To the Brink and Back: One HR Manager’s Journey Through Burnout
By Ingrid Vaughan
At 10:00 a.m., sitting in front of my computer with a lengthy to-do list, I was already exhausted. For months I’d been struggling with fatigue and a deep sadness that permeated everything in my life. It had gotten harder and harder to find the mental focus and physical energy to put in a day’s work.
I forgot things, missed deadlines, made mistakes and got more and more frazzled. Then I spent my evenings trying to meet the needs of my family.
I felt like I was losing my mind but did the only thing I knew how to do—suck it up, push on and keep going. I thought if I could just get over the next little hump, things would get better. And when things didn’t get better, I still continued to plow through.
My friends and family were very concerned—they’d never seen me so fragile. I could hardly carry on a conversation without dissolving into tears. I felt hopeless and trapped and wanted to sleep all the time.
Then, in bed one night, something came over me… it felt like my brain was an electrical outlet that had overloaded. I couldn’t speak. I could hardly breathe. I lost sensation in my hands and feet. I was incapable of doing anything but lying there.
That terrifying moment made me realize I needed help.
When I was ready, help came in a number of ways
I work as a human resources manager and had signed up for a mentoring program through the BC Human Resource Management Association. The first time I met with my mentor, she shared her story of burnout and depression that had her off work for almost two years. Her story resonated with me, but I didn’t make a connection to what I was experiencing. I hadn’t yet had that terrifying wake-up call.
At my follow-up mentoring meeting, I was to come prepared to discuss human resources (HR) issues. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t focus on HR. I decided to share what I was feeling at that time. I got two sentences out and burst into tears. Everything came pouring out: the exhaustion, lack of focus, feelings of helplessness and lack of control, inability to manage my emotions, and the utter despair I felt at not knowing how to fix what was happening.
When I was done, she looked at me and said, “You are so close to the edge you can’t even see it. If you don’t give yourself a break, you’re going to be in serious trouble.”
I made an appointment with a psychologist, through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work. Again, the tears came almost as soon as the psychologist said, “So, tell me what’s going on with you.” She also recommended I take time off work immediately. This was the same message I’d heard from my husband, my mentor and a number of my friends. I could no longer deny what was happening.
The psychologist helped me explore my resistance to taking a leave from work. I discovered I had a deeply rooted fear of inadequacy—of people thinking me incompetent. I was an HR manager, after all. How would it look for me to have a breakdown?
I summoned the courage to talk to my boss about what was happening. I needed to acknowledge that my value came from who I was, not what I did. I had to understand that taking care of myself was not “selfish.” He was relieved to put some context to what he’d been noticing. Our company didn’t have short-term disability benefits, but he supported my request for two months unpaid leave of absence, with the understanding that it could be longer based on my rate of recovery. I also applied for Employment Insurance (EI) sickness benefits to help with the financial impact of time off.
Leave to make sense of it all
I chose to go away for those two months, with my husband, to a family cabin on a lake. At home I had all the comforts and resources I was accustomed to, but there were also a million distractions to take me away from the work I needed to do.
After unpacking, I sat on the deck overlooking the lake. If your mind can be tired the way your body feels tired, mine was exhausted. Thoughts came and went but I couldn’t actually hold on to one long enough to process it. I picked up a magazine, but couldn’t read. I tried to watch a TV show, but couldn’t concentrate. So I just I stared at the lake for hours.
I gave in to my body’s need to rest, even though my mind screamed for me to do something productive. I felt guilty for taking time off work and felt I should at least be actively doing something to get myself better. But I had to let go of my expectations of even the daily demands. Hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner were okay. I could wear a dirty t-shirt. And the winter’s dust and grime on the porch floor could wait. I slept for three weeks before I was ready to dig in to the “work” of recovery.
My husband and I talked for hours about what had led me to the brink. And I journaled—a lot! Journaling was a very effective way to get in touch with my inner self and reach some of the places I had long buried by “soldiering on.”
