Stress, depression, high expectations, a faster pace of living, relentless social media — the need for us to talk about burnout has probably never been so acute. It can feel like we’re awash in it, collapsing under pressure.
But when is burnout more than just feeling fed up and worn down?
For Dina Glouberman, a psychotherapist and lecturer, the first sign was a strange sensation that the people she was watching on television were moving too slowly. Then her blood pressure shot up. One day, she left her house and felt unable to return for hours.
The 73-year-old recalls feeling like everything sounded too loud: “The traffic and people were drilling into my brain,” she says.
“When you are burned out, it’s that feeling you don’t have any life energy or force,” adds Glouberman, who has just written Into the Woods and Out Again: A Memoir of Love, Madness, and Transformation.
“You may feel disconnected, cynical, angry and can fall ill often and for too long. In my case, my system just closed down.”
Something in the way we work is undoubtedly making modern life more challenging. As entrepreneur Arianna Huffington, who suffered her own burnout a decade ago, says: “The current male-dominated model of success — which equates success with burnout, sleep deprivation and driving yourself into the ground — isn’t working for women, and it’s not working for men, either.”
Glouberman’s concept of burnout goes beyond this. Hers happened 30 years ago, but it is still vivid. She was a high achiever who understood mental ill health personally, having suffered psychotic depression at 26 — something she calls “an awful experience yet an enlightening one.”
It began with depressive thoughts, along with instances of paranoia — Glouberman believed she was being watched by the FBI, then that friends were trying to poison her. The flashpoint was a walk in the drenching rain when she couldn’t tell which century she was living in.
She was treated in the hospital with anti-depressants and group therapy, but says, “What pulled me through were the other patients and the community we formed.”
By December 1971, Glouberman had recovered and was discharged, opening up an intensely creative and energetic period of her life.
She married Greek journalist Yannis Andricopoulos in 1974, completed a PhD, found therapy clients and lectured in psychology. In 1977, she had her first child, Ari, and she and Yannis co-founded Skyros Holidays in Greece, Thailand and Cuba, which specialize in holistic, community-oriented trips.
In her new memoir, Glouberman writes about this time, with her own brand of black humour. She recalls, for instance, how Ari slept in a small suitcase and, as the couple had no stroller, they had to take the case with them for him every time they ate out.
But in 1989, at the height of their success — and just when Glouberman probably ought to have allowed herself time to recover from these stressful years — the couple set up a magazine called i-to-i, temporarily producing it in their home with staff. Glouberman admits she said yes to a situation she now knows she should have refused.
“One day, I left the house and realized I couldn’t go home until they had all left. I was over-run,” she says.
Like many busy and successful professionals, Glouberman would not have thought herself likely to burn out. Indeed, at that time, she had never heard of it. Yet, highly motivated and engaged workers are often most at risk, according to a new University of Cambridge study published in Career Development International. It says even the happiest employees could be secretly exhausted and ready to quit.
This chimes with Glouberman: “My professional life was all about listening to and helping others. I hadn’t managed to listen to myself,” she says.
It is also something she sees in others today: “People who burn out are very high-energy; high givers, high achievers. Then if the situation around them changes — such as a new boss coming in — or they themselves change, it can all come crashing down unless they stop and re-evaluate rather than driving themselves forward willy-nilly.”
At first, Glouberman says her own burnout was so extreme she couldn’t even make a telephone call. Recovery meant changing her life. First came a week at a naturopathic clinic, where her roommate told her she looked like a ghost. Glouberman decided to put her health first, drop the inner pressure, let go of anything that gave her headaches — even if that meant saying no — and only do what energized her and brought her joy. Years later, when she realized it was burnout she had suffered, she wrote The Joy of Burnout on its positive implications.
The book was a bestseller and launched Glouberman into yet another career, this time as an expert on the subject. She began to lecture on burnout and was amazed at how so many people saw themselves as having it.
“Looking back, I think that the burnout was a gift. It forced me to re-evaluate my life and make changes,” she says. “Had it not happened, I could have had a stroke or crashed a car. Sometimes I think it saved my life.”
Yet coming back from burnout is not as simple as having a rest. Research from the University of Konstanz in Germany in 2010 found that teachers who took holidays felt better initially but had reverted to high levels of stress within a month.
Glouberman’s advice for recovery is surprisingly straightforward: “Stop. Give up hope. Keep the faith.”
“That means: Stop. Step back and acknowledge what is happening,” she explains.
“Then give up hope that working harder and doing more of the same to achieve the goal you thought you needed will save you. You must either change your approach or change your situation or even leave it — but don’t keep on keeping on.
“The road to burnout is paved with denial. You have to start telling yourself the truth.
“People tell me they are trapped in jobs or situations but, in my experience, they always know they can make some kind of choice. This may be uncomfortable at first, but it can bring you back into alignment with yourself and your dreams.”
Glouberman’s last piece of advice is perhaps the most heartfelt: “You are not always going to get what you want. You are not always going to get everything done you feel needs doing. You may be desperate for everything to be perfect. Avoiding burnout means acknowledging reality, respecting yourself, and finding your own path to joy.
“Keep the faith that no matter what happens to your old beliefs and goals, you yourself can always be OK.”