Burnout: signs, symptoms & struggles

Finally, in 2019, burnout was acknowledged by the WHO (World Health Organization) as an “occupational phenomenon”. Great!   So, now we know people (especially women) are burning out.   

As if we didn’t already know this.   

But, the good news of this categorisation by the WHO, is that burnout is now normalised and recognised – rather than being stigmatised.  It is no longer about “you’re just weak and lazy”.   It is finally okay for people to acknowledge that their lifestyles are leading to burnout.  

The important things is – though – it’s not about “long hours” or “a busy schedule”.  Typically, what leads to burnout is much more insidious, creeping up on people through a state of chronic (even low grade) stress.  The types of situations that are leading to burnout typically relate to situations and lifestyles with: 

  • feelings of lack of control 
  • no support 
  • low autonomy or authority or decision-making power. 

In most of these situations, the person headed for burnout feels that they cannot choose for themselves.  They are busy living up to other people’s expectations – living according to someone else’s rules.  This may be in their work, home or even flamily.  This type  of life leads to feelings of helplessness, as well as feeling constantly under pressure.    

Life before burnout

I admit – I didn’t see burnout coming.  I failed to see the series of snow-balling events that were growing and gathering velocity until it all hit me. Blind-sided!   

It wasn’t just one thing.

Rather burnout arrived after a series of many small things – each one possibly insignificant on its own.  But all together? Too much!  I broke and I burned… and then I smouldered… and then burned some more!  All the while, whipping myself for being so weak and not pulling myself together.    

It started off with having my own firm with 15+ employees, and a home of about 150m2 (about 1,500 sq. feet).  Then I got married and in 2011 we moved to 300m2. In the smaller place, I had a housekeeper who came in 5-6 hours a day, Monday to Friday.  She cooked me lunch, mothered me, and took care of everything.  

House-keeping

What I didn’t realise at the time – I had a wife

I didn’t have a housekeeper (part of me must have known that, because I was paying her for fulltime work when she was part time).  But she didn’t just cook me lunch and clean.  She ordered the groceries online and received them, she organised tradesmen and work that needed to be done.  She made all my personal calls – changed contracts for my internet or cable TV.  Whatever it was that needed to be done.   

When we moved to the larger apartment, she hired (I simply gave my opinion and okay) the young girl that would live in and work full time.  She still came in parttime and supervised everything.  And then, in 2012, her husband got dementia, and she had to quit and start caring for him.  While I mourned my loss, I didn’t truly realise what I was losing until years later.  

having a baby

In December 2012, after years of infertility and health issues, I finally got pregnant after being diagnosed with Celiac Disease. While you might think that Celiac Disease was a huge factor – I never really included it until years later. Diagnosis was a blessing – I finally knew what part of the problem was. A problem that caused infertility. With the right diet, and some immune blockers during the first 2 weeks of implantation of the fetus, I was finally able to get pregnant.

And I had an easy pregnancy. I was still walking the dogs through to the very day that I gave birth. Waddling – but walking the dogs. Isabella (now 5) was born with a natural birth and if I had not gone to hospital to placate a nervous husband, it might have become a home birth! Easily. Naturally.

And I was home a few days later with a precious bundle that I knew nothing about looking after. But, I was lucky – because I was in a position to hire a nurse to come and help for the first 3 months. She lived with us Monday to Saturday, leaving Saturday afternoons and back on Monday mornings.

That mosquito bite

And then, when Isabella was about 5 weeks old (October 2013) – I got dengue fever. For two days, I had fevers of almost 40°C (104°F), wanting only to stay in bed, under the covers. Luckily, while I fell ill on a Sunday, I was able to call Ruth and ask her to come back early and take care of Isabella, because I could just feel myself getting worse. Eventually, I went to ER and on the 2nd round of tests, they found I had dengue. This changed the treatment – but I still had the fevers and weakness.

What they don’t tell you about dengue fever is the long-term aftermath.

Up until getting Dengue Fever, I was running my law firm, writing contracts, and keeping an eye on things. Not perfectly – but involved and on top of things.

