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Burnout: The Silent Thief
Managing burnout during a time of uncertainty
There was a moment about a year ago when I was so burnt out that it was starting to affect every aspect of my life. It was the third month of lockdown, and I felt completely out of control. We no longer had help at home, so everything fell to us. My husband and I were driving my mom to doctors’ appointments for her cancer treatment and heart condition, cooking and cleaning for six, and managing online school for three very frustrated kids. At the same time, the demands on my time and energy at work ramped up as we scaled ecommerce in Facebook Marketplace, had a series of reorgs done remotely, and launched Shops.
I felt ill-tempered and short with everyone all the time. My insomnia got worse as my worries about everything I wasn’t getting done weighed on me. Our internet was spotty, and we didn’t have enough space in the house for everyone to have a private area (our youngest ended up doing school from her closet for half a year). One of our kids hated online school and refused to engage some days, and another kept falling behind as the anxiety ramped up with the pressures of Zoom lessons. Everyone was struggling with the stress of being cooped up together with no end in sight.
A thief had snuck into our home, and it was silently stealing our joy. I was talking to my career coach, Katia Verresen, at one point toward the end of June, and she said, “You need to recharge.” I was incredulous. Did she realize how much I had on my plate? She repeated what she said. I ignored her.
Katia saw the signs coming before I did. At our next two meetings, she kept saying the same thing: “Plan a time to recharge.” I hesitated. Finally, she told me, “Pick August and book it. Have your admin put it in the calendar. Next week when we meet, you will tell me it is done.”
I relented. I booked a month-long break, and we drove as a family to Arizona, where we met up with my sister and her family. We then returned home, and I spent a couple weeks catching up on everything.
Only while I was on recharge did it hit me: I was burnt out, and I didn’t even realize it until I had nearly hit the breaking point.
Burnout builds up slowly over time
Burnout is often not a single event; it is an accumulation of things that build up slowly over time. Most people don’t wake up one day frozen and unable to function. Rather, it is a steady erosion of your reserves that continues until you feel like you have nothing left. Depleted, you function on fumes, moving forward with limited capacity.
We often blame lack of self-care for burnout, but while self-care can stave it off, usually burnout is the result of something more fundamental: lack of control.
I liken much of our work and home lives to a wave. As long as you are on top of it, surfing it, you feel in control, but when it crashes down on you, you struggle to keep your head above the surface, flailing in the churning water.
Burnout is often most visible in hindsight
Many years ago, a member of my team was burnt out. They were struggling with the relentless pace of executive reviews and the expectations placed on our product. We talked about how much they hated how the job had become more PowerPoint presentations than building. I saw that they needed a change, but they didn’t see it.
After a few months, I asked them to consider taking another role that had less executive pressure. I could tell they were upset, but they agreed to look around. They landed an internal role much more suited to their passion. It took time for our relationship to get back to the place it had been, even though we still met up and connected on a regular basis. Finally, about nine months later, they told me, “I didn’t realize how burnt out I was until I was out of the situation. I just didn’t see it.”
This is the problem we often have. We are in the middle of a crisis, and all we can see is that there are a million things happening around us at once. What we can’t see is that we are standing in the middle of a hurricane.
Burnout has real costs
Burnout is not a new phenomenon, but with the stress of the past year, it has become even more commonplace. According to Indeed.com, 52 percent of the workforce is reporting feeling burnt out, a nine percentage point increase since before the pandemic (ref). Meanwhile, 42 percent of all respondents in a Deloitte study done prior to the pandemic said they had quit a job due to burnout (ref).
At one point, things got so untenable at home, I begged my husband to consider not working for the duration of the pandemic so that we could keep our household running. He had just interviewed for the General Counsel position at a great startup, but I was at my wits’ end. In the end, he was incredibly excited about the job, so we had to go to Plan B.
The pandemic changed so many things about who we are and what we do and added unexpected burdens to our new lives. Women, in particular, have dropped out of the workforce in unprecedented numbers since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. The cost of balancing work and household management has proven to be too much for many mothers, who are often responsible for managing homeschooling and virtual classes for their children. At the end of 2019, just before the pandemic, women’s workforce participation rate exceeded that of men for the first time in history. Now, eighteen months later, women are back to levels of workforce participation from 1998. Two decades of progress were wiped out during the pandemic (ref). Many women cited the burden of unpaid work, especially caregiving for children and elderly relatives, as a major driver for this sudden decline.
Burnout is hard to recognize
I struggled to see the impact of burnout on my life until my coach held up a mirror and asked me to think honestly about how it was affecting me. There was a level of desperation and frustration in my voice that she had never heard before in the decade we had worked together. Having her reflect the acuteness of my feelings back to me clarified just how much burnout had skewed my thinking.
The burnout thief steals your peace of mind, but it often doesn’t leave obvious tracks. Here is a quick checklist for assessing whether you are experiencing burnout. These were the things I struggled with when I felt burnt out, even though I could hide it from others most days. If you answer “true” to more than half of these, consider finding a path out of where you are.
I feel exhausted even after a good night's sleep
I lie awake thinking of all of the things I have to do
I feel powerless and unable to change my situation
I have so many people depending on me to take care of them
I don’t feel like I can keep up this pace much longer
I feel like I am failing at work, at home, or both
I am unable to or don’t know how to achieve what is expected of me
I don’t feel motivated to do the things I need to do
I dread getting up in the morning, especially on Mondays
I struggle with constant feelings of anxiety and isolation
Burnout requires specific action
The first step to reducing burnout is to understand your stressors. Start by writing down the top four or five things that are making you feel out of control. Then write down at least one thing you will do to address each stressor in the next month.
I pulled together my list and got to work addressing it. Some were small steps and others were large, but each helped me regain my sense of control and reduced the feeling of burnout that plagued me.
Stressor: Caring for my mother’s needs
Solution: Hire a new caregiver with strict Covid protocols for a few hours a day to take her to appointments and help her with daily tasks
Stressor: Managing the children’s schoolwork
Solution: Send the youngest back to in-person school. Hire a tutor to help with executive function in order to manage school work for the older one
Solution: Ask kids to take on more household chores. Invite cleaners to deep-clean the house while we were out of town
Solution: Set up no-meeting days for our team so that people can take PTO or get off-screen. Reduce meetings to 25 mins to get a 5 min break. Do walking 1:1 together via phone rather than Zoom meetings
Stressor: Allergies and migraines
Solution: Buy new HEPA filters for all of the rooms in the house. Replace air filters for air conditioning system
Unfortunately, not every problem has a tidy solution. The goal isn’t to solve everything, but rather to get enough of the balls you are juggling to land so that you have fewer in the air. This way, the responsibilities that remain are manageable, rather than frenetic.
Burnout is real, but we often don’t see it until it overwhelms us. By understanding the triggers and managing them, we can help inoculate ourselves and prevent them from overtaking our lives.
Each month, take stock of how you feel. When you start recognizing more of the above symptoms in your life, take a step back and address the issues at the heart of the problem, rather than letting them build until you hit the breaking point.