnout is majorly responsible for it. They must have missed the right moment to control themselves – their values and priorities!

Here comes time for the second type of control – current.

Current control can be exercised in multiple ways:

  • Lost of physical activity, to compensate for high amounts of psycological strain. This is a good method of controlling stress. Plus, it’s good for you in the right amount.
  • Meditation – any form of mental rest, really. It could be a certain technique, yoga, art therapy or something else. This method is also good.
  • Distraction – consciously to distract ourselves from work with social media, movies etc. This isn’t a perfect method, but it surely is better than the next ones.
  • Alcohol – it gives us good results for short periods of time. We get relaxed, happy and it’s easier to fall asleep. Problem solved… Until tomorrow. Systematic use of alcohol for relaxing purposes is a sure way towards serious health problems.
  • Meds – maybe a better alternative than alcohol, for a short amount of time, but only after a consultation with a professional. If we take the initiative for a consultation with a professional, we are on the right path. We’re already searching for a solution – everything else is a matter of time.
  1. Insomnia – there isn’t much to say about that. A mind full of thoughts about tasks and problems, cannot have a good sleep.
  2. Irritability/agression – depending on character and temper, in a situation like this, a person might start to react to things in a different, angrier manner. For example, I got really irritated and acted extremely arrogantly when someone wouldn’t take responsibility for something or wasn’t doing anything to help fix a bad situation.
  3. Depression – the other side of agression. Agression in communication, always takes us further away from our milestones. In my case, the understanding of the problem happened when I started to react angrily to the people, I love the most. Then, agression turned into depression.

I stared by saying, everyone experiencing burnout, goes through it in a different, unique way. I had pains in my legs I had had before due to my disease come back out of the blue. I felt like I wanted to vomit, especially in the mornings. I don’t know if it was because of fatigue or because of my not wanting to work for the people I used to, or just general dissatisfaction. That’s why I separated these symptoms from the ones above.

And now, the most important part – moral values!

Conscious thoughts about our values, priorities and our life are the method we can and should use as a preventative, current and corrective control over burnout.

I’ll state what I believe are the best-working methods for current and corrective control:

  • Conscious assessment of moral compass and values and rearrangement of priorities.
  • Conscious assessment of professional realization.
  • Reading books about the connection between physical and mental – I recommend “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey and “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman.
  • Physical exercises – swimming, if possible, because controlled breathing is almost meditation in itself.
  • A hobby, that works on your creative abilities – music, dancing, drawing, creative writing etc. Something different from your regular activities.
  • Some kind of meditation.
  • A healthy diet/regime.
  • A healthy sleep cycle/routine.
  • A good long-term rhythm of work and rest. Each sprint, should be compenstated with a break.

And finally, I’ll say:

Bad experience is the best teacher, but not all of us necessarily have to learn the hard way!

I wish you all the best and all the success. I hope I helped in some way.

After reading what I wrote, I’m remembering something important. The cornerstone of burnout is Ego. The construct that we are important, strong, capable, that our work is important, that other people can’t do it as fast, or can’t do it as good, etc.

Even if what we are working on is saving the world, which every sane person knows is not just their responsibility (it’s everybody’s), we have to be healthy and active in the long-term, in order to work in the right direction. I’m clearing this last thing up, mostly for the so called “Social Enterpreneurs” – people with an active citizen stance, whose aims are change of circumstancial and other social problems. An active social stance is an important value for any democratic society, but in order to see long-term effects, it has to happen in a healthy way. This is true for a separate person, as well as a society. If there are high amounts of stress, the approach is wrong.

With wishes for fulfillment and efectiveness,

Portrait photo of Svetoslav Elenkov

Svetoslav Elenkov