The Burnout Phenomenon
There is a point in an entrepreneurial venture when the adrenaline starts to run out. You finally begin to feel the exhaustion that has been creeping up on you for many years. Your energy runs out and you need to get recharged.
Burnout is incredibly common in the world of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. It is also rapidly spreading across the social sector, as people invest huge amounts of energy into their work with the constant feeling that much of the world’s problems are bearing down on their shoulders.
In 2013 I found myself exhausted and battling my way through the day. I had a knot of stress as my constant companion. My mind was slowing down and my mood was increasingly volatile. I had become someone that was driven to do things only to optimize performance, fulfill obligations to others, and “survive” each day. I was living out of fear and guilt, rather than passion and joy.
That fall I had an anxiety attack. It dawned on me that despite the fact that I was living my “dream” job and working with the most inspiring team and incredible partners, I wasn’t in a good place. It was then I decided to take a one-month sabbatical in early 2014. That was the beginning of a period of self-care and a new philosophy of living.
Recovering from Burnout
It takes many years of non-stop work and stress for someone to burnout. In my case, it was the cumulative toll of 6+ years of co-leading Ashoka U without taking more than a few days off at a time. It should then be no surprise that recovering from burnout is a process that will also take time.
When I think of change processes for a person or an institution, I use the analogy of an “arm breaking and resetting” as the dramatic event and follow-up period required to reach a new equilibrium. This was the central theme of my month-long sabbatical, which was enough time for me to be away from work and come back with a new vision for my work/life balance.
Here are the key phases of my recovery process from burnout:
1. Sabbatical and Space: My sabbatical represented a self-designed journey back to myself. I spent a month in Portugal and Spain. My goals for the trip were to:
- Sleep a lot
- Do whatever I’m drawn to do out of curiosity rather than productivity
- Read and watch movies in pursuit of inspiration and calm
- Disconnect from most devices and ensure that I don’t slip into work habits
- Talk to strangers
- Wander around places I’m exploring for the first time
My day consisted of waking up without an alarm clock after 10 hours of sleep, enjoying breakfast, then slowly meandering small towns with no particular point, and reading for several hours a day. I watched a movie every night and wrote in my journal. I finally felt peace.
Since my sabbatical I’ve stayed connected to this feeling of peace by savoring time to myself and for myself. It has been liberating to have a mandate to sleep, rest and turn down invitations. When you’re in “recovery” mode, your primary responsibility is to cater to your own needs, and not everyone else’s. Even now, whenever I feel tired I deliberately dial down my after-work social life, and I try to guard one weekend day for “me” time.
2. Wisdom and Support from Others: In addition to time off, discovering books on the topic of burnout was a huge help. Initially I didn’t even realize that there was a name for the chronic stress, anxiety and exhaustion I had been feeling for so long. Hearing other people’s stories made me realize that it could be a temporary phase, and that it was possible to recover. The two books I found most helpful were “Fried” and “The Joy of Burnout” which approached the concept and treatment of burnout with both scientific and spiritual perspectives. Once I was able to articulate what I was experiencing, I started talking about it with friends and family who then became my support system.
Finally, I wanted a way to get back to the “me” that I used to love and enjoy pre-burnout. Essentially, I needed to rediscover and call back the best parts of me, someone high-energy, curious, passionate, open, kind and fun-loving. I needed to rekindle those traits, but I knew that it would take time. I decided to launch an independent research project on how to live a high-energy, creative life. This allowed me to reach out to 10 friends I had lost touch with and seek advice and connection. This project has been hugely transformational to deepen relationships, get concrete, practical advice, and feel like I’m being creative in the act of doing the research project.
3. Re-evaluating Life: What followed reading those books and starting the independent research process was a lot of soul-searching about the life and lifestyle I wanted to live, in addition to the person I wanted to be. Should I quit my job? Could I stay in my role, but scope it so it didn’t cause me so much stress?
For some people, this inquiry into lifestyle, values and life choices might include dramatic life changes, including the desire to move to a new organization or role, go to grad school to retool for another sector, or it might involve taking more time off before making decisions.
For me, I needed to remember why I was doing what I’m doing, change my attitude towards work, and reassert the values I wanted to live my life by. This now includes an element of wellness, self-care and creative nourishment in addition to pure productivity and more traditional professional success indicators. I am in the same role, in the same organization, with the same team and partners, but I feel completely different. I love what I do, I feel excited throughout the day, and I feel gratitude as my constant companion, rather than stress.
Beyond Burnout: Wellness as a new Culture of Work?
Across the social sector, there are a growing number of people who are living lives that are sluggish, chronically stressed and devoid of the initial passion that got them started.
My hope is that as we become more evolved as social sector leaders we can also embrace the human side of our work. As a start, I encourage you (whether you’re an individual or an organizational leader) to fight for a culture change. We should advocate for and endorse practices including regular sabbaticals, “comp time,” the flexibility to work from home and the ability to work from another country for a month. Practices like these can go a long way to address the idea of burnout and work towards a healthier model of living and working.
Just like forest fires that sweep through many acres of land, eventually allowing re-growth, burnout can allow a new self to emerge stronger and clearer on your vision for how to live life. Burnout is often a cycle, so be aware that it may not just be a one-time occurrence. I had my first burnout in college and will most likely experience it again in the future.
The burnout and recovery process is similar to a snake shedding an old skin: As you outgrow old patterns and lifestyle choices the process of getting to a new “you” after burnout is often a better, happier version than the one you left behind.
This article originally appeared on AshokaU on July 7 2015.