Myth: burnout is an extreme condition

Extreme burnout

I was recently speaking with a friend who is on sick leave from her job. She’s been through a lot in her personal life and finally her doctor decided she needed to take time off. When we met, she started asking me questions about my burnouts. I could sense she was curious and trying to understand more, perhaps trying to decide if she herself was burned out. And in this conversation several times she said to me “yeah but you were never on sick leave, right”? Or “yes but you never reached the stage where you couldn’t get out of bed, right”? And then it occurred to me: she was trying to check if I’d had a “real burnout”, where real burnout equated with an extreme condition in which you literally can’t get out of bed any more and have to take sick leave.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while then you’ll know people here have shared stories like that, where their body shut down and told them “we’re done”. I also talked about it in a video exploring “what is burnout trying to tell us“? And while this kind of extreme burnout can happen, I think it’s important to remember a few things. First, when it comes to mental health there’s no “one size fits all”. While the goal of this blog is to show that you’re not alone and others have experienced what you have, we are all unique, every experience will look a little different. The other thing is that burnout doesn’t have to be extreme. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing, on sick leave for months, can’t get out of bed type of thing. You can burnout and continue working, just like I – and I’m sure many of you did.

What is burnout?

A quick Google search revealed many definitions, some saying “burnout is a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion” or simply “physical and emotional exhaustion”. These definitions also come with a list of symptoms which can help you determine whether or not you are burned out and are helpful if you’re just starting to look into the topic. But as a reader of this blog you will know that I’m a strong believer in “knowing yourself” – meaning what are your personal signs you’re burned out? What are your limits? When do you feel energized vs. what drains you? It will look different for everyone on a physical and emotional level.

If you asked me what my definition of burnout is I’d say: it’s when you hit the wall. It’s when you can no longer keep going any more, when you feel like you’ve given every last bit of mental, physical and emotional energy inside you. When you feel like you’re going to drop from exhaustion. When you feel on edge, wired, jumpy, frazzled… And instinctively you know things just aren’t right and you can’t keep doing this. It will be unique to you, but here is a video I made in which I talk about my symptoms.

Different types of burnout

For my perspective there are different types of burnout that sit on a scale from mild to extreme. In the mild case you may be only feeling slightly irritable and tired, but more so than usual and you’re starting to notice something is off. While in the extreme case like I mentioned, your body will shut down and you won’t be able to get out of bed.

But just because you didn’t suffer an extreme burnout doesn’t make it any less real. It doesn’t mean you didn’t feel terrible nonetheless, nor does it mean than in order for your burnout to be valid it has to be extreme. As anyone who has been there will know, the mental distress you are suffering in any kind of work (or personal) situation and its toll is real. The way it makes you feel, the exhaustion, the nerves… It’s something you wish you didn’t have to experience. And you don’t have to reach extreme burnout in order to take time off work, get the sick leave, or make the changes you need. In fact, by the time you’ve reached that point it’s already too late because your body is sending out the ultimate alarm signal so you finally take notice.

When do I “qualify” for burnout?

Only you will know whether or not you’re burnt out. Of course you can get a professional opinion or confirmation but if it feels real to you then that’s the truth and you should listen to it. Don’t doubt yourself, don’t compare your situation to someone else’s either. Most importantly: if you feel you need a break, take it. Listen to your intuition.

Let me give you two personal examples. In my first burnout I’ve honestly never been more unhappy, exhausted or on edge. I’d never experienced these levels of stress and insomnia before, it was awful. But I was in denial, I believed I could cope with the situation and just power through. I told myself I was making it up, I tried to ignore the signs, I wanted to prove myself… So I used my inner strength and resilience to keep going through this tough situation. A bit like continuing to run a marathon even though you’re in pain and you’ve not trained enough, but through some super human strength you make it.

In hindsight I should have seen those signs early on and used them to start making changes such as setting better boundaries, speaking up for myself, getting better sleep etc. But I didn’t know any better and I didn’t want to give up (the I’m not a quitter mentality) so I didn’t call the doctor, call in sick, or go on sick leave.

In the second scenario I’d just come back from a holiday abroad and I was DESPERATE. I mean really desperate, I couldn’t handle the thought of going to work any more, the mere thought of it made me sick, anxious, nervous. I wanted to get out but I felt so trapped because I didn’t have another job lined up and I depended on the income. Trapped because I couldn’t risk quitting without being punished by the system (in Switzerland they withhold your benefits for 3 months if you quit of your own accord). Trapped because I wanted sick leave but I didn’t know how to take it. I was scared the doctor wouldn’t grant it to me and even if he did, that I would lose my job and no one would want to hire me because I had burned out – a sign of weakness.

So I just kept on working and “powering through” my struggles because honestly there was no other solution available to me. Luckily I’m quite resilient so I never reached the point where my body shut down on me, but that doesn’t make my burnouts any less real. It was a bad and difficult time that is still hard to remember. In both of those cases the burnout felt real to me, mentally it was a struggle and probably if someone had offered me sick leave I would have taken it. But just because I wasn’t officially off doesn’t mean I wasn’t “officially” burned out.

Burnout is real and it’s a scale

Although nowadays burnout is more talked about, a myth still persists that it’s an extreme condition and that unless you’ve experienced that state maybe your burnout isn’t “real”. But like I said at the start, it looks and feels different for everyone. Don’t believe you have to experience something so extreme to validate your burnout or to make it “real”. Likewise don’t feel that you have to justify it to people or that only if you experienced the extreme situation will you be taken seriously. If you feel able to, take the time to explain what you felt and what made it real for you – just like I did with my friend.

If you’re feeling burnt out – even the slightest signs – then seek help. Make sure you talk about it and make changes if you’re able to, to try and prevent it. Remember that by the time you reach the extreme state it’s a big glaring alarm signal so do your best to avoid it. You can get help from all sorts of institutions, coaches, therapy, and nowadays increasingly in the workplace.

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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