Burnout is an onion
And recovery requires you to patiently peel back those onion layers
Late last year—as in, days before the Christmas break—I walked away from my job for the same reasons. I had hit a wall and it was impacting my physical and emotional health. I equate my burnout to a raw onion: it makes your eyes water, leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and can cause indigestion.
I had had enough. My body had had enough. Right before I packed it in, every work email was triggering a fight or flight response: sheer panic about more tasks and responsibilities landing on my plate.
Post-resignation hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park. It’s been messy and complicated. And it still feels like an onion, where peeling back the layers of recovery requires strength. Not to mention patience in dealing with that sticky onion layer that doesn’t want to let go.
As I’ve peeled these layers back in my own life, I’d like to share with you some of the layers I’ve been through, in hopes that they might help you in your journey back from burnout.
1. Get comfortable with discomfort (yours and others). The discomfort is just one of many layers you need to peel away, and this one has multiple layers. I’ve had many sleepless nights since I left my job. At first, it was all about my brain processing what had led to the moment when I decided that quitting that very day was the best action. The discomfort here came from reliving a lot of little things that, taken on their own, shouldn’t cause employee burnout. But added up with all the other little things, well, let’s just say the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
The next layer of discomfort came from thinking about my colleagues. I felt like I was letting them down by leaving with work on my plate, some of which they would have to pick up and manage along with their own workloads. Unmanageable workloads seem to be quite common in many workplaces, and a wise friend advised me that it wasn’t my responsibility to sort it out for everyone.
A further layer of discomfort reflected back on my actions, when I started thinking, “what was I thinking?!” You know, that I quite possibly made a wrong choice. In the end, I know in my heart that I made the best choice—the only choice--for me at the time. The discomfort comes from acknowledging and sitting with these uncomfortable thoughts, instead of dismissing them outright.
2. Take some time. At some point, I’ll return to paid work, of that I am sure. But for the moment, I’m taking time for myself—to breathe, to recover, to reset. Of course, I’m still promoting my books and thinking about new books that I might write in the future. But if and when I do return to the paid workforce, my books will once again become a weekend side hustle. For now, though, I’m enjoying having time on weekdays to work on them, with no pressure. I hope you too are able to take some time to recover.
3. Reject the tired recruiting belief about “finding a job while you still have a job.” Have you had someone spout these supposed words of wisdom to you? That the “best time to find a job is when you already have a job.” Have you said them yourself? I would argue that’s not always true. If you’re suffering from even the early stages of burnout and you jump ship for another organization, you’ll just transfer your burnout baggage to another employer. While it can be considerably less stressful to job hunt when you’re currently receiving a regular paycheque, it may be tough to present your best self during interviews if you’re already burnt out. Take it from me. Enough said.
4. Be kind to yourself. It can be easy to feel like it’s your fault when your mental wellbeing takes a hit in the workplace—as it does in the case of burnout. It’s not your fault you are experiencing burnout. I tell myself that every day; maybe one of these days I’ll truly believe it. And I hope the same goes for you. Remember why you left in the first place. It was the best choice at the time, so don’t feel guilty that you cut and ran—and I’ll endeavour to keep it in mind too. Bottom line, you need to look out for yourself.
Conclusion. There you have it, my onion layers I’ve been examining as I reset and move beyond burnout. I’m sure I’ll discover more layers, more lessons. When I do, I’ll share them with you. For the record, I try to keep my eyes dry as I peel onions, with varying degrees of success.
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Amanda Sterczyk is an international author, Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM), an Exercise is Medicine Canada (EIMC) Fitness Professional, and a Certified Essentrics® Instructor.