A few years back, I hit an interesting period in my career: I was working as one of several team leaders for a group of hard-working people who had a plan and big dreams. So we worked hard, and poured ourselves into trying to turn our dreams into something real — circumstances that I never imagined would lead me to experience job burnout. But after a couple of years, my team started hitting roadblock after roadblock. Many people moved on to other opportunities, and I found myself leading a team that I had never intended to lead.
It was a time of high emotional strain and increased demands. Things were falling apart around us, and I was the one whose job it was to hold it together (or at least attempt to). And not only was I supposed to salvage what I could from the wreckage — it was also my responsibility to help everyone else through the storms. I felt a constant sense of pressure to be everything to everyone, and to control circumstances to produce the desired results.
Initially, my adrenaline kicked in and I felt purpose in having people to lead and a situation to manage. I was important. I could fix this.
But as time dragged on, the weightiness of the situation — as well as the exhaustion of pushing through the hurt and pain in a period of upheaval (and being expected to pull others through, too) — took a toll on me.
I burned out and became emotionally exhausted. During this period, I would occasionally have a picture flash through my mind that, to this day, is how I best explain where I was emotionally during this season of my life. I would picture myself in a dim room, hunched in the corner facing one of the walls. I would be crouched down, my hands covering my ears and my fingers stretched over my face. My head faced downward into my knees and I was saying, "No more, no more, no more," over and over again. Emotionally, I could not handle one more thing. I was done.
One weekend, I went on a retreat which included the option of having a one-on-one session with a counselor. I signed up, unsure of what to expect. I still remember every moment of that session. I poured my heart out to the counselor for over an hour, taking him through the emotional devastation that I had been through. Finally, after a few moments of silence, with his voice calm and his eyes full of compassion, he said, “You are a classic case of burnout.”
When he said those words, I knew they were true. I had finally reached a point where I could not do it anymore. When things first got tough, adrenaline took me through it, and momentum carried me for a little while, but I had crashed head first into a wall. The hardest thing about reaching my breaking point was facing the fact that I was not enough — that I did not have enough in me to fix every problem, carry every person and still be okay at the end of it all. I felt weak and inadequate, and like my weakness was failure. I hated that I had ended up here.
The counselor went on to point out that at my job, I had heightened responsibility and demands, but no additional assistance or resources to help me deal with them. He told me that I had been functioning far beyond my capacity for an extended period of time — which was a problem, because we, as humans, have limits. We are resilient and strong, but we are not meant to give continuously without receiving. Eventually, as with anything, overwork can cause a breakdown.
He told me the story of what had happened when he got his counseling degree. He had gone back for his degree later in life, after he realized that it was his dream. He took on a full course load and worked two jobs to get himself through. And as he finally walked out of the auditorium with degree in hand, instead of eagerly applying for his dream jobs, he found himself exhausted and unable to submit a single application. Something held him back; he just couldn’t do it.
Instead, he took a job where every day, he only had one task. He had a set routine and did simple, repetitive tasks with his hands — and it was exactly what he needed. He ended up staying at this job for a little over a year and slowly, he regained the emotional energy to start his counseling career.
He advised me to take a break. He said I needed to find a place where I could rest and a job where I had specific and easily managed tasks. In my state of emotional exhaustion, trying to persevere and stick out my current job was not going to help me, or allow me to help anyone else. We cannot give what we do not have in our own reserves. Sometimes, we need periods of time that are easy and uncomplicated. These are times are when we can truly rest and heal.
For me, I was already at a transition point in my career, so the timing was right for me to step away from my job and make a move. I moved cities and instead of jumping head first into finding the next job on my career track, I looked into part-time jobs that would give me a break from overwhelming responsibilities and impossible workloads. I joked with my friends that I was applying to the happiest places that I could think of.
I was grateful to be in a position to be able to step back and take on work that was less stressful for me — I know that many people aren't able to. After spending years focused on developing my career, I took some time where I just worked to pay the bills and caught my breath. I had a different schedule than most of my friends, which forced me to change the pace of my lifestyle. A lot of my free time happened while my friends were working, which gave me time for myself and time to rest. I no longer felt the pressure of being in charge of a team and making all the decisions. My new job gave me time to think and to process. I did not feel responsible for anyone else or for the success of the store. I was only responsible for my one task.
I worked these jobs for around six months. Then, at some point along the way, I started feeling curious about what job postings were out there. In my free time, I would find myself looking up jobs and dreaming about different opportunities. I knew it was time to jump back in.
Burnout can sneak up on you. It often happens slowly over time, like a bucket collecting tiny drips that eventually runs over. When you're deep in it, holding life together feels like trying to keep sand from falling through your fingers. Sometimes, your personality might even change due to the stress; I remember finding myself wanting to hide from people because they might need something from me, which was unusual for me, as I'm extremely extroverted and relational. If you're feeling these kinds of things in your life, you could be burned out or on your way there.
So often, I think we are scared to step away and admit we are feeling burned out. We may be ashamed or embarrassed about it, but the reality is that life is too short. We only have this one life and there is no reason to waste it just trying to survive. If our tank is empty, we will never be able to live our lives to the fullest. It takes wisdom to walk away and recover, and it takes courage to let yourself rest and be still.
Of course, it is not feasible for everyone to go run off and get a job that feels easier to handle — but we all have ways to simplify. We have daily opportunities to find time to refuel and rest. We make choices every day and we can chose to say "no" sometimes. Small things — like spending more nights in at home, skipping social events on occasion, or finding someone to take over one of your work commitments for a season — can make a huge difference. Saying no or stepping away does not mean that you'll say no or step away forever. It might just be for the here and now, until you reach a place of health again. It can be a scary to let yourself slow down, but the alternative is often a crash or a meltdown.
A lot of things can exhaust us emotionally. We can be drained by our careers, relationships, responsibilities. The thing about dealing with these exhausting times in our lives is that when we finally find ourselves empty, there is no timeline to let us know how long it will take to refill. We cannot force ourselves to be ready again.
With time, though, we can notice when we begin getting bored by our new, slower-paced lives. We will see our desire to engage grow and we will naturally find ourselves wanting challenges and wanting to follow new dreams. You wake up one day and no longer cringe of the idea of going back. When you are ready, you seem to just intuitively know.
I am now working full-time again, with all the commitments and daily obligations that that entails. My life is still busy, but I understand more now about the importance of my own wellbeing. I have learned to embrace the fact that I am human with limitations. Rather than be ashamed of that, I acknowledge that just as I take my car in for oil changes and tune ups, I function at my best when I maintain my own emotional health.
Our lives have different seasons, and nothing is permanent. So it pays to remember that, contrary to everything you may have learned in the working world, giving yourself the time and rest to overcome burnout can be exactly what you need to eventually succeed.
Images: Lauren Rosenau Photography (2)