Dengue fever changed all of that. Not for the 4 days that the fever lasted. It was more than 3 weeks before I could concentrate on anything for more than 20 minutes. Five weeks – that’s what it took me to rebuild my strength after it burned through every ounce of fat in my body in 4 days. Dengue wiped out my strength for a good 6 months after it was gone!

And I struggled to rediscover “the pace”. Of course, by this time, Isabella was 6 months old, and I had already blown through the first nanny and was trying out a second (because the nurse left when her contract finished).

Financial stress 

With a new government taking office in 2014, the economy took a downturn.  Panama had seen years of 8-10% growth, and unfortunately it had dropped to a new “normal” of 5-6% growth. But this growth was now limited to mega-projects (infrastructure), rather than business growth. So, unless you were in the sectors involved in energy, expansion of the canal, or building of the metro line – business was not booming.

And I didn’t have “a head” for it. Although I did downsize my firm more than a year earlier than other firms did.

But it still was reactionary measures, rather than visionary! I was taking steps to counter the situation, rather than looking for the opportunities!

A struggling marriage

All of this compounded things within my marriage, which eventually lead to a decision to separate and go our separate ways.

I was begging for help and support — and he was telling me I just needed to pull myself together and I’d be fine.

Unfortunately, I did not let him know how badly I was crashing and burning! I somehow imagined he could see it. I mistakenly believed that since I was asking for help, it had to be obvious I was in trouble!

Burnout was already showing. But I still wasn’t paying attention

The scars of celiac Disease

I mentioned above chronic illness. In my case – that’s Celiac Disease. Unbeknownst to me, I got it in 2002 or 2003 (I can remember where I was and what I was doing… because that bout of food poisoning is unforgettable). Celiac Disease is not exactly genetic. Some of us have a predisposition for it.

I do.

But apparently it’s one of those things that may need a trigger. In my case – food poisoning on a business trip. And the immune system understands that the problem is not the gluten (or wheat), but rather that the problem is the villi and lining of your small intestine. So – you ingest gluten, and rather than attacking and removing the gluten – your immune system simply begins to attack the wall of your ileum and duodenum.

While in the long run it can cause all types of other health issues, it also causes more innocuous and insideous problems:

  • irritability
  • iron deficiency and chronic fatigue
  • bloating and discomfort
  • malabsorption – lowering your intake of calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, potassium, etc. (having other side-effects – like muscle cramps)
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • depression and/or anxiety

Because I had been misdiagnosed from 2002 or 20 when it started until 2012, I was quite used to living in discomfort! And so, while the discomfort and symptoms continued after diagnosis, I put this down to the IBS and the long-term damage done to my gut. I was still getting cross-contaminated regularly, until I finally decided that I would take stronger measures in my life to avoid this. (That is another story for another day).

Over-committed

On top of running my two businesses and being a single mother, I had additional commitments. Two in particular:

  1. Studying to become an interfaith Minister, which I started in April 2017 – and it helped me in so many ways. At the same time, it added more to an already busy schedule. One more commitment.
  2. Volunteering with my church, which is a progressive reformed faith Union church.

Until it was just all too much!

How this all snowballed

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“When you’re burnt out, you often no longer see yourself as an agent of change in your own life. It feels like all your efforts and your choices no longer impact your outcomes.”

I would guess to say that most women can relate to what I have described above as being pretty “normal” – in the sense that so many women are businesswomen or professionals, having homes and children, and also volunteering and involved in community activities.

We are used to being “busy” and picture in our minds that we can be that superwoman – always on point and an over-achiever. You get used to multi-tasking with a relentless schedule.

When we find that you can’t keep up with it, you sacrifice your down time and self-care.

I found myself unable to say “no” when asked to take on more responsibilities, even though I didn’t have the mental space or time for it. I already had too many responsibilities and too little support. I had allowed myself to become isolated.

I was on a treadmill that I didn’t know how to get off!

