That morning, I sat in the doctor’s surgery and cried for the third time in successive weeks. However, I had made progress, because the crescendo of emotion spewing out from somewhere deep inside of me had dimmed slightly, but it had not gone away. Stress and burnout were couching surfing on my sofa showed little signs of leaving. I’d convinced myself they had moved on a week ago, but my third visit to the doctor showed me otherwise.
I never thought work-related stress and burnout would ever happen to me, but I clearly remember the day ‘I broke’ and emotional life tumbled out of control. For many weeks, I felt guilty and found it hard to accept my feelings. Perhaps, I was imagining things? After all, I was physically fine. I had no visible evidence of damage, like a broken leg, or a bandage, not even so much as a plaster. Yet, when discussing my workplace something uncontrollable happened deep within me and I was reduced to a sobbing, shaking mess. At these times, I would feel like an observer in my own life. I found it disturbing that such emotion could lurk in the dark recesses and only trigger at the mention of work.
This experience made me research work-related stress and burnout in order to understand what happened. I looked at the causes and the symptoms, many of which I had been experiencing in the months before the breaking point. Then I’d like to share how nature and creativity helped me heal. It is my hope that this in some way will help you.
The known causes of work-related stress and burnout
The atmosphere, attitudes and behaviours in a workplace contribute to its functionality and are strong indicators in the likely causes of stress and burnout in an employee. So what are these indicators? Being in a workplace where you feel a lack of control over your work activities, where you have little say over your schedule or workload and procedures are implemented with no consideration for the impact on you or your ability to follow them are key factors that can lead to work-related stress. You feel undervalued and ignored.
Having a poor work-life balance is another strong indicator of potential burnout, along with extremes of activity. This could be due to an unmanageable workload, which means the working day is constantly extended into late evenings or weekend seriously impacting family and relationships. It could also be that the working hours are long, but the task is monotonous and unstimulating.
Unclear or constantly changing job expectations coupled with poor communication quickly erode your trust in your managers or employer and can impact your self-esteem. You become disillusioned and demotivated with a job you once possibly loved. While a workplace where you are bullied, constantly undermined or micromanaged, are melting pots for stress and burnout. Many of these factors become evident in my own situation and contributed heavily to my own breakdown.
More blog post on the subject of stress here
The red flag symptoms of possible stress and burnout
There several important symptoms that you need to look out for that could indicate that you are suffering work-related stress and heading for burn out. It is important to note that we all experience one or two of these symptoms at various stages in our working life. However, experience several all at the same time is not conducive to a happy working life and it may be time for you to face this and make some changes.
- Becoming disillusioned and demotivated – For much of my life, my work was my joy. I looked forward each year to new challenges, but increasingly I felt overwhelmed and undermined by ever-changing demands. My anxiety increased so that I was unable to think clearly in order to complete tasks, which only heightened by levels of stress even further.
- Difficulty sleeping – Due to workload, I found I was working long into the evening and found it difficult to switch off. With my head full of work jobs still to do, I found myself awake early in the morning. I would often be up at 4 am on a Saturday, trying to complete what increasingly like a never-ending list of tasks. I was surviving on 5 hours of sleep a night.
- Reluctance to go to work – increasingly I resented the long journey and relentless traffic.
- Increasing use of food, drink or drugs as self-medication
- Emotional exhaustion – this could range from feeling no emotion at all to the inability to control emotions. When I look back I can see how short-tempered and impatient I had become. I found that the smallest challenge sent my anxiety and sense of panic to high levels and it was easy for me to dissolve into tears.
‘The antidote to exhaustion isn’t resting, its nature’ – Shikoba
Taking Action and Finding a way through
The day after I broke, my doctor signed me off work. Taking time off work was not something I was used to or something I did. Whenever I became ill, I would try to struggle on.
The two weeks, immediately brought a feeling of space and relief. I did not have to go to the place that was causing me so much emotional pain. So what did I do with that time, how did I begin the process of healing?
I ran into the arms of nature. I have always valued what time spent in nature brings to my sense of well-being, now it became my gentle healer. Every day, I would walk in the local woods or across fields making ready for harvest. I listened to bird song and I watched as the land slowly changed from late summer to golden autumn to winter. The air cleared my head and I found that I slept. I slept like I had not slept in a long time. I was at peace and I was calm.
I used creative practices to process my emotions. For me, it was photography and writing poetry. Photography enabled me to focus on one thing, instead of juggling many different demands all at once. It gave my brain a rest. Writing poetry gave me an outlet to express my feelings. For you, it might be something else entirely, cooking, sewing, journaling, woodwork, but each pursuit has an element of focus and completion which can be very comforting when it seems as if other things in life are out of control.
I sought support and help. My friends were amazing and coffee, cake and chats were invaluable. But I also sought professional help. Talking with a counsellor helped me to really focus on where the source of my stress was coming. Until then, I had not really acknowledged that it was work-related or person-specific. She also helped me give myself permission to take the time to heal without feeling guilty. My brokenness was not external and visible, but internal and emotional.
I am tired
My brain is flat
For all that
Deep pots of lively exploration
Delicious scents of strawberry tasting ideas
Spiral into the air
Expectant, hopeful, clear.
I am tired
My heart is sad
For all that
High waterfalls of joyful exhalation
Delightful aromas of wild garlic hopes
Sail across oceans
Wild, limitless free
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