In this series of Authentic Conversations around burn-out, my clients share their recovery journey openly with the world. The intention with this blog series is to create awareness and understanding around burn-out and chronic stress. The stories invite to inspire others to be brave, challenge their beliefs and speak up on their needs to avoid burnout and other stress related outcomes.
Below you can read the story from Katharine.
Hi, I am Katharine, a 33 year old Australian who has called Netherlands home for the past 18 months. I started my career over 13 years ago working for large international corporates before moving into an International Consulting firm as a Management Consultant. While I have had a very successful career to date, I experienced burnout 6 months ago.
What was your moment of truth?
I did not have a dramatic moment where I literally fell over, however I am sure if I gave it a few more days / weeks, I would have.
If I am really honest with myself, I have been under a lot of (self) stress for years. 12 years in fact. I had worked too hard from the moment I stepped into my first corporate job as a 20 year old. That sprint continued until my stress sucked all my energy and tipped me over to burnout phase.
My burnout was an accumulation of stress over these years. While, my core friends had been telling me for a long time that my relationship with work was not sustainable and would have consequences if I didn’t start taking my health seriously. So while my friends were not surprised the moment I was confronted with burnout, I honestly was.
I thought I was Wonder Woman and could do it all. In my mind I had high energy, was fit, still running half marathons, travelling the world, keeping an active social life and doing great at work, etc. The signs were there along the way, but I either chose to ignore or wasn’t aware at the time what was happening.
I also didn’t know what to look out for as burnout is not something really well understood. Burnout is not a topic of conversation in Australia, where I am originally from. In the Netherlands, although not fully understood either, they have a more active support system, but unfortunately this support is usually after burnout has occurred. So I willingly accepted ignorance as an excuse believing burnout was not really a thing. How could someone have no energy, no drive, no passion? How could someone not want to get up and embrace their day.
I learn best through experience. And true to my form, I learnt that burnout is indeed a thing when it hit me in the face like a ton of bricks.
In my early 20s I had no problems performing, despite the lack of recovery time. The little recovery time I did gave myself was focused on travel, too many social events on the weekend for an introvert, a lot of high intensity sport, pro-bono consulting while studying my bachelors and later juggling my MBA with full time work.
I was a high energy, high performing 20 something, putting myself under a lot of stress while being very satisfied with how fast I was progressing and achieving. If I am honest with myself, in my late 20s I started feeling the effects of reduced energy. The stress eventually resulted in acute anxiety and perfectionism which left me very little energy. Initially I was unaware of what was happening, so I continued with what came to me naturally (and reinforced through reward and recognition), working hard.
In the days / weeks leading up to my burnout, I was a shell of myself that I did not recognise. Neither did those closest to me. I was doing little to no physical activity, consuming around 10 cups of coffee a day, working from the early hours of the day in transit on the bus until midnight (often until early the next day). The effects of chronic stress were physically and mentally taking place.
My stomach was in knots, I was constantly sick, my body was tense all over, my mind foggy, continuous ringing in ears, all day headaches and constantly chasing my next sugar and coffee hit to keep me on my so called A game. I couldn’t get myself out of bed on the weekends. I was tired and unhappy. In the week it all come to a head, I could not talk straight and it was clear to both me and my management team that I was not well. The extent to which I was unwell didn’t really hit me until about 4-6 weeks later.
What beliefs or expectations were you carrying at this point?
Reflecting on my burnout experience including the journey leading up to it has been confronting, life changing and eye-opening. There have been many unhelpful beliefs and assumptions that I was unconsciously holding onto that significantly impacted my daily life. While I uncovered many, there are four top beliefs that held me back.
The first was around slowing down / recovery being lazy, unproductive and not required. In the world I grew up in, more and faster is better. I had a strong negative reaction at the thought of slowing down. So instead of building in recovery time, I filled every quiet moment with noise and doing which fueling my action addiction and avoided dealing with uncomfortable feelings.
With a need for productivity and progression, this fueled another belief around if I do less, I will not be great, accepted and worthy. On a daily basis this drove me to setting my alarm at 5:30am on weekdays and 6:30am on weekends so I can get the most out of the day (despite the fact no one was asking me to do this). I wanted to be great not good. I grew up in a time where we had infinite choice and possibility which was wonderful but brought its own unique challenges specifically around the expectations we place on ourselves.
High expectations were very present in every aspect of my life which lead to be believe I needed to be on my A game all the time. This drove me to want to control and know everything, speaking, interacting and producing perfectly, all the time. These unnecessarily high expectations enabled me to achieve great things, but they were too high to lead a healthy and happy life.
The need to be on my A game all the time was born from observing (and to an extent idolising) those around me in senior positions or who were rewarded in both the work and MBA environments I have been in. The common characteristic was these people were all extroverts, or at least did a very good job at pretending to be. I therefore formed the belief that extroverts and those with high IQs are the smartest and was what success looks like.
