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Burnout put me in the hospital. This is what I learned about healthy work-life balance

A neurolinguistics coach recalls when a doctor told her that she was so stressed for so long that she had to either change her lifestyle or have surgery to staple her organs to keep them in place.

Burnout put me in the hospital. This is what I learned about healthy work-life balance
[Photo: Sergey Ulanov/iStock]
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In my corporate job, I was turning up and smiling at parties, but inside I was burning out and only just treading water. It all felt like too much. I was too far past my boundaries and saw my only choice as quitting. I barely spoke about my situation except to laugh off how awful it was.

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I’d wake up exhausted, dreading the day, already stressed, with my to-do list already consuming my thoughts.

  • I was overwhelmed.
  • I lacked motivation and concentration.
  • I felt an emptiness with regard to caring about my work.
  • I felt very negative about the tasks I had to complete.
  • Most of my day was spent on tasks I had little interest in and made me exhausted to even think about.
  • I felt a loss of interest in most things in my life.
  • I became withdrawn and made excuses because I was embarrassed to say that I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed.
  • I became short-tempered, frustrated, pessimistic, guilty, angry, and irritable.
  • I wanted to cry (and often did) at just the thought of having to go back to work the next day. I’d also cry if anyone asked how I was.
  • I felt fatigued, physically weak, and my immune system suffered.

Life is too short for feeling like this so often.

When I didn’t take notice of my emotions, my body started sending me messages too. My illnesses were physical manifestations of the thoughts and struggles I was having inside.

Thankfully, I went to the hospital in time. The doctor’s advice was to stop working, take more breaks, and change my lifestyle. But I disregarded that, even after he ordered my MRI scan. I had to get my work done. There was no question about taking a step back in my mind.

When the test results came in, the next stage of my life was set in motion. The doctor told me that the level of stress I’d experienced for such an extended period of time was so extreme that it had physically damaged the tissues in my body. The sustained level of the stress hormone cortisol I had for such an extended period of time meant that my organs, muscles, etc. were severely weakening.

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He gave me an ultimatum:

“Either change your lifestyle or I staple your organs to your ribcage to keep them in place. Your tissues are weakening at such a rate that I’d have to perform surgery that I usually only recommend for 80-year-olds. But when 80-year-olds have this surgery, they don’t have to live another 50 years with stapled organs.”

I quit.

It’s easy to lose yourself in your work in a culture that values success, achievement, and productivity. You might feel that pressure to push yourself harder and faster but everyone has a limit and it’s most certainly not one-speed-fits-all. If we weren’t too distracted with work, deadlines, and home life, we’d react to the symptoms in a healthier way. Burning out is a signal that you need to change it up. What you are currently doing is clearly not working for you.

When I burned out to the extreme, I thought I’d be perceived as weak compared to my colleagues who seemed to be coping. The stigma around burnout led me to compare myself to others and perceive burnout as a weakness. But behind the scenes, we all have very different things to deal with including our upbringing, definitions of success, boundaries, motivations, expectations of ourselves, etc. We can get so caught up in our own experiences that we forget this. Did you ever consider that burning out is like lighting a bonfire to burn away all of the beliefs and ideas that aren’t serving you anymore?

If your current work is leading you to despair, burn the belief that working all hours is making you more productive and that you can get more done.

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If your social life is deteriorating as work consumes more of your time, rewrite the script on how much you’re willing to sacrifice your valuable time for this work.

We react to situations physically for a reason, so when burnout hits, think to yourself: Why is my body sending me these messages of exhaustion, fatigue, emptiness, etc.? and take action to flip the narrative.

Change up the questions you’re asking yourself

Instead of: What am I doing with my life?
Ask yourself: What can I do every day that makes me feel fulfilled?

Action step: Make a list of what lights you up. Review your list and set an intention each day to do one thing on your list that lights you up. Create a plan to incorporate the things you love into your career whenever possible. Consult with a coach if this will help you to streamline your decision-making process regarding your career.

Instead of: Why is my job so awful?
Ask yourself: What do I need in a job to make me enjoy it? What is a nonnegotiable in my job that I won’t work without, e.g., connection, healthy culture, work-life flexibility?

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Action step: Identify the pertinent aspects by asking yourself what would cause you to leave this job.

Instead of: I feel so drained, so fatigued, and I am struggling.
Ask yourself: What are these symptoms trying to tell me? Am I overworked, do I need to change my hours, my job, my schedule?

Action step: Reach out to get help. Don’t stay in this place of struggling for longer than is necessary for you to learn the lesson that something needs to change.

Instead of: Why am I in this awful role?
Ask yourself: How can I make this into an experience I want to be in?

Action step: Write out which experiences would provide you with the most value. Consider your skills, achievements, and interests to determine which role might suit you better. Consult with a coach if you’d like support with designing your next steps in a healthy way.

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Instead of: Why do my hours feel so endless?
Ask yourself: How can I reduce my hours while still being productive? In other words, how can I change my environment and organization to improve my working hours?

Action steps:

  • Identify the time of day that you’re most productive.
  • Remove all other commitments during those productive hours to complete your work. Block out time in your calendar for this deep, uninterrupted work to happen.
  • Switch up your environment. Are your notifications loud, your emails and your door always open? Are these distractions aiding you or causing your work to take more time to complete?
  • Pay close attention to the questions you ask yourself and what you tell yourself is “normal.”

Remember that this isn’t just a corporate problem. It’s particularly important to recognize burnout now when working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. When you fuse home and work life with these added distractions, it can be easy to overlook the symptoms that are adding up.

By monitoring your symptoms and taking action as early as possible, you not only ease the pressure on yourself but you can turn the situation around to find yourself enjoying daily life instead.

There is light on the other side of burnout; that’s why it’s there. It highlights what’s not right for you and directs you back toward a lifestyle that serves you better.

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Alice Merron is a former senior associate at a Big Four accounting firm and is now a master practitioner in Neuro Linguistic Programming and a transformation coach.