Stress, by definition, is our perception that we cannot cope with the demands placed on us. When we experience chronic stress, we burn out. When we burn out, we usually are very aware of the external factors or the demands on us that contributed to our stress. But sometimes we see them as individual pieces instead of part of a puzzle.
After interviewing several burnout survivors and hearing about the various environmental stressors that contributed to their burnout, I thought it would be important to dedicate an entire article to how our outside world affects us internally. As you read these three case studies, consider which circumstances put you over the edge.
The Story of Jacqueline Kerr
Dr Jacqueline Kerr was a public health professor and in the top one percent of most cited scientists worldwide. Her story and a big contributor to her burnout relates to being a Feeler.
At work, Jacqueline worked hard to receive large research grants. Even when she would be awarded sums as large as $10 million, sometimes no one would pay attention to her because perhaps another researcher landed a grant that was twice the amount. This was discouraging to say the least.
On top of research, Jacqueline managed a team of 40 staff and students. Because she was a professor, she was also teaching. She did work in the community to build more supportive environments and age-friendly environments for older adults.
Outside of work, Jacqueline is a mother of two and it was crucial for her to be “the best mom” she could possibly be.
Already we can see a lot of internal pressure to perform and to be the best in a number of contexts.
There were additional challenges to contend with. Jacqueline’s son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum and he was struggling at school. Naturally, Jacqueline wanted to support her son.
In addition to two kids, the family had a dog. As a dutiful owner, Jacqueline ran her dog every day. These runs were also part of her self-care. She wanted to prevent getting cancer and heart disease knowing her family history.
But if that weren’t enough, the family decided one day to also get a puppy. This made the runs stressful. In her words, “I had just had enough and I was exhausted.”
What happens when you take a very capable and caring woman and pile on endless demands at work and at home? You get burnout.
“I was crying on the way to work. I was crying on the way home. You know, I felt like a bad mom, a bad friend, a bad colleague, a bad manager. I just was so unhappy with who I was, how I was parenting and it just seemed so impossible.”
The internal message was clear. You have to do it all. You have to be there for everyone. So when burnout rears its ugly head, the interpretation our brain gives us is that we are “bad.” In fact, it got to a point where Jacqueline contemplated suicide. She wrote a letter to her kids to apologize to them about not doing enough.
Luckily, Jacqueline confided in her husband who supported her in seeing a therapist and taking a leave of absence from work. This helped Jacqueline realize how much she’d been suppressing her feelings.
And while coming back to work after a three month hiatus was challenging, Jacqueline became clear that the demands weren’t going to die down and that it was up to her to make a change.
“The stress hit me like a truck. I went back into the environment that was also so stressful and didn’t know how to say no. The first day back at work, I had three students come to me and say, ‘Can you mentor me’ around this particular area of science that I was an expert?
And I felt terrible because I knew I had to say no, and I didn’t know how to say no. And I just felt like this is never going to end. I just can’t do this thing where I keep getting asked to do more. I tend to slip into that overwork and over-responsibility, taking it all on my shoulders quite easily.”
If nothing else, burnout was a wakeup call for Jacqueline that she needed to take it slower. For her this translated into transitioning out of her job and into a new role, this time as an entrepreneur.
The Story of Tracy Bingaman
For nearly 10 years, Tracy Bingaman was a surgery PA. She describes herself as “a hard driving person who likes to achieve and get things done.” She loves “fast paced, high acuity medicine” so from that perspective, her placement was perfect.
Tracy admittedly loved her work and the surgeons she worked with. What she didn’t love was how much she was working and bringing work home with her, “whether it was logistically to chart at home in the evenings” or just “carrying the burden of the heavy weight of what I was doing during the day home.”
If Tracy’s energy could be described as water in a cup, she was pouring everything into work. Yes, she loved her job, but her job also loved her for it.
She was super productive. When they needed someone to fill a new position or join a committee, Tracy was the person who’d volunteer.
It’s like a love affair except that the person you’re dating is a taker and you are the giver. At some point, you realize the relationship isn’t balanced.
On average, Tracy worked five 12-hour days. Sometimes she’d have a 16-hour call shift overnight in between two 12-hour shifts at the hospital. And during those call shifts, she might be answering 10 calls an hour. In her words, “It was insane.”
She’d be up all night. And even when she didn’t have these extra shifts, she’d work and work and then come home to five kids.
We all have 24 hours in a day so when we work such long hours, the consequence is we miss dinner with the family, we miss bath time and bedtime with the kids, and we run ourselves ragged.
