Overcoming burnout – my story
I remember the day I burnt out last year. It was 20th October, 2020. It had been an intense year and the end of the year wasn’t going to let up. Social and other activities had started to ramp up again. On the weekend, I took my 7 year old to a birthday party, and my 10 year old to an extra music lesson in preparation for her exam. On Monday I spent hours practising a five-minute speech for our University’s Research Impact competition. I was the department finalist and competing against 15 other researchers. I recited my speech over and over as I took my kids to school, picked them up, and went through the day. (My kids NEVER want to hear about research impact again). On the day I nailed the speech, didn’t win, and felt a mix of disappointment and relief and pride. I didn’t know it but I had used up almost my last tiny bit of reserve that day.
The end of the academic year is always brutal and mine was no different. The adrenaline kept me going right up until submitting a large grant on the last day of the academic year. I really needed the holidays. I woke up on the first day of my holidays with a sense of hope. I spent the day with my family, just having an amazing time. As I took the laundry out I remember seeing the sunset and feeling a palpable sense of joy. Life is good, I thought.
That evening the Northern Beaches stay at home order was announced. I was in the supermarket car park. I cried when I read the news. Ugly cried. Then I went back in to the supermarket and bought food for the next few days. And chocolate, two bars of it.
Being in lockdown on the Northern Beaches is not difficult. The beach stayed open. You just can’t keep a Northern Beaches away from, well, our beaches! We had each other. We had an enormous turkey to finish. We did Christmas. We surfed, ran, baked, and napped our way through the 2.5 week lockdown. When it ended, I started back at work. But I wasn’t ok.
I couldn’t feel anything positive about work. It was an absolute struggle. I did what I needed to do – but it came with a lot of effort and little, if any, enjoyment. I felt disillusioned, like there was no point, like I was not making any impact at all. At one point I actually didn’t care. I started looking at the job ads, but it wasn’t another job I wanted. I actually wanted to retire. I fantasised about quitting completely and not working at all. What would it be like? I wondered. I imagined spending my days dropping the kids off, then pottering around the house, ensuring it was clean and well-maintained all the time, maybe going out for coffee or some shopping before picking them up again. No rushing around to fit in household chores after work. Bliss. The days would fly by. At one point, I realised that perhaps I was experiencing a mid life crisis. Is this what happens? You get tired of the constant hard work, the achieving, the doing?
My moods were a bit flat but otherwise ok. I would have described them as “glum” at times. I wasn’t distressed and I could keep going – it was just hard work and fairly joyless. Is this burnout? I wondered. I thought I knew about burnout. I had given workshops on it, for goodness sake, and was asked to address the Healthcare Summit on GP burnout. I had read all the things. I knew about burnout! But experiencing it was different. Burnout wasn’t a nice neat diagnosis with its three dimensions of cynicism, exhaustion, and