From flat out to burnt out. What I wish I knew then. An honest reflection by coach, culture and leadership facilitator, Tina Daisley.

I was spending 90% of my working week in meetings either in person, on the phone or video conference. The other 10% of the week I would then flow over into my evenings where I’d find myself working 4+ hours to ‘do’ my job, responding to emails, sorting through the emails to work out what people actually wanted and why I was on it (!), approvals, requests, team acknowledgement, and then when I was exhausted and at my worst, I’d do my strategic thinking and planning.

As an organisation we talked about it all the time. We spend too much time in meetings. We aren’t being productive. Our meetings have no outcomes. We should….. We need to…. But we didn’t. We all kept going. Because we were doing something that mattered. We had to. Because if we didn’t, what would happen?

Then I got sick. Pretty sick. And so I simply couldn’t do all those meetings. My team were amazing and swept in with support and systems to streamline everything. And we delegated. We’d prioritise what I actually NEEDED to do for the 4 hours I was in the office. Meetings rarely made the list. It always started with talking to my team. What’s happened in the last couple days? What are the priorities for you today? What do you need from me while I’m here?

Then my EA would tell me the meetings I WASN’T going to, and who was going to them for me.

By then more than half my day was gone so I’d spend the rest of it setting direction, providing clarity, chasing up things at a senior level, and whipping through only the urgent emails. (kind of sounds like being a leader right?!)

I also wasn’t allowed to log onto my emails AT ALL when I wasn’t in the office. Not on my phone. Not on my laptop. Doctors’ orders. Disconnect. So I did.

I’d gone from working 60 -70 hour weeks, to 12 hour weeks and it was HARD! I had to let go of so many things. I had to listen to the people supporting me and trust their judgement 100%. I couldn’t waste time getting into things that I wasn’t going to have an impact on.

Was it easy? Was it a relief? NO! It was torture. I’d been this person who felt like I had my finger on the pulse, juggling multiple balls, being relied on by others, delivering, delivering, delivering, squeezing two days work or more into every one.

It was like coming off a drug. I’d literally be sitting on the couch next to my husband at night, my hands fidgeting and twitching, because I wasn’t on my laptop or phone. I found I couldn’t sit and watch a TV show and just do that, because for the past 3 years if I was sitting down ‘relaxing’ I had my computer on my knee while I watched the latest on netflix or movie nights with my kids.

I slowly started to realise, and then even more slowly acknowledge, that I had a bit of a problem. I’d trained myself out of the ability to stop, to slow down. I had built up a trillion little tricks to play on myself to be able to say I had down time, but really it was just that I was in my trackies, or on the floor with legos, or ‘watching’ a movie with my husband….but really, I didn’t stop. I was working. I was emailing. I was checking. I was thinking, oh how I was thinking. And I had a lot going on. I was getting stuff done. I was writing papers. I was signing off policies. I was talking at meetings. I was having ideas. Tick tick tick.

Except on reflection I wasn’t doing any of it well. Of course I wasn’t, because I was constantly juggling any number of ‘things’ – physically, let alone what was going on in my head!

I looked tired, I was tired, yet I couldn’t sleep. I told people I loved my job, but looking back, I’d actually built a clever little filter that I had slipped over my ability to reflect; effectively I’d boxed off a part of my emotional intelligence. Because to be frank, it was getting in the way. My strengths of self-reflection, tapping into others feelings, thinking about impacts on people around me, understanding how mybehaviour impacted on others, understanding my weaknesses when I was overly stressed….they all became irritants. They got in the way and would slow me down.

They made me second guess what I was doing. Was I doing the right thing? Was this job worth it? When was the last time I genuinely laughed? When was the last time I had fun, heart and soul absorbing fun with my kids? When had I last had a good night’s sleep? Why do I feel like I could cry at the drop of the hat? Why was I crying after meetings, driving home, sitting in the work basement?

Because I couldn’t answer those questions and was convinced there were no real solutions or attractive answers, I stopped asking myself. I stopped reflecting. I stopped thinking about how I felt and why.

As a very wise colleague of mine recently said, I effectively eroded my emotional intelligence.

So last year I found myself sitting in my GPs office crying, saying I didn’t know why. Then sitting with my new psychologist, unable to finish a sentence, unable to articulate what it was that had me so paralysed. When I was talking to my boss not able to explain or even work out what I needed at work to help me get back.

For about 6 or 7 weeks I would be having these conversations, genuinely baffled by what was the matter with me. I would sit there saying over and over I don’t know why I can’t just….? Why do I….? Why can’t I just suck it up? Why now after 3 years was I unable to keep going?

I didn’t know the answers because I’d stopped listening to myself. I’d taught myself to stop. And then just as my leadership skills and practices were slipping, so too did my EQ. I was de-skilling in so many ways.

With the help of a truly amazing group of support people, I was able to slowly tap back into those skills of reflection and communication. I was able to work out why I was feeling like this and what my body was telling me. I was able to start seeing what everybody else had been seeing for months, if not a year or so.

