Fridays were the worst days for me. You would think they were the best days. Yet, I was so exhausted from the previous four days that I would simply drag myself through the day. I usually ended up getting home by 6pm and falling asleep on my couch. This were clear signs of burnout.
I would then wake at 8pm, have a shower and eat dinner at home while watching a movie. I was far too tired to go out. Of course, this can be a real problem if your partner wants to go out. So that raises a whole host of complications on the home front.
Schedule that led to burnout
My Monday to Thursday schedule was punishing. It usually started at around 8am when I would get into the office and there would be other partners and engagement managers waiting to discuss different engagements and proposals. I had an open door policy. If my door was open, then people knew it was okay to interrupt me.
This continued non-stop throughout the day. I also needed to fit in client meetings and internal meetings. I usually finished my client meetings by 6pm, and if I had no dinner plans, I could get home. However, home was not an area to relax. Given my tight diary, I rarely did any work on my laptop during the day. I left this for the evening. When I did get home early, I would work on my laptop from 7pm to at least 10pm. Heaven forbid if I had a client dinner. Then I would only be getting home at around 10pm and I would then need to spend at least 2 hours catching up with my work.
Habits that led to burnout
When I was a business analyst this was so much easier to do. I would look at the older partners and wonder why they were so tired or intent on going home so quickly. I had so much energy then that I could do anything. Back in my younger days, it was not uncommon for me to work through the night on analyses. I distinctly remember sitting in the office working on a storyboard for a defense company client and watching the sunrise. I did not realize I had spent the whole night in the office. I dashed off home, had a shower and was back in the office for the 8am morning meeting. This was common for me and I managed to do this well, when I was younger.
Picking up this habit was a bad idea. I never really learnt how to manage my time well. Of course, I got the work done on time and to the right standards, but I always seemed to need all the time that was available. I also never learnt to switch off. If I left the office and something was bothering me, I would simply work on it at home or until the problem was solved. Not switching off and not managing one’s time becomes a bigger and bigger problem as you progress through the ranks and leads to a burnout. The heavy hours, limited vacations, poor diet, rare exercise and inefficient work habits eventually took their toll.
The gradual worsening of burnout
This brings me to my Friday conundrum. At first, I thought it was just an issue of it being the end of the week. It certainly seemed that way at first. Then I slowly noticed my 6pm naps where failing to have any effect. I then shifted to the idea of not working on Saturdays. At first, this worked. Shortly afterwards, it didn’t. My burnout was becoming progressively worse.
My mind and body were exposed to the joys of waking later on Saturday, sipping cappuccino and having quiet breakfasts. Soon, I needed to take Sundays off as well. It’s not that I did anything useful on these two days. I simply lounged around and ate food, went for walks in the park or surveyed the city.
Pretty soon, having free weekends was not enough. I just could not break the fog in my mind. The burnout was reaching a critical level. The striking irony is that articles about burnout refer to tiredness and lethargy. They are all there, but these are things I could break out off. The part they do not mention is the loss of energy and the will to move on. It’s like you are driving up the Alps and your car switches from 2nd gear to 4th gear. No matter how much you hit the gas, everything moves faster but you seem to make no progress.
Getting through burnout
Getting through burnout as a management consultant is tough. It is a badge of honor to be able to put in the long hours and no one admits they are going through such energy sapping problems. I found that more breaks and a better work-life balance were at this point insufficient to help recover from the burnout.
I think there are two types of burnout. One is physical and the other is emotional. In the latter, you no longer believe in what you are doing. You slowly think that there must be more to life than this.
I think that while I suffered from both, I suffered from the latter more than from the former. If you suffer from the latter, it’s much more difficult to pivot your life. Getting through this is not easy. In essence, you are questioning your life, decisions and your reason for being. There is no guide, no course book or map to get you out of this. You need to find the meaning in work.
I found my meaning at home. Let’s be clear I work worse hours than before but I like the ability to work where, when and with whom I would like to. I had a family which I never spent much time with. I was always travelling and on the road. As I started spending less time in the office, on week nights and weekends, I spent more time with them. I started enjoying my days more and looking forward to getting up in the morning. It always amazes me that the best things in life are free and right in front of you. Over time, I did find something I enjoyed doing: spending time at home and spending more time with my family.
If you are, like I was, navigating yourself out of burnout, I know no better path to wellbeing than to design your life so that you have complete control over where you work, how you work, what you work on and with whom you work. Therefore, this is not advice about quitting corporate hours and corporate life to being with one’s family. This is about how you can work longer and harder if you like what you are doing and have control over how and where you spend your days.
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Image from Jonathan under cc.