The difficulty of navigating too close to the Sun
By Christopher Bramley
I’ve had two experience with Burnout in my life – one was bad, the other catastrophic. Both were with one company, within a toxic culture, augmented by personal issues.
I think it’s a given that, like growing older when we are young, we can automatically assume that “it will never happen to us”, and give it little thought. Part of this, and the core aspects of Burnout for me, are that like age, stress accumulates over time, in a slow enough manner to be unnoticed – unless experience or mindfulness highlight it. But even then, circumstance can trap us. It’s easy to perceive ourselves as caught between stress and duty, and see no way out – which in itself adds to the stresses burning us out.
A second fallacy is that many people either know – or fool themselves – that they are strong enough to deal with anything, which may or may not be true. But even if you are – are you strong enough to deal with anything, plus something else, plus something else you’re protecting someone else from, for example?
Something I’ve learned from both my own and other people’s experiences is that everyone has their limits.
That isn’t to say people can’t find coping mechanisms or deflections, compartmentalisations of issues, or whatever, but at a base level of load, every person has a limit to what they can endure. When you are denied or don’t have anything to brace that load, it takes less than you think.
Consider it like a bridge for traffic: as a straight line, a bridge is unable to bear much load at all, including possibly its own weight. Arch it, and this changes. Add pilings and structural integrity – support, load distribution, compartmentalisation, etc – and the load increases, as does the potential traffic. But there is a point where a single bridge simply cannot take any more and will degrade or break. Adding another bridge’s traffic and load will exponentially speed this breakdown. No bridge is immutable!
Another thing to understand is this – you may seem trapped, but there are ways out. Or, using one of my favourite sayings:
It’s hard to navigate when you’re too close to the Sun.
When you’re burning out, you’re deep within your own frame of reference, and half the universe is just aflame. You often need help from others to accurately frame your context, or to step back and out and away to be able to see a bigger picture. Your mind is literally not working correctly when you’re burning out, so both of these are crucial for you to make decisions and manage this!
My two experiences came from a mixture of things at certain points. The first one, I didn’t see coming. The second I did, but felt placed in a position where I couldn’t avoid it however I twisted. I think it’s worth highlighting both (and acknowledging that very often burnouts are linked; one may set up the second, worse one, or lead us to ignore the signs that led to the first, especially in the same environment). So I hope some of the stories below help others pinpoint signs for their own context – if you can avoid burning out, you absolutely should!
The first Burnout
A number of years ago, I had the worst year of my life; I’d recently seen a very close friend, who was really a total intellectual peer (pretty much everything one did the other did too, physically and intellectually) in Abu Dhabi whilst I was on a work trip, and I’d come back happy but exhausted because I was doing a lot of travel in a very intensive role which was already having effects. It had been a decade since I’d taken an actual holiday, and I’d only recently managed to start getting control of bad sleep patterns for 15 years.
He’d seemed a little down, but ok. Time with him was always interesting, because he was incredibly accomplished and charismatic. A few months later he popped to the UK for a surprise visit just before my birthday in February. I was shocked by how much weight he’d lost and how tired he looked, and he complained about the cold (he never usually complained), but he reminded me that he’d come from the desert on a 7 hour flight. We also rock climbed together and he’d been losing weight to help with that.
Then he messaged me to say happy birthday.
A week later, on Valentine’s Day, he killed himself.
This was an incomprehensible shock for me, and everyone else, made worse by the trickle of information. It took days before I realised it hadn’t been an accident but his own choice. The funeral was hard, as a close friend; watching the effect on his family was harder. For such an incredible, charismatic, self-determining and in some ways similar person to do this was a double shock – of anyone I could have picked, it wouldn’t have been him, and having been there myself I will never forgive myself for not seeing the signs (despite knowing that he was extremely smart, and deliberately hid them).
This set the tone for the year, and I was numb for months under an increasing workload and travel. A family member was badly hurt with lasting repercussions, the beginnings of a hugely stressful court action evolved (which would end up badly affecting our lives for years), an immoral company was trying to illegally deport my girlfriend after defrauding her for years, there were numerous small things, and then… right when I needed friends, one of my closest unveiled themselves as a malignant narcissist (from all observations, they were annoyed I was truthful and honest rather than simply validating them constantly), lied, spread rumours and actively worked to damage my friendships with many long term friends in an incredibly toxic attempt to destroy my life.
