What is burnout?
It depends on what you mean by burnout. If you’re talking about general life stress, then you need to learn how to manage it through your lifestyle more effectively.
This can be accomplished through exercise, meditation, yoga and developing relaxing hobbies: I prefer stand up paddleboarding in this regard.
But career burnout specifically is much more insidious and can’t always be managed through developing better daily habits.
I experienced this several years back and discovered no matter how effective my stress management skills were … it wasn’t enough at that time.
I was working as a crisis counselor at a large general hospital in rural Virginia at the time. It was not what I wanted to do career-wise, but I needed the money.
Since I was going through a divorce at the time, I needed a higher salary than private practice could bring in. I was working a night shift — a shift no one wanted to work — so I was paid around $45 dollars an hour, the most money I’d ever made in my career until that point.
So I was doing very well financially, but the position demanded a lot of emotional energy. I was working with people presented to the emergency department struggling with a mental-health crisis.
At the same time, because of the end of my marriage, I was grappling with many personal existential issues (e.g., Where am I going in life? Is this where I’m meant to be?).
At some point, something had to give, and I began to falter.
I spent more time alone when I wasn’t at work. I would deliberately work out at home or outside instead of a public gym, just so I could avoid people. Friends and family would call me and I wouldn’t answer my phone. On my nights off, I began drinking alcohol while alone and sometimes drank too much.
My life felt rudderless, and the combination of the psychic pain due to the dissolution of my marriage and my unhappiness with my current career began to take its toll on me.
Over a period of several months, I found myself becoming less effective at work.
I no longer enjoyed engaging with people. I easily lost patience with coworkers and people seeking help at the hospital.
For instance, there was one particular patient who came into the emergency department once a month due to substance addiction and anxiety. Normally, I recognize where people are at in terms of treatment and have the patience to explain their options and help discover the goals they want to achieve.
But with this particular patient, I stopped caring. I simply asked routine questions I needed to complete paperwork and didn’t bother going any further to engage him in mental-health treatment.
I remember writing in my report that this patient was completely resistant to treatment. My previous unending well of empathy and compassion was now empty. I knew I couldn’t go on like this. It took all my energy to just show up to work.
I needed a hard reset.
One night, I was in so much emotional pain and turmoil, I drank enough whiskey until I blacked out.
I woke up in the morning to a freezing house (in the middle of winter) because while blacked out, I had shut off the furnace to my house. I knew in that moment I needed to connect with someone.
I was lost.
I contacted another therapist whom I admired and respected. I’d known him for a while and considered him a bit of a mentor. I knew he wouldn’t judge me and could offer some sound advice and insight.
During our conversation together, he was frank but also empathic.
"Everyone experiences career burnout," he told me. "Clearly this is your time."
He stated point blank: "You need to reset your life — you will be of no help to anyone if you continue down this path, you will become not only a danger to yourself but the people you are responsible for counseling as well."
I decided to make a radical change and began formulating a plan.
I sold my large house rather quickly and either sold or donated pretty much anything in it. I kept a few mementos and some clothes and placed them in a storage unit. In fact, everything I needed could be fit into a backpack and large duffel bag.
As I let go of more material possessions, my emotional state became lighter. I was already seeing positive changes due to this unusual plan.
I resigned from my lucrative hospital position and spent the next 14 months on sabbatical from my profession. I traveled to places I’d always wanted to visit, like different states within Mexico and then later in the year, Thailand and Cambodia.
I lived a very minimalist lifestyle. Thanks to platforms like Airbnb and others, it was incredibly easy. I was lucky in that due to the sale of my house and saving money from my previous crisis position, I could afford to travel and write without worrying about finances.
These travels and their resulting experiences reinvigorated me professionally in ways I couldn’t have predicated.
I began paying more attention to daily thoughts … especially how distorted these thoughts were at times. I rebuilt healthy coping habits to manage stress and enjoy life again. I stayed engaged with my profession by answering mental-health questions on Quora and Reddit.
After my one-year sabbatical from counseling, I was ready to re-enter my profession, and I was filled with an enthusiasm I hadn’t experienced since completing graduate school.
I was whole again and ready to tackle whatever issues came my way. Most importantly, my well of empathy and compassion for my fellow human beings was now overflowing.
I truly believe that every once in a while, we all need a hard reset to combat career burnout.
Aaron is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in the Commonwealth of Virginia and has practiced mental-health counseling in a variety of private, hospital-based, and public-community settings.
Aaron Dutil May 11, 2021 at 10:57PM