Surviving and thriving after burn out

How I regained control of my wellbeing after a career burnout

Arguably, it had been building for several years. It wasn’t triggered solely by a traumatic event, a difficult employer or burning the midnight oil. Hitting the wall—in fact hitting it several times but still persevering until I couldn’t—was caused by dozens of trade-offs I’d made, unconsciously, about where I would spend my time and energy on any given day.

Not prioritising, I just stuffed more tasks (usually work-related) into the week until I was empty, exhausted and rudderless. I felt like life had no purpose. I was always reacting to what was happening in any given moment. And there were lots of tears. My brain had developed a fog. Was this what happened in your mid 40s?

My solution was to resign from work because it was ‘that place’ sucking the life out of me. Not being there would fix everything, surely? How wrong I was! My manager was gracious not to accept my resignation but suggest a sabbatical; get into a ‘well’ state of mind before making such decisions. I took five months off and I am eternally grateful. Here is how I regained control of my wellbeing.

Relentless and disciplined planning – I thought I was a master planner, but I was really just artful at getting urgent things done—and everything was urgent. Now, planning starts with what my ideal week looks like, locking in the non-negotiables (for me yoga, PT, reading at school on Fridays, school drop-off Wednesdays), pencilling in work and then prioritising all the other ‘stuff’ I want to do. I do this weekly on a family planner (everyone in the family must support this for it to work) and we have Sunday planning sessions. I keep a manual diary. Each month I take stock and look two months forward—date nights are back!

Immunity to change – A huge lesson for me was that while I truly wanted to prioritise better, my competing need of feeling validated by delivering the impossible, often stalled my efforts. My biggest fear was that if I said no, particularly in a work context, my reputation of high performance would be shot. Now I am testing this assumption daily as I make trade-offs and learn the art of saying no gracefully. It’s not easy, but I refuse to succumb to the disease of being busy.

Being present – My head is always full and busy. Yoga has been a gift for me, to create space in my mind, feel lighter. It’s two hours in the week when no one can contact me. I can let all the balls fall on the ground, and I can just be. I have learned how interconnected the mind and body are, the art of breathing and slowing down. This has not been easy and is not for everyone. I also started a journal: I capture what’s going on in my heart, what’s challenging me, what steps I can take to move forward, what I am grateful for. It really helps.

Chew, do and living true – The mantra of health educator Robert Greco. Food and moving are medicine for my body. I make better choices every day about what I eat and how I move my body. It’s incremental. I sought a personal trainer and the universe sent me Rob. I see him twice a week and he’s been a lifesaver.

Finally, I came across a Ted Talk by Nigel Marsh called How to make work-life balance work. It’s brutally refreshing: we each need to design the type of life we want to lead otherwise someone else will do this for us and we may not like their idea of balance.

And now? I returned to my job and eventually resigned. In the spirit of living true, I’m paving a new path. It’s empowering, and with some new skills in my kit and a great support network, it’s going to be quite the ride.

Written by Donna Burr. Donna is mother to Charlotte and has a burning passion for holistic health and resilience.

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