I’ve rarely needed to lean on friends; in fact, usually it’s been the reverse, and this was a double shock I found hard to cope with on the back of everything else; I hold integrity, truth and trust to be paramount, and wouldn’t act like this to my worst enemy, let alone someone I professed to care for. The realisation they had never cared where I had was deeply harmful; the betrayal was the tipping point, and I’ve always hated confrontation, but my adherence to the truth sometimes means I can’t avoid it.
I dug deeper than I ever had before and shouldered all this, for a time. But the fact was my workload and global travel had been increased to the point where I was working so much and so hard I couldn’t think straight, and that wasn’t a single straw – there very rarely is a single straw. It was cumulative and it just didn’t stop increasing. I think that’s what finally did it. I’ve always been good with balance and centring, but this was all too much; I had shock after shock after shock on a workload already at its limits, and I had also taken on the stresses of my partner to protect her as much as possible. I had little money as a result. I ended up suffering perhaps five life changing stresses in a year.
Everyone has their limits. I reached mine, then passed them.
I felt it getting worse and worse; my hands trembled in rage (I’m not an angry person) for months. My brain felt hot and fizzing. I had headaches. I was advised to stop exercising because it took more than it gave.
I eventually came back from a week (Dubai? India?) and told my boss I needed a week to sleep. I was wrecked; the doctor wanted to sign me off with stress. I compromised with a week of sleep, took it a little easier, and then I managed to get sent to the Philippines for a piece of work, and took 3.5 weeks after this off, and for the first time in 10 years, I had a holiday.
I remember clearly it took 2 weeks of exhaustion to even feel like I was getting anywhere. It started a process of healing off, and when I came back I spoke to my leader, who was a very decent human. He helped me adjust things, helped me out of the tunnel-visioned morass I had sunken into, and to think properly about regular stress release, downtime, and more. I later found out how much he was buffering me against what I knew but had wilfully forgotten was an exceptionally toxic culture dressed in cheer.
I decided I couldn’t go through that again, and time moved on. I recovered much of my equilibrium.
The second Burnout
This continued for another year or so, and then things changed. I was still recovering, not having realised that burning out is not a month’s recovery, but literal years; because I was buffered, this wasn’t apparent. The company got worse; my leader left. I continued doing what I was doing but things had taken a huge dive in the company, and were fraught. I took a holiday the next year nonetheless as before; I’d learned my lesson.
It was about a year after my leader had left that the exec of the region who I now reported to realised I didn’t “look” busy. He had no idea what I did; he had no clue how much was involved; and he had no interest in listening to me. He decided that my calendar didn’t look full, and because I was running a week of training in three, I was “doing nothing” the other two weeks. Part of that time was for course prep and closedown; part of it was learning new material, content creation, systems tweaks, and so on; part of that was average admin, expenses which could take a while; and part of it was, bluntly, recovery. I ran 200% on teaching weeks, and I needed to run 50% the next week just to even things up.
Now, it’s generally accepted by people who are both actually human and who know what they are doing that running a dedicated mentor/teacher in industry (not even including global travel) past about 40% load is a recipe for fast burnout. Let’s also refer back to the “I produced the best results, best feedback, and was the #1 person globally at this” part – the company was getting outstanding results they were delighted with!
Things came to a head after a colleague whom I’d worked with for many years and got on fine with apart from one terrible experience when he became a temporary manager – the phrase Napoleon Complex doesn’t even begin to describe the 80/20 work split and absolute power wielding that shocked me from a man I’d always respected and got on well with – told me he was going for a management position. I wished him luck, and spoke off the record to the exec to explain that things worked well as they were, why I could not and would not work under him, but that I didn’t wish to formally cause a problem and make waves and suggested I just slide to the side and we all carry on. The exec listened and said he’d take it under advisement. Positive, I then outlined a business case for a promotion, showing where we needed global building of the teaching with systems and structures, and stressing this wouldn’t impact the region, but enhance it. I was years overdue a promotion or pay adjustment, and it was a clear need, so I assumed there would be no issues.
I was immediately told that my career would not be enhanced, that I was to ramp up my efforts in the region and not be distracted, and I was expressly forbidden from communication with the head region – something I needed to do to do my job. He refused to listen to another word, and I could only assume other things were later said, because the willingness of people to talk to me dropped sharply. Nevertheless, I rallied others, showed him statistics, explained it; I pointed out ways we could improve things company wide, and was ignored.
A lesson here is that Hierarchy cares more about its own structure than business value delivery.
