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Breaking The Stigma Associated With Burnout

Our individual identities are tightly wound around how we make money. That is, how you make money has turned out to be who you are as a person. [Read that again]


Nastassja Wessels
Nastassja Wessels

With Covid-19 and our decontextualised workplace confusing the boundaries between home and office this state of being has thrived. We are in a constant state of uncertainty and confusion while navigating a challenging home-work balance working from home. If you are unemployed or lack an income, you’ll know better than most just how much of your identity you may have lost. We are all unaware of this perpetual identity crisis caused by our careers or lack thereof. A passion for grind perhaps once ignited by the promise of a fulfilled future has some of us slowly burning out.


By now it is well known that in 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially placed Burnout on its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). This happened about a month or two after I got diagnosed with what was medically called ‘adrenal fatigue’ and conversationally known as burnout. Although, the WHO does not recognise it as a medical condition.


“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” according to the WHO. “Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life,” they said.

It is strange that stress is treated like a prescribed condition for employment and that the onus somehow is on the employed to manage it. Also, the use of ‘chronic workplace stress’ feels deliberate here, doesn’t it? As if the victim of burnout somehow has a predisposition to workplace stress? Toxic workplaces, however, are as much to blame as over-working yourself into burnout. If a toxic workplace caused your burnout, you are a victim. That’s how I see it.


Dimensions Of Burnout


The WHO listed three dimensions of burnout, namely, a) exhaustion, b) an unusually negative mindset or sense of dread, and c) the eventual brain fog or “loss of professional efficacy” – everything caused by mismanaging your workplace stress. It is that last dimension which is what led to my eventual visit to the doctor… I had emphatically confessed: “My brain stopped working!”


When I was diagnosed, I had only been six arduous months into a new position at an organisation that vastly differed from my previous employer – a culture shock in every sense. A long, dark passage greeted me in the morning and few colleagues felt comfortable enough to enter my office without looking over their shoulders. I also had the office nobody wanted, unbeknownst to me – I thought it was the best office! It was a corner office, positioned at the entrance, and also near one of the friendliest people I would come to know yet.


And so, my office was also where a normal conversation would default into a nervous whisper. Outside the door was where toxic energy pooled, which somehow determined the trajectory of everyone’s day. That is, an oppressive air was felt almost instantly by the arrival of certain people.


Conversely, when they were not present, the rest of the department managed a fine line between being at our most productive and also being at our least. This was when we could brainstorm creative ideas a lot more freely, as opposed to mechanically churning out work – a different kind of productive if you will.


Damned if I do, damned if I don’t


There is a laundry list of factors that I believe contributed to my eventual chronic fatigue, depression, frequent illnesses such as headaches, gut issues, and severe bouts of endometriosis-related flares.


None of these ailments had to do with working myself to a standstill because I’d managed my stress by taking regular vacation days, among other types of coping mechanisms. I even took a leave day just two months in after an aggressively busy period. You see, I had worked the way Meredith Grey (Grey’s Anatomy) once described: “Why do I keep hitting my head with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.”


I was passionate, achieved great strides in my career, and was looking to take up space and be the change. At the new place, I worked hard when working smart wasn’t good enough. I did the work of others, when support was lacking. I did more homework than I had ever done, took care to make informed decisions and sound proposals, solicited input where needed, pushed for creativity, innovation, and diversity of input from others, and yet in the end it just wasn’t good enough for the powers that be.


Have you ever avoided certain tasks because you could predict the outcome of a piece based on the approval process involved? This way of working led to a damned if I do, damned if I don’t situation, and therefore an excessive amount of over-thinking for menial tasks.


I would eventually give in to the paranoia that I simply was not good enough. I’d constantly ask myself if they were right to boldly declare in my first week, unprovoked around the office despite my being legitimately employed, “She wasn’t my choice therefore I won’t show her around!” If only this was an isolated occurrence. It wasn’t.

What I can only describe as ‘sabotage’ aside, I had several colleagues who believed that my victories were theirs too. Unfortunately, my triumphs were big and celebrated by those who dared to. But where success followed, so did rebuke.


A few arbitrary rules had to be broken to work the broken system. The most important rule being, do not talk to the (production) team without permission. Usually this meant you wouldn’t talk to team at all, yet everyone needed the team in order to meet their goals, creatively or otherwise.


When I would flout these rules, whether it came my way or the rest of the department’s way, we knew the punishment would be great, i.e., the next attempt at working together would be blocked when the goal posts would shift yet again, and some contradictory and arbitrary line would be created to ensure failure.


When there were, in fact, victories, there were also narratives spreading across the office about my lack of expertise, inability to cope, and, oh! who could forget, “She’s not a team player”. This after I was told that as a manager, I was spending too much time talking to lower level employees, i.e., trying to be productive and all. It was the quintessential toxic workplace, indeed.


Toxic Workplace Culture


Interestingly, toxic workplace culture, bullying, and perverse forms of abuse of power have recently been recognised as contributing factors to burnout. These experiences led to my diagnosis because it shook my identity in ways I didn’t think would be possible. Whatever I told the doctor that day was always qualified with, “This isn’t who I am.”


It took me about a month to take the step of reporting my diagnosis to the powers and booking myself off sick. I’m so glad I did.


It took coming back to work after (nearly) three months to realise the burnout wasn’t exhaustion from over-working. It was exhaustion from the constant mental gymnastics I had been playing for six months just to get any semblance of work done.

Together with my doctor, who I had continued to see upon returning to work, I realised that I was the victim of a toxic workplace culture.


Why did I only realise this when I got back to work? Because little changed in the environment, except for my reaction to it. The workload didn’t lessen and neither did the systemic problems. Not to mention, problems that I had been assured would be addressed with problematic individuals who contribute to the toxic culture had taken a backseat as productivity took priority instead.


In the three months of sick leave, I opted not to take anti-depressants, as prescribed. I’m glad I made that decision (in consultation with my doctor, of course), although I know many people do need it. Honestly, it had nothing to do with stigma and everything to do with wanting to go the natural route. So, I went on a vitamin regimen curated by my medical doctor.


The way it was explained to me was that my body was in constant fight or flight mode; that it caused a chemical imbalance and that vitamins, regular exercise, and changes in lifestyle would help restore the imbalance.

As cynical as I can be at times, I have to say that after almost exactly three months of diligently taking my vitamins and following doctor’s orders, I felt a wonderful sense of physical and mental wellness.


It was as if a dark veil had lifted. I was receptive to the world around me. I felt good. I found a new passion – gardening. I was looking forward to putting my newly found coping mechanisms to good use and achieving success despite my challenges and despite the people around me.


I was also sent to an occupational therapist – another tool that I would recommend whether you are experiencing burnout or not. I wish I had gone in my twenties, in fact. I learned a great deal about myself during those sessions – my work identity, and my personal identity, my triggers and coping mechanisms to help me on my way. The crisis calmed down; harmony was being restored.


It’s not all perfect. Some personal damage remains and others in the workplace have come to realise the impact of my diagnosis on their own experience. As things changed, but somehow still remained the same, it became clear that I needed to leave to fully heal from my experience and become the asset I know I am for the next workplace.


The leadership took some steps to combat some of the issues I experienced when I left, the effects of which remain to be seen. But one thing is for sure: who I am now, is no longer tightly wound around how I make money.


Author: Nastassja Wessels

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