I read books on burnout, boundaries and self-care. I began to see that my obsessive need to keep everyone thinking I was superwoman started as a child seeking affirmation through getting good grades, participating in school activities and volunteering, being the good girl, the girl no one needed to worry about. This habit grew with me, leading to a relentless pursuit of doing well.
I also stayed in touch with my psychologist by phone during the time away. She helped me unravel some of my unhealthy thinking and behavior patterns. I needed to stop thinking I could handle everything on my own and be willing to ask for help. I needed to acknowledge that my value came from who I was, not what I did. I had to understand that taking care of myself was not “selfish.”
I thought about how I needed to approach life in order for this not to happen again. I made lists of things I needed to change, and strategized how I’d go about changing them. I needed to stop running on a treadmill of endless tasks and pursuits and see life as a series of lessons and relational encounters. I needed to have more fun!
I had arrived at the cabin with my physical and emotional tank full to the brim with all kinds of unhealthy stuff and there was no room for anything else. During my time of rest, it was as if a small hole was drilled into the tank and very slowly the bad stuff drained out and made room for me to think. As the space in the tank grew, I felt myself breathing more deeply, noticing the daily things that made life beautiful.
Time off allowed me to recuperate physically and emotionally so I could return to work with a healthier outlook. I returned to work half-time, after the two months away. This modified return allowed me to regain my equilibrium at work slowly and gave my mind and body time to adjust. It was another two months before I was back to full-time.
Keeping the life ledger in balance
People often think of burnout only as it relates to work overload, but I believe it can happen when the combined stresses of life supersede your emotional and physical capacity to cope. A number of traumatic events and losses had taken their toll on me. I became a single parent, with all that entails, at a very young age. I had to deal with financial challenges, work stress and job loss. I eventually remarried, and my husband now struggles with chronic pain. I took care of everyone else and everything, without a thought to taking care of myself—until I couldn’t do it anymore.
My burnout experience has changed the way I approach my work. I understand, in a way I couldn’t before, the way stress impacts people in the workplace. I’ve learned how important it is to lean on others when going through stressful times. And I’ve learned the importance of establishing healthy habits when things are going well.
My burnout was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through, but it was also one of the most life-changing. It gave me wisdom, perspective and self-awareness that helped me find balance and joy in my work and my life.>
On the job: some recommendations
Working in human resources I have worn many hats: recruiting, hiring, coaching, training, program development, employee retention and culture development, to name a few. In my current role, I do all these things.
Because of my experience, I’ve become keenly aware of the signs of burnout in others. Conversations with employees take place as soon as I see them sacrificing their mental health to long hours and high-stress work environments. I also help employees honestly assess their workload and capacity, and look for ways to lessen the load.
If you think you or someone you work with may be experiencing chronic stress leading them to burnout, don’t delay in seeking help or in encouraging your co-worker to seek help. The first step is informing your physician about what’s going on physically. Second, seek out a professional counsellor or therapist who can help you make sense of what’s happening and come up with strategies to make necessary changes. Third, be honest with your employer or human resources department about what you’re going through. It’s far better if they know ahead of time rather than having to scramble to cover your work role if you suddenly drop out of the picture.
Most employers will be keen to find a win/win situation. Help could include an EAP program if they have one, assistance with applying for EI sickness benefits, a reduced work week, time off, short-term disability, health benefits that pay for psychologist fees, and work sharing, to name a few possibilities.
Finally, open up with your social network. For me this was the most difficult; I didn’t want to admit to others that I was ‘weak.’ But in the end, vulnerability with the people who cared about me was key in gaining the support I needed to navigate my recovery.
Ingrid lives and works in Victoria BC as a Human Resources manager. She is the author of I’m A Circle, You’re a Square, a book about increasing the effectiveness of workplace communication. Ingrid also has experience as a small business coach, employment counsellor, business writer and corporate trainer.