“I need to know what you are doing with every minute of your time” was the cry that marked the beginning of intensive micromanagement. How he was doing his own job was beyond me (turns out, he wasn’t any good at doing his own job) – but despite my protests at something I was still recovering from and I was desperate to not experience again, he demanded more and more and more. The work loaded up again; my protests went unheard. I spoke to HR, but made the mistake of not wishing to formalise it, just smooth it over given my results. They were sympathetic until he essentially told them I was lying and lazy, upon which they immediately came down on the side of management. This is one of the uglier inevitabilities of hierarchies.
After this, the colleague was immediately placed above me. I went back and said I was not being awkward; I simply could not work under him, evinced by history, and gave more detail. Then again. Eventually I showed the documentary evidence. I also told him that I would leave if required; this was the level of seriousness.
The response to this was to say he wanted to unveil all this to the colleague. I strongly and absolutely requested formally this was not done as there would be immediate repercussions. The next time we spoke, he had done so anyway, betraying my confidence utterly. I spoke directly to the other region at this point to move around him as my career had been blocked, and I was getting desperate.
The repercussions were worse than I’d feared; immediate attack, from a now management position, and a very close relationship with the exec resulted in exponential increases in pressure. Eventually it took the head of HR to fly in to settle the matter, which was that I didn’t report to the colleague. Months of mounting stress for nothing, and I was now blacklisted for having “disobeyed a direct order” – an unethical request from a micromanaging manager, not to mention this wasn’t the army and I had to do so to also do the job they paid me for, but a result which meant my career path was effectively over.
I was showing serious signs of stress by now, and things got much worse from here on. My sleep suffered, my focus was gone; my memory suffered, as did my self-esteem. I knew I’d watched my career be blocked by someone both selfish and incompetent, and I was getting so overloaded I couldn’t think. I tried to put brakes on the mounting workload, but I was never political and both my opponents were very much so – when it’s personally affecting you are very invested, so the effects were far greater on me. Arguments went back and forth, and although he couldn’t discipline me because I did such a good job, I gradually found myself deliberately isolated, an island, with no support. I was now, apparently, a problem.
I reached out as high as I could for help, to find that my colleague had started rumours about my laziness and the manager had point blank said I was gaming them. Upper management deemed my workload “fair”, saying they flew all the time but lacking the context of a week of 8 hour days, not one or two meetings. I had no outs; my body started shutting down, my immune system plummeted. I barely managed to wring a concession of a week on and off for teaching and coaching – which was then ignored.
Before I finally burned out, I ran 7 full weeks of intensive training throughout Europe and Asia in 10 weeks, in 6 countries, on 2 continents.
Remember, during this, I had never stopped dealing with an ongoing court case, plus the (incredibly costly and stressful) immigration and visa system here, plus other threats. We’d dealt with those for a few years, but this work stress was way too much. Remember, too, the company never stopped their insistence I maintain the best results in the world, but achieve them their way now, which was impossible.
I finally went to see the doctor, who took one look at me and immediately signed me off work.
How did Burning Out feel?
Physically, mentally and spiritually I was ground down. Although a popular attitude to pressure at work is often Nil Illegitimi caborundorum, it doesn’t work for long. You expend more energy than the grinding does; you’re a single point, and the grinding comes from many things at once. It should probably more appropriately be Ne possis mutare ante carborundum – loosely, don’t let the bastards grind you down before you can make a change! Even this, of course, is not the best approach. It’s not about fighting Burnout; it’s about managing it, coping with it, recovering from it, and henceforth avoiding it.
Burning Out isn’t an enemy; it’s a symptom of something serious that can affect you for YEARS.
In my case, I couldn’t focus properly. I felt as if I was having a stroke; headaches, inability to speak and think correctly, and eventually not being able to always complete sentences. Sleep exhausted me more instead of resting me. Exercise exhausted me. Everything exhausted me. My hands shook constantly. My brain literally buzzed. I got a 40 degree temperature in the desert (not recommended). I was randomly dizzy and had to sit down. I wasn’t frustrated; I was unusually furious this had been done despite my warnings for 2 years, but so detached I couldn’t begin to work out how to repair it. I knew I was cut off and felt isolated and under constant attack. The unfairness ate at me; the loss of my career from all this was stark. I’d been ruined, physically, mentally, mindfully, and in career – all for internal politics.
I was diagnosed with intensive stress, depression, marked physical and mental anxiety, a depressed immune system, and adrenal fatigue so severe I was on the verge of hospitalisation.
