Culture

What dealing with burnout taught us about work, life and taking care of ourselves

March 14, 2018

Read time 13 min

We were both diagnosed with burnout, and as a consequence, were on an extended sick leave. At Reaktor, we pride ourselves – rightly – on our great work culture. So why did we burn out? And what have we done to aid our recovery?

When Marju was at the darkest point of her burnout, she felt like an impostor: “Even though I knew our recruitment is top notch, I was certain that even they sometimes make mistakes. And that I was that mistake. I had moments when I considered leaving the company because I felt I wasn’t worthy of the job.”

Timo found himself thinking about nothing but work – and then getting worked up about the slightest glitch: “I don’t know how many different people I shouted at during that time. Looking back at it it’s clear that what I was doing wasn’t sensible in any way; but I was in way too deep to notice it myself. Having our HR person tell me that she’d booked a doctor’s appointment for me was the biggest relief. It felt like I finally had a way out.”

Burnout is one of those topics that seems to surface in the media every now and again. Yet it can feel like we don’t really manage to do much about it. That’s why we’re sharing our story: We want to help do our part towards de-mystifying what burnout is, and give you some tools to help you recognize when your way of working may be getting unhealthy. But first, let’s rewind a bit. How did we get here?

Timo: Slowly down into the pit

For me, it was just a matter of time. I started in a new project that started off in the wrong direction, and we had to start over after a month or so. We were determined to make up for the lost time and worked hard to gain our customer’s trust. To top it off, the domain was technically challenging and the project required extensive consulting skills.

Looking back, I think my burnout was the result of the perfect combination of the environment, my personality, and the special circumstances of the project. I have always had a very chaotic approach to work, with no clear separation between work and everything else. For this project, I was working overtime a lot. I felt like the project had a Timo-sized hole in it: It was interesting and I wanted to make it work. So I poured all my energy into it. But I worked at maximum capacity for a little too long, and the project started to dominate my life. Although the symptoms seem obvious in hindsight, it required the intervention of my dear colleagues for me to regain control over the situation.

Marju: Achiever accumulating stress

My burnout wasn’t the result of one project or one long crunch period. It was, at least, a combination of working too much at times in demanding environments, doing more and more challenging tasks, and handling some challenging social situations along the way. This combined with my achiever mentality meant that it was probably just a matter of time when I’d burn out.

I feel like I’ve always been this way. My high school principal used to say he worried about how tired I seemed during the school year. And I’ve heard same kind of worried comments ever since. I’ve kind of known for a long time that I’m a potential burnout case; but for quite a while, I had enough time to recover during holidays. At some point, having undergone another peak season at work, I was left more exhausted than before and didn’t fully recover during my summer holiday. This meant that I started the next stretch of work still fatigued, and the next one even more fatigued, and so it kept piling up. I had many positive changes at work that I was excited about, like starting at a new job or on a new customer project, but they also required quite a bit of energy. Finally working for six months in crunch mode broke the camel’s back.

So in late June of last year, I found myself talking to a member of our HR – or Hug as we know them – team who, despite my resistance, insisted on me seeing a doctor.

Don’t be a frog: How to spot the symptoms of burnout

Neither of us were very good at spotting the signs along the way; and even if we did notice something, we didn’t think it was serious. We just gritted our teeth and pushed harder. We were frogs in boiling water, not noticing the temperature slowly rising.

For both of us, spotting our burnout required help from an outsider. However, had we known what the symptoms were or paying closer attention to them, we could have maybe spotted it in ourselves earlier, before the situation got out of hand. It’s important to build ways for checking in with yourself – even if you haven’t experienced burnout. Four concrete indicators we’re now keeping an eye on to stay on track:

Energy levels

For us, the tell-tale sign of burnout was not having energy to do anything after work. Marju wasn’t able to do any housework and the renovation kept waiting for somebody to finish it; Timo was constantly told that he was never really present; his head was always at work.

Timo also stopped exercising: “I used to go to the gym three times a week, and I ate and slept well. Then I started on my new project, and I stopped everything except the eating. By the end, I was 16 kg heavier than at the start; the situation went straight off the rails.”

After our crunch periods, we also noticed that we didn’t really want to take on any tasks that felt complex or like they might require lots of effort. It was easy to keep doing the simpler tasks, instead of trying to tackle big bodies of work.

Working memory

Another good indicator is your working memory. For example, we both noticed that we couldn’t remember an 8-digit disposable PIN code needed for our credit card app. We’d maybe remember four digits, and then keep going back and forth to get the code right; both of us are normally really good with numbers. After the leave of absence, we were able to remember the code in one go, as usual.

Marju also found herself forgetting conversations: “I would have trouble remembering what was discussed if I didn’t write things down right away. It was sometimes hard for me to recall what the conversation had even been about.”

It’s a good idea to think of a memory-related task you do regularly – like remembering series of numbers, conversations, or short lists. Make a mental note of how you’re doing with them.

Sleep quality

Marju knew she’d been sleeping poorly for quite some time: “I woke up many times a night and during more stressful time at work I had a lot of work related dreams and woke up thinking about work in the middle of the night. According to my Fitbit, I didn’t stay in deep sleep for long enough during the night. I always woke up feeling tired.”