In MBA school a large proportion of our grade was associated with speaking up and clearly demonstrating your point, even if this meant speaking over others. So MBA school was an interesting time for me as I am not a natural academic (e.g. content knowledge / IQ), I am an introvert (noting I didn’t realise and accept this until recently) and I feared being ‘found out’ (the good old imposter syndrome). My high distinction / distinction results were a combination of organised and well managed study plans and lots of hard work.
This system lead me to believe that the outcome (e.g. as that is how we were trained to think in school) is more important than the process. In essence I adopted a fixed mindset (vs. a growth mindset) approach to all aspects of my life which put a lot of pressure on me to live up to my high expectations on a daily basis. I unfortunately undervalued my exceptionally strong emotional intelligence skills as growing up this wasn’t considered to make you smart.
While it seems obvious these beliefs and assumptions lead to burnout, I had no clue I even had them and the impact they were having on me. It was not until I stopped and started to unpack these through the help of my coach, Eva Visser Plaza, that I realised they were not actually my beliefs. They were primarily a result of my conditioning amongst other things (e.g. business environment and societal norms I grew up within).
For the first specifically 10 years of my working career I thought workaholic perfectionists who wore suits and showed no emotion was the recipe for success. This the behavior I saw, mirrored and was continuously rewarded for. So in my mind, I nailed what it was like to be a ‘successful business women’.
Simply being aware of this provided a lot of relief and the stress and pressure I put on myself on a daily basis had started to lift. While the perfectionism, tendency to overwork and focus on achievement / productivity will always be a part of me, as Eva and I have spoken about, it is the awareness that I do this in itself that will bring about the change.
How would you like to practice leadership post your burnout experience?
My commitment to self leadership. I now fully understand why self leadership is the most important leadership to begin with. We have to take care of ourselves as otherwise we have nothing to give to others. There is a reason why all airline safety videos prior to departure state that you need to put on your mask first before helping those around you.
While I am still on my burnout recovery journey, I have made a number of commitments to myself based on what I have learnt works best for me. I will continuously test and change my leadership style based on what is going on at the time and what works for me.
Similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of my commitments is to embed the non-negotiable things I need to make me feel good in my daily life. This includes the basics such as adequate sleep, nourishing home cooked food, low coffee / alcohol intake and exercise (both intensity such as running and recovery such as walking and yin yoga). I have spent the time to understand what makes me feel good and what my body needs and I will no longer neglect this fundamental need.
This is also linked to the need to carve out recovery time daily. Activities such as yin yoga, reading, walks and mediation to keep myself calm and honest to myself. And also linked to staying true to my ideal was of working. I have learnt a lot about my ideal way of working, personality and the environments in which I am best positioned to make the biggest impact.
As I know this transition into a different type of leadership will be hard and take time, another important commitment is to continuously reflect on and communicate my needs. This helps to ensure my boundaries are understood, maintained and I can call people out when they are not listening to them. This also helps me push back and say no to the things I do not need to be involved in. I have a few people in my circle who I trust to hold me accountable and who I often test my thinking with. Despite having the best intentions, I am not going to successfully live and practice daily what I consider my ideal state to be. I am human and my old behaviours will continue to pop up so it is important that I continuously take the time to reflect and focus.
Personally, I believe there is no single approach to what self leadership looks like as everyone is fundamentally different, with different pasts, beliefs, upbringings, etc. What works for one, does not necessarily work for the other.
The biggest gift anyone can give themselves is time, time to reflect on who they are, what they need and to test and experiment with the various things that can help them be a better, healthier and happier human.
Commitment to team leadership
To be honest, my focus over the past months have been on self leadership, so team leadership in a work context is my next focus.
I believe I am a good leader today. I aspire to be a leader that practices wellbeing in all aspects of life. By practising what I preach and encouraging others to focus on their own self leadership, I believe people will start to see the positive impact a change in mindset can make to individuals, teams and the workforce.
My commitment over the coming months and years, is to explore what this means for me and to demonstrate to the teams I lead what a healthy, successful and sustainable career looks like.
What advice would you give to your 20 year old self to prevent the burnout?
Slow down and build in recovery time during stressful periods. Stress is a good thing but too much of it with no recovery is not. Treat yourself like an athlete running a marathon, pace yourself and give yourself the time to honestly answer why you are rushing? Who for? And what beliefs / assumptions are you holding onto? This can only lead to a more successful and sustainable career and life.
I want to thank Katharine for her bravery to share her recovery story. I hope you will take her learning experience to heart and listen to the wisdom she has gathered through this experience.
Together we can change the narrative around burn-out by being open in how we deal with the challenges in our lives. As being open in our vulnerability is the real strength. Women owning their stories, aligned with their bodies and souls are the real power women