Signs & symptoms I was burning out

exhausted, energy depletion, mentally distant, problems "getting the job done", sense of failure, self-doubt, insomnia, chronic fatigue, constantly falling ill, emotional exhaustion, anger issues, cynicism, depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, withdrawal
How to recognise burnout: signs & symptoms

Burnout — because you are in a state of chronic stress — isn’t always noticable. You notice that you have a reduced commitment – and you blame yourself. When you feel emotional depletion and detachment, you think there’s something wrong with the relationships. You blame the loss of motivation on a lack of focus, and shoot yourself because “I’m just not committed enough”.

But all of these signs and signals were apparent for years:

  • exhausted
  • energy depletion
  • mentally distant
  • problems “getting the job done”
  • sense of failure & self-doubt
  • insomnia & chronic fatigue
  • constantly falling ill
  • emotional exhaustion
  • anger issues, cynicism
  • depression & anxiety
  • forgetfulness & inability to concentrate
  • withdrawal

Being in burnout, soldiering on

Unfortunately, I had a range of things that I could blame the different signs and symptoms on as they showed up in my life – having a baby, a toddler, terrible twos, dengue fever, Celiac Disease, separation and divorce, being a single mother with businesses to run …

But the fear of failure – what will people think – means you can’t stop! So you keep pushing through.

  • I’ll get through today.
  • As soon as I get through this week, it will get better.
  • Next month will be easier.
  • I’ll just have my holiday for 2 weeks, and everything will level out.

Burnout, it doesn’t fit the image we have of ourselves! And it creeps up quietly, chronically.

Each one of the challenges that I was facing – I could have faced and handled on its own. But the problem is that I failed to recognise that I wasn’t handling them any more. It had snowballed way beyond my ability to control and handle.

Until, one day — you realise that you just can’t keep on going with the life that you have. That’s what happened to me in November 2017!

I finally realised I was just embers of a fire that had long gone out.

Something had to change!

And it’s not one thing – it’s a lifestyle change!

Continue reading…

29 comments

  1. Gurl, you have been through it. I hope things will get better, and you will be able to see positive futures. I have been feel like I’m going to have a Meltdown or I’m burnt out, too. (especially from reading this) Let’s keep our head up, we got this!

  2. Great post Beth! Yes, women put everyone and everything above themselves. We try to be “super moms” and take on whatever comes our way. We try to please everyone around us, but there does have to be a limit, as not only do we “burnout”, it also affects our health, productivity and relationships. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you so much Claire for the feedback – yes – it totally blindsides you, even though in hindsight it is so obvious.
      I am doing so much better now – learned to say “no” and stand up for myself. Learned to protect my energy levels, and not use Celiac Disease as a crutch, while still accepting that there are times when it affects my body and I need to slow down.
      Programming into my days, weeks, months and years time out! And then not filling those moments with work and “I’ll just use this time to catch up”

      It really does take a lifestyle change!

    • Great post, everyone needs to be ware of the risks of burnout.

      I burnt out after a catalogue of things going wrong until I finally couldn’t take it anymore.

      My mum got cancer, my grandad died, my uncle almost died, I was chasing up hospital appointments for my self, I was in a three year complaint with my mental health Trust, I was trying to support my mum, my supervisor at university screwed me over which almost cost me my post graduate degree, my manager at the addiction charity screwed me over with my placement as part of my post grad, I had to make an extenuating circumstances claim (twice, for no reason), and then I just broke down under the accumulating emotional strain and almost ended up killing myself.

      That was the first time I ever experienced burnout.

  3. I appreciate you sharing your experience and enjoyed reading it. You have had a lot on your plate and I can relate. It’s refreshing to see that you sought to address the root cause and not just the symptoms. All the best on your journey.

  4. Burnout sucks. I’m so sorry you went through it.

    I never saw mine coming. Right up until I was in a hospital bed having my stomach pumped. It hit me so hard and fast and I’m still not recovered over 5 years later.
    I think it didn’t help that I kept on trying to get back to work and then I had a bereavement in the family before getting fired for having too much time off work.

    I still feel guilty because I can’t shake off the burnout. If I spend too much time at my voluntary job, bam burnt out, try to cope independently cat sitting and I get a few days to a week and bam I’ve burnt out and I’m not managing basic self care anymore.

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