Who are you, and why did you decide to share your story?
I am a woman in my mid-thirties and I work in the humanitarian sector. During a recent long-term field assignment, I experienced what I later discovered to be burnout. At the time I had little knowledge about this mental health issue, so for a long time I simply ignored the signals my mind and my body were sending me.
By sharing my experience, I’d like to shed light on burnout, its symptoms and its consequences. In my sector there is still a lot of stigma around it, so I think that reading about others’ stories may be of help to those going through (or suspecting they are going through) the same experience.
When was the first time you became aware you were suffering from a mental health/wellness issue?
After a couple of years of tireless field work, I started realising there was something wrong. I was still as motivated as before, but I had become very cynical towards my job, harsh towards my staff and with little patience towards anyone coming on mission for short periods of time and pretending to understand the context I was operating in. I was also adopting negative coping mechanisms, such as nervous eating, over(social)drinking and self-destructive dating choices. But the turning point was when I broke into tears in a colleague’s office after receiving an email with negative feedback on a field visit I had led.
I was not able to stop crying, and my colleague had no idea how to calm me down. After that episode, I decided to have regular calls with a therapist, who helped me understand what I was going through and gave me tools so I could to identify (or maybe re-define) my priorities in life. It was essential for me to do therapy in my mother tongue which was not available where I was, but at the same time I had to find someone who had worked in the humanitarian world and could therefore understand its dynamics. Thanks to those sessions, I was able to “keep going” for about another year.
I was under the illusion that I had my mind under control and I was already planning to take a sabbatical year when I had a complete physical meltdown. I went on a hike with friends and I was unable to walk, my legs shaken by cramps; a couple of weeks after I got malaria, another unknown infection and an allergic reaction to insect bites. I was not able to fall asleep, seeing insects everywhere in my room, nor to wake up in the morning.
At that point I knew I couldn’t take it any longer and that I had completely run out of batteries. I ended up returning home earlier than expected for medical reasons, and in a couple of days I left the country abruptly,saying goodbye to only a few select friends.
It took me about nine months to recover fully and to be able to take control of my life again. During these months I cried a lot, slept a lot, spent time with my family, and generally took care of myself by practising yoga, doing sports, spending time in nature and eating well.
How did taking those steps make you feel, and have they helped?
It has now been almost a year since I consider myself – and can confidently say that I am well and I feel happy, despite the way Covid19 has changed my (and everyone’s) life. Ultimately, therapy certainly helped me to start dealing with my situation, but it was not sufficient as I kept being exposed to the same stressors including living in a challenging place, a heavy workload, a deep feeling of loneliness and a poor work-life balance. Taking a sabbatical to return home was exactly what I needed, and I wish I had done it earlier.
What are your lessons learned with regards to mental health, and work?
I would say that the main thing I learned is that the journey towards mental wellbeing never ends. The deterioration of one’s mental health (or its improvement) is progressive, so you have to take steps daily to maintain good mental health. Burnout allowed me to get to know myself better, and to acknowledge my boundaries (I don’t like to call them limits).
It has certainly changed my attitude towards work. I am still working in the same field, I still care about my career and I am still engaged towards my work, but I am no longer willing to sacrifice my interests and quality time with the people I love because of it. I am still up for working long hours and enduring stressful situations when needed, but this shall be an exception rather than the rule.
What are you doing today, to actively manage your mental health?
Ever since my burnout experience, I try to pay daily attention to my mental health. It is essential for me to preserve a good work-life balance and to put boundaries when needed. Small steps such as turning off email notifications on my mobile phone after I finish a day’s work or during holidays, or making sure to leave the office (or home office, in these pandemic times!) on time for my yoga class can make a huge difference.
Over the past couple of years I have learned to recognize the symptoms of stress and anxiety, and to keep them under control. Finally, I will not be ashamed anymore to seek professional help should I feel that I do not have the tools or the lucidity to preserve my mental health on my own.
What would you like to say to someone who is suffering in silence from a mental health issue?
I think the first step is for someone to recognise to themselves that something is not ok. This process may take some time, and it’s possible you might react badly when questioned about your mental health.
My recommendation is to listen to yourself and to the people who care about you. Self-acceptance is key to start healing from a mental health issue. In the specific case of burnout, my suggestion is to avoid hitting rock bottom and to take active steps to avoid reaching the burnout threshold.
What are your next steps?
I would like to stop seeing my burnout experience as something that limits my career choices and rather turn it into an opportunity. I recently completed a training on mental health first aid organized by MHFA England and l would like to progressively specialise in staff well-being.
Where can people find you?
If you wish to get in touch, feel free to reach out to Emma for my contact details.