In Timo’s experience, although he had no outward trouble sleeping, the sleep he got wasn’t restorative enough: “In hindsight it’s obvious that my sleep quality suffered. It got harder and harder for me to get up in the morning; in the end I wasn’t even awake yet when my kids left for school, even though I was supposed to wake them up, make them breakfast and see them off.”

Pay attention to not just how much sleep you’re getting, but also the quality of the sleep: Are you having trouble getting up after a solid eight hours?  

Mood

During burnout, our communication patterns and emotional responses changed. Timo found himself raising his voice frequently on the slightest issue, and teammates or partners were often at the receiving end; Marju found herself crying or being on the verge of tears on almost a daily basis. We were also cranky at home: “The Christmas of that year, I just fought at home. My teammates had made me take some days off, and it was just miserable – I was in such a funk”, Timo remembers.

This is probably the toughest one to spot yourself. You can always try this: Compare your mood now to e.g. three months ago. Are you angry or cranky more often? Or are you feeling more down than three months ago? You can ask a teammate whether they’ve noticed changes in your mood – and ask them to be honest.

How we started to recover from our burnout experiences

If you’re reading this and feel like you have some of the symptoms we’ve listed, there’s one thing we need you to do: Talk to someone. Burnout can feel like a taboo subject, and like you’ve somehow failed. You haven’t. Talk to someone, be it your favorite HR person, a doctor, a friend or a spouse. The symptoms can pile up quickly, so it’s better to seek help even before you need to take time off.

Getting in touch with someone who can direct you to a doctor and to get some time off work if needed is the first aid. Once that is done, you can start your path to recovery. Give yourself enough time to heal. There’s a reason we call it sick leave: you’re unwell and need to rest. And it may take longer for you to recover – for Marju, that meant working on 60% allocation after getting back: “At first, I didn’t have the energy to work for even one full day. But slowly the energy came back when I gave myself some time and took it easy.”

Start changing the way you work. Whether you’re experiencing the first symptoms or you’ve had to take time off work to recover, figure out what’s wrong in the current situation that’s causing you undue stress. Talking to people helps tremendously with this as well! It’s important that something changes compared to your older situation; otherwise you’ll just come back and slide into old habits, or your symptoms might keep getting worse.

Build routines to separate work and rest. After getting back to work, Timo struggled to find a way of working that clearly separated work time from free time and that was less chaotic than what he was used to. Now he has built up a routine of mentally checking out of work when he closes the lid of his laptop: “I started leaving work after my 7.5 hours was up regardless of whether I was finished with the things I wanted to get done that day or not. I tried to ignore the voices in my head that screamed that I was neglecting my obligations. I had to leave my laptop at the customer’s site for a while before carrying it with me again.”

“On occasion I succumbed to the voices and worked an overlong day here and there or a bit on weekends. I concentrated hard on being more productive during working hours and I knew I was going in the right direction since over time it started to feel strange to work in the evenings. Now, I refuse to work in the evenings and weekends unless it involves honoring a contract with a client and I feel like I can actually concentrate better at work.”

Learn to value down time. This is one big learning for us: your hobbies can also burden you. Marju learnt this the hard way: “I used to think that your free time is always restorative; that is not always the case. Using up all your energy during the work day and then thinking you can still put an effort into hobbies in the evening just isn’t true. Not all hobbies are purely relaxing even if they are enjoyable.” Timo’s tried to find the balance with the right kinds of hobbies: “Good counterparts to strenuous mental work are things that are performed mainly by the lizard brain. For me, these are activities like playing drums or going to the gym.”

Share your experiences. To fully recover, you may find yourself needing to talk about your experience, either with just friends, peers or professionals. Marju’s currently dealing with the reasons for her burnout in brief therapy provided by Reaktor: “I also talk about my experience which helps clearing my head. I’ve noticed that talking about my experience helps others, too. I actually wrote a company-internal blog post about my burnout first. Before hitting post, I doubted whether the post would be beneficial to others; but many have contacted me afterwards and thanked me for sharing my experience. Several people told me that the post made them get help in time. That was the reason for this piece as well: Burnout should be talked about, and opening up pays off.”

The biggest learning: It can happen to anyone


So finally, the big question: With such a great support network, why did we as Reaktorians burn out? The answer isn’t simple – part of it is intrinsic and part of it is the way we work. The first we can be more self-aware of, and the other we can actively improve.

Burnout is sly. We’re a high-achieving consultancy, where everyone is driven and knowledgeable and wants to do the best job possible, and instead of all working together at Reaktor HQ, we’re spread out across many team sites. Even with our great support systems and our warm, welcoming culture, it’s sometimes easy to be too hard on yourself in this environment. After all, it often looks like everyone else is doing just fine.

Our HR team is great about checking in with our teams, and getting involved as soon as they even as much as suspect burnout. But they’re often far away from our projects, and there’s plenty you can do before then to make sure you’re taking care of yourself and your teammates. The key to health and happiness is to monitor yourself, lower the bar for looking for help and make a change when needed. We probably can’t, at least very quickly, change the current working life but we can learn to cope in it.

At Reaktor, we’re constantly building new ways of keeping our teams happy and healthy. We’ll share more about our experiences soon. Have you built ways of checking in with yourself? Do you have any tips for staying on top of your own well-being at work? Tell us! You can find us on Twitter with @kmarju and @tsuzero handles.

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