Adrenal Fatigue is where your adrenal glands, on top of your kidneys, simply have nothing left to give because they’ve supplied so much constant adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol (which is catabolic, or system-eating) for so long that you have none left. These are critical for normal function, and if you deplete or overuse them, system imbalances result, including muscle loss, fat gain, sleep disruption, terrible eating habits, and more (have a look here). Coffee, exercise, focus – nothing will do anything more than demand what just isn’t there anymore (If you have it, stop EVERYTHING and recover. For several weeks. Trust me!). There are other interesting psychosomatic repercussions, too. For example, it’s known that stress dramatically increases cholesterol levels, which affects the balance that keeps bile fluid. If the liver secretes more under high stress levels, gallstones formation is considered likely as bile coagulates. There are a whole load of other symptoms and effects, too; we’re not really designed for constant stress. Very high stress followed by very low stress is more how we evolved, but the modern world is geared towards constant stressors, every day, for decades.
I was immediately prevented exercising, drinking coffee, doing literally anything that would exhaust me more. I lost 6kg of lean muscle mass from stress in 9 months, a very alarming amount for someone once so fit. I was signed off work for 5 weeks, only for them to expect I go back in 100% load immediately again, but thankfully and luckily, I was passed to a new manager as a problem that needed resolution.
Think about that for a moment; about how I was seen. The highest performer in that arena, made ill by the workload, a problem that needed resolution. If that is how your company sees you, I can only stress that you remove yourself from that environment.
He was an incredibly decent person, and I am profoundly lucky to have met him. He understood and told the company they were dangerously close to liability, whereupon more support suddenly materialised. They demanded I come back to work; then they suggested Occupational Health, who had one session with me and then signed me off again, with a staged return plan which the company grudgingly accepted. I saw psychologists and psychiatrists for the first time ever, and they both found stress and severe dysfunction as a result of the issues I’d faced.
Meanwhile the company forgot scheduled calls, didn’t carry out assessments in time and then tried to force me on calls to do them, and tried to metricise everything. Human Resources become very inhuman to me, but my new manager buffered me while I recovered. I slowly regained my ability to think coherently, to make accurate decisions, to gain perspective and context.
Once I had recovered enough to think, I left.
It took me a year and a half to recover, much of which I feel I missed, and by all accounts I healed remarkably quickly. But it took some time to regain what I lost – years, in fact. Even now, I still bear some scars from all this.
My story isn’t unique. Many other workplaces are also very much stuck in a bureaucratic, uncaring culture of process engineering/systems thinking – a veneer of care, but really wanting to accept zero accountability, and putting a lot of effort into suggesting personal life is “the cause”. Yet, day in, day out, you spend most of your time and effort at work and on work. Even if everything is wonderful, you can burn out.
Many others demand you give every drop of blood without care or reciprocation. Many others have demands even written into their contract that employees are expected to “Give a certain amount extra” without any mention the other way. When you add that to the personal issues many of us face, and remember how much time we spend at work, burnout may be all but inevitable for some.
The truth is, burnout is cumulative from all areas – once you pass a certain point, I don’t think it matters what the stress is, only that it’s there and adversely affecting you. You often won’t notice it creeping up, because it’s slow enough you adjust to the new load, and adjust… and adjust… until you’re at your break point without realising it, and that is usually too late.
I want to frame this here: I am physically very strong. I’m an athlete. I have good stress coping mechanisms. I am very balanced. I have what I consider very good mental fortitude. And yet… I was still broken. We can all be boxed in and loaded until it’s too much, and we’re all affected by different things. Physical and mental strength simply change when you will burn out, given constant load – not if.
NONE of us are limitless. When a company treats you like a component, stifles your individuality and offering of value, take punitive action and ignores your results (whilst still demanding them!), learn the signs and act. Be aware of yourself, and mindful. Draw lines and borders for what is acceptable around those, and don’t be shamed or pressured into changing those. Some of my burnout came about because of perfectly reasonable requests, which were deliberately stacked to set precedent.
I remember both times developing an almost constant fizzing sensation at the base of my brain, an oddly psychosomatic reaction to hyper stress – almost as if my reptilian brain were buzzing in anger, or my thoughts and emotions were drowning in acid. That is not to be ignored.
Even writing this has slightly stressed me again, but it’s ok – I know how to balance the lessons of the past against the possibilities of the futures on the fulcrum of the present. But it shows the impacts of that damage are lasting. I am less patient. I deal with stress differently now; it triggers more easily in some instances. I avoid stressful situations where sometimes I need to face them.
But there is no failure in life, only feedback (unless you ignore the feedback), so I’ve learned a lot of things from this, and one of the most important is that our priority and responsibility is to our own balanced mental, physical, and spiritual (or mindful) health. If they are disrupted, seek to repair it; if it can’t be repaired where you are, make a change.
Ne possis mutare ante carborundum; move far enough from the Sun to navigate once more!