I’d burned myself out.

Could I have stopped it? Yep. Were there signs? Bucket loads! Would I do it differently if I had my time over? You bet.

Looking back, what were those signs?

Emotional highs and lows. I’d always been extroverted, always wore my heart on my sleeve. But this was starting to be a bit different. I’d increasingly be really motivated and positive, or flat, feeling disappointed or overwhelmed.   The highs and lows were slowly becoming more common.

Becoming more critical. Of myself. Of our decisions. But mostly, it started with increased criticism of myself. Feeling like I couldn’t get it right. Feeling like I wasn’t enough. Feeling like I needed to do more. Thinking I wasn’t doing my job. Thinking if I just worked harder, I’d do better.

Avoiding socialising. I was busy, busy working, busy being busy, working such long hours, at first I’d decline catching up with friends because I literally just didn’t have time. Then it was because I was too tired. If I wasn’t working, I just wanted to relax at home. Not talk. Not answer the phone. Not see anyone. And I definitely didn’t want to answer questions like ‘how are you going?’, ‘what have you been up to?’…. Because my answer had pretty consistently become ‘same same’. I had nothing to say. The rare times I did socialise it was mostly with people from work. We’d share our stories of exhaustion, laugh at the collective folly, talk about how it would pass soon, talk about how important it was we kept going; basically we’d validate each other. But then even that became too much. I was working a lot and sleeping a bit. Well…? At least I was in bed. Generally tossing and turning and getting up in the wee hours making notes of the thing that had woken me and couldn’t get out of my mind.

Forgetting stuff. I’d always had an excellent memory. Until I didn’t. It crept up on me. I’d be sitting in a meeting talking then forget what I was saying mid-sentence. I thought nothing of it. Then I’d forget names. I put it down to being tired. Then I started to forget conversations. I didn’t even realise! But my team did. And they told me. But I didn’t listen. I’ve always had a great memory, obviously they were getting tired too, it couldn’t possibly be me!

Not wanting to be home, not wanting to be at work. I wanted to be nowhere. At home the kids (at the time about 3 and 5 years old) would drive me crazy! Always talking. Laughing. Asking questions. Not wanting to go to bed. Wanting just one more story. At work I felt like everyone needed a piece of me and I was letting everyone down.

Couldn’t throw my cold. For months. And months. A cold that just wouldn’t go away. Thinking to myself regularly ‘I must be coming down with something’ because I was flat, had no energy but couldn’t sleep, a constant niggling headache. Must have been a cold coming on right, what else could it be?!

Chocolate and coffee, coffee and chocolate. I probably don’t need to explain this one. I was constantly looking for the artificial energy, the bit of oomph to just keep going. The delicious comfort of a yummy chocolate or piece of cake some thoughtful colleague would put on my desk throughout the day. Or just an excuse to leave my desk for 5 minutes to get a coffee! (It never occurred to me to buy a mineral water or just walk around the block instead!)

Sarcasm and cynicism. My humour became sarcastic. My inner dialogue began to get cynical. Yet, I had always been the person at work who was positive, motivated, excited. 15 years ago at an internal leadership retreat I was called ‘Big Kev’, because I was so excited…and that was starting to look pretty distant.

Creating a bubble. My husband is and was my rock. Yet you’ll notice I’ve not mentioned him until now. And that’s sort of how it was. I started to take my husband for granted. I didn’t have the energy to think about investing in our relationship. It took all I had to even fake play with the kids when I was home, there was nothing left to be a wife or a friend! I’d effectively built a little bubble around my life that allowed me to think my two daily obligations were my job and then my kids. In that order sadly. With no room for anything else.

Most people reading this will have at times experienced one, some or all of these feelings. I’m not saying that that means you’ve burned out. But what I am saying, what I’m asking, is that you just be aware. Notice those changes. Take a step back. Make an effort to have a bit more harmony in your day tomorrow. Go to bed a little bit earlier tonight. Walk around the block instead of going to get a coffee after a crappy meeting.

I’m sharing this because to be honest, it was a LinkedIn article that I read while I was on sick leave that was like a light bulb. I’ve tried to find that article again and haven’t been able to, but it was sharing the 10 or 11 phases to burnout….and when I read that article the planets aligned and everything the doctors, my family and friends had been telling me started to sink in. And from that point my journey forward really began, because at that point I accepted what was, stopped trying to understand the why, and just got on with taking steps forwards more often than backwards. That’s really the best any of us can do.


Want to hear more? 

Harvest HR Partner, Tina Daisley will be facilitating the September 2nd, 2020 Harvest HR Roundtable.  The event forms part of the Geelong Small Business Festival

“Building Leadership Capabilities”

Suitable for all HR professionals, employers, leaders and emerging Leaders and small business owners. 

Online Webinar. Tickets are $30

Tickets available now.

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