My burnout was one of the best things that happened to me
Feels weird, reading this title, right? For most people, it’s an awful experience. Without (professional) help, it’s potentially permanently damaging. It’s a massive energy drainer. It breaks one’s spirit. Or maybe it’s already broken at that point. But to me personally, it has been tremendously useful.
TL;DR: burning out forced me to have a good hard look at myself and rediscover what I really want to do in life. I’ve always been focused on the wrong things, like status and high paychecks. I found out what is my spark, that thing that gives me energy, and what it tells me about myself. I found a job that fits me and feeds me rather than drains me. In just 5 months, I’ve learned more about myself than in the previous 28 years.
I’m not saying I enjoyed it, but there have been a lot of positive moments in the whole ordeal. And I will tell you why. But before I do, let’s go back in time. Way back.
Once upon a time
2007. 19 years old at the time. I was doing community college, studying multimedia. I always liked working with the computer and saw myself having a career in game design down the road. So multimedia felt like a good first step. I learned the absolute basics of 3D modeling. I also learned building websites, coding, and design, but that never seemed to really capture my attention.
We had teachers that weren’t really teachers, but more of a coach that only helped you in a specific direction after you already did some research yourself. I very vividly remember one teacher called Ivo. Every time I had a question for him, his first response was: “What does Google tell you?”. Annoying? Yes. Useful to become more self-reliant? Also yes.
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Then I started an internship at this big architect- and engineering organization. I created virtual depictions of the real world, where the future state of a construction site could be shown to residents. This way, they could see how all the construction would impact their neighborhood. It was quite fun, really. I learned a lot. Next to the regular 40 hour work week, I could create models based on pictures while working from home. It was easy money. 1000 dollars in a weekend was really great, especially if you consider the internship itself paid roughly 250 dollars per month. I worked 80+ hours and felt like I was dragging in truckloads of money.
Then a new project manager came in. He was a nice guy, but he didn’t have any experience when it comes to 3D modeling. The forecasts and plans he made were completely off. Out of scope, out of time, and definitely out of budget. That’s when I started thinking; I can do a whole lot better than that.
Spreading my wings
2010. I started studying Computer Sciences at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam, majoring in IT Management. Still living with my parents at that time. I started the studies mainly because of the idea that he could do better than the manager at the internship. It couldn’t be real that a manager makes plans that are so outrageously out of bounds, right? Boy, was I in for a surprise. This stuff is hard!
After about 3/4 of a year, I moved in with my girlfriend. Awesome! The only downside was that instead of having 1,5 hours of commuting time, I now had 5 hours. Every single day. And we had a single-family home for the two of us, which also meant that I had to work in order to pay my part of the rent and bills. My daily schedule was like this:
- 05 AM — getting up
- 5:30 AM — start cycling to train station
- 6 AM — train to Amsterdam, with a transfer somewhere in the middle
- 7:45 AM— subway ride
- 7:50 AM — walk to the university building
- 8:30 AM-4 PM — college
- 4 PM-6 PM — repeat steps 3 and 4 back
- 6 PM-6:30 PM — cycling to work
- 6:30 PM-10:30 — work
- 11 PM — finally in bed
Every day. There was no way I would be doing that for four whole years. So I worked through my holidays, both school and the side job. Ultimately I finished it in roughly 2,5 years. I managed to do 80% of my homework during my commute on the train.
There were great teachers who, in hindsight, learned me a lot. At the time it felt like they were really grinding my gears, but they had your best interest at heart and pushed you to do the best you could. The most valuable lesson was that I learned how I learn. Some people learn by just reading a book. Some people learn by discovering everything in practice. To me, it’s somewhere in the middle.
Into the wild
2013. I got my first real job! PMO (Project Manager Officer) was my stepping stone to make my goal of becoming a project manager true. The organization was this relatively large IT consultancy. All-you-can-learn on the certificate and course part, at the expense of the company. It only required your own personal time during the evenings to be invested. But eager as I was, I did every course I could. It looked good on my resume, resulting in me having no problems finding an assignment at a client.
In the meantime, I worked with all these great project managers. Very ‘present’ guys. They radiate respect. I admired them. It felt like it a high level of status and respect. They drove the cars that I dreamed of. One day, those will be mine, and I will be the one commanding the same respect! A few years later, I had the opportunity to move to a smaller organization that felt more like a family than this large one. Bigger paycheck. I could order my own car, within a specific budget. I’m on my way.
After a while, someone told me a didn’t look so good. I looked tired. “Ah, I’ll be fine. I just need some sleep!”. Uhu. Of course, I continued in the space I always did. Bringing my energy. Working during the day, taking courses in the evening. But my focus was starting to go. A client’s manager approached me and told me;
“Hey man, I don’t want to meddle. We don’t know each other that well, but I’m seeing the same signs with you as I had, just before burning out. Please take care of yourself.”
“Pff! Burnouts are for other people. That’s not me. I have eternal stamina. Don’t you worry about me!” I didn’t say it like this, but it was certainly in my mind. Even when my girlfriend told me I should maybe start to slow things down. Nope! Not going to happen! I have my goals set and I will work to achieve them.
And then I fainted on my walk from the car to the office.
Ah, shit. I’m one of those people.
Crawling back uphills
The absolute hardest part of this whole story was the acceptance of the fact that I had hit rock bottom. At least, that’s what it felt like. I felt like I gave up, I felt like a failure. It took all of the energy I had left to accept it. That really broke me, but it was also a massive relief. At least now I can twist around the facts anymore.
I pondered my choices. After talking to some people that had been in similar situations, it boiled down to three options:
- Do nothing. Nothing would change, and I would be miserable for the foreseeable future.