We might think of this as too much of a good thing, so much so that the imbalance shows up in our body as well. Tracy developed insomnia, anxiety, pneumonia, and after experiencing her heart rate at 200 beats per minute, she found herself in the ER where she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism.
Clearly, Tracy was burning out. The challenge, though, when you’re in it is to see what’s happening to you. And sometimes when you have a clue, your mind just pushes it away and you find yourself with a story to make sense of it all. This was Tracy’s story:
“Even up until the moment that I was in the ER with severe tachycardia, I thought it was fine. I thought it was normal. I thought the way that I was feeling, it’s just how working moms feel. We have a lot of things going on. A lot of balls in the air. I’m just going to feel exhausted and bone tired for the next 18 years. And then my kids will move out and magically things will get better.”
So why do we do this? Tracy admits she liked “being needed.” But her daughter pointed out that she was just being “stupid” working as much as she was. That was an aha moment where Tracy realized this was no longer serving her and she resigned.
The Story of Linda Walker
Linda’s burnout began after she was promoted to a role she was not trained to do. Clearly, her manager could see her potential, but Linda was stuck in a state of low self-efficacy where her belief in her ability did not match her true ability to do the work successfully.
In an effort to prove to herself and others that she was capable, Linda put in 12-hour days, took work home, and even worked on weekends. She admits to being very demanding of herself, so there was internal pressure to perform at a high level.
When we lack the resources to meet the demands on us we become stressed. Linda’s second contributing stress factor was not having enough job resources to get her work done.
Sometimes stress comes from circumstances bigger than ourselves. At Linda’s place of work, there was a lot of turnover. She describes going through five different bosses and managing the politics in the office, both of which were burdensome.
Finally, Linda didn’t give herself time to plan. She explains that people like her with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) struggle with planning, thinking things through, and prioritizing. “It requires prefrontal cortex work and ADHD affects the prefrontal cortex, the executive functioning of the brain.”
As she entered the land of burnout, Linda’s health declined. She developed pneumonia twice. At work, she experienced further challenges with her executive functioning. As she explains, “My brain was just completely unable to pick up any information, any knowledge, make any decisions. Everything seems so exhausting. And I would cry at nothing.”
When she wasn’t at work, she was unable to be present with her family, mostly because she was still working from home or because she was thinking about work.
One day, she was finally having dinner with her family and said, “Wow! It’s so nice to have the whole family here for once.” That’s when her youngest child looked at her and said, “Mom, you don’t get it. We’re always here together. You’re just never here with us.” This was the beginning of Linda’s wake up call.
When the Demands Exceed Our Resources
Fast paced industries like academia, medicine, and big pharma expect their workers to not only produce large quantities of work but to produce quality work. The expectations to work long shifts, to take on additional responsibilities, or manage roles for which you aren’t trained can wreak havoc on your psyche and body, especially when there aren’t enough resources. This translates into working longer and longer hours and taking work home with you.
Psychologically, you might struggle with imposter syndrome or low self-efficacy. You might have a desire to prove that you can step up to the plate as you make your way up the corporate ladder or try to get tenured.
What makes it all the more challenging is when you have added stressors like office politics, or on the home front you have a family you want to be present for, a child with special needs you want to attend to, or a puppy you need to train.
Sometimes the demands we put on ourselves contribute to the overall sense of burden we feel. This is true whether you aren’t giving yourself time to plan, whether you take on too many volunteer or community projects, or whether you expect yourself to be the best in your field or as a parent.
If you’re working yourself ragged like Jacqueline, Tracy, or Linda, there is a reason for it. Perhaps like Tracy, you like to feel needed. For each one of us it might be a bit different, but at the end of the day, you are filling an unmet need. When that need is met in some way, work becomes even more enticing. Unfortunately, sometimes you end up feeling under-appreciated despite giving your all.
We can’t expect our workplace to put boundaries in place for us. While the culture is slowly changing, we are the ones that have to be self-aware of our energy, take responsibility for the give-take equation, and get our needs met in a way that leaves us feeling fulfilled as well as balanced.
The bottom line is that you’re not supposed to feel bone tired even when you have a lot of balls in the air. There is no magic that will make things better. It’s up to you to make your life whatever you want it to be.
Burnout can be a wake up call when your body gives out on you, when you become suicidal, or when your kid makes you realize the truth of the situation. Whatever your wakeup call is, make sure you listen.
If you’re burning out, download the Burnout Checklist to see which stage you are in and what you need to focus on to recover. Go to: www.drsharongrossman.com/burnoutchecklist