- Try to work things out by myself. Hmm, challenging and with a high probability of doing the wrong things or dragging for way too long.
- Get professional help. But that’s scary. I have to be all touchy-feely.
“What would my advice be if my best friend were in a similar situation?”. That’s the question that stuck to mind. I don’t want this to drag on forever. Something has to happen. Leaving me with two options, out of those three. I can either reinvent the wheel or have others help me with it that are specialized in the field of burnouts.
The next step was to discuss this with my employer. It’s in the best interest of the employer as well that they have healthy employees with sustainable stress levels. Since 2018 the World Health Organization has recognized burnouts as an official diagnosable condition. Burnouts can last months or even years. The average of people burning out roughly 32, so I lost my burnout virginity relatively young (joy!).
Let’s put that into a numbers perspective:
- Just for the sake of argument assume that someone is out of the picture for 8 months/34 weeks.
- This translates to 1360 working hours
- The average hourly rate of my organization at the time was 85 euro/101 dollar
- My gross salary was roughly 4100 euro/4800 dollar per month
Purely looking at the number the organization would miss out on 115.600 euro/136.771 dollar of revenue, plus they still would have to pay my salary. Adding another 33k euro/39k dollar. Bottom line, from an economical perspective it would cost the organization north of 170k if this is not being treated properly. And that’s even a mild estimate, not taking into account the collateral damage like lost motivation and energy.
It brought some fuel to the discussion, I thought. Luckily for me, they were very much prepared already to provide me with the right guidance by acclaimed people that, as it turned out, were friends with the CEO. Better be prepared and not having to use the information the other way around, I guess.
A company called ByeByeBurnout(I swear, I’m not joking and I can highly recommend them to anyone)was my salvation. Lovely people with the right attitude. A lovely lady called Frederike was assigned to me. Or at least, we had an intake together and we matched. Perfect! Next to her, I also started seeing a psychologist called Tjerk. And the mandatory occupational physician. I went from being skeptical to all-in. The whole shabam.
Frederike took me on these therapeutical walks in the woods. Those were great. They opened me up, disarmed me, just by being outside. She made me draw a hypothetical line between tree trunks, from a 1 to 10 scale. 1 being worst, 10 being best. Then she asked me where my life is right now. A 4.
F: ”Why a 4? Why not a 3?”
S: “Things could be worse. I still have my son, my amazing little guy. And my wife. We have a great family. But things could be way better, too.”
F: “Great to see that you still see the upsides. Where would you like to life-grade to be half a year from now?”
You get the gesture. Those are very tangible and effective, open-ended questions that provoke inner thoughts. I’ve never thought about life like this. She would also occasionally make me bust out in tears. Picture this: a narrow path for people to walk on. It’s a popular trail, so there were quite some people out. On the right-hand side was barbwire to keep cattle within the perimeter. On the left-hand side was a minefield of manure. And in the middle of the trail is me. A 6-foot-4-inch guy. Tears running my face. And people would still prefer to challenge the minefield over just passing me.
Must have been a horrible sight for them to see.
I remember one particular exercise very vividly. Frederike had this assortment of dolls of the Smurfs. She lined them up when we were having a drink in a restaurant and told me that every single one of them represented one of my emotions. Then she asked me to pick four of them. Those four would represent emotions and characteristics that have helped me sustain throughout the years, but now no longer need. And then, I had to write those Smurfs a letter, thanking them and saying goodbye (to past-time behavior, basically).
Weirdest. Feeling. Ever.
There were many different exercises that really made me think hard and deep. It was hard work and awfully exhaustive. But the funny thing was that it gave me more energy than that it took. I had three sessions per week. Once per week I would see Tjerk, once per week Frederike, and once per week the physician. This went on for roughly 5 months. A little less.
I felt ready to go back to work again. What made me feel ready was not the fact that I’ve not been working for that long. Nor was it the letter that I had to wrote to my Smurfs. But the whole time we’ve been focussing on creating mindfulness and mental awareness. Awareness about why I got in this situation in the first place and what gives me energy, rather than taking it.
Every day now feels like a holiday
Here’s are my biggest takeaways from the whole ordeal:
- My whole life I’ve been focussing on the wrong things. I wanted status, money, and looking cool.
- Both my scholarly life as well as my career until that point have been revolving around getting high grades and high-scoring performance reviews.
- It’s a lot easier sandbagging and not looking at your problems than facing them dead-on and working with them
- Therapists are a lot more useful than I ever imagined
- I learned a lot more about myself in 5 months than I did in the previous 28 years
We found out that my energy comes from working directly with people. Having an impact on their lives and careers, with an overlap of IT. So ultimately I went for a career as a Scrum Master. This has been the best decision ever. Every day has felt like a holiday so far. I’ve been enjoying it ever since. It allowed me to develop myself in different areas as well, like creating a podcast and writing articles. And not because I have to, but because I LIKE to. I want to be better at it.
And in that regard, I can highly recommend a burnout to anyone. Not the buildup to it, but to be forced to have a good hard look at yourself. To me, it feels that organizations, schools, and government structures have been set up to be efficient and focussed on performance and utilization over the (mental health) of their people.
But if that would be the other way around and you give people a purpose, a goal to strive toward and make sure that they are taken care of first the results will follow. That starts with the people. That starts with you. It starts, with finding your spark. And for that, you need to look deep inside yourself.
Looking back, the buildup and the signs were easy to spot. But it’s nearly impossible to notice them when you’re on the grind. It takes a high level of self-awareness to be able to take a step and think “this might not be the best choice for me right now”, and take a different path.
If you feel curious, have any questions, or just want to discuss this, feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn. I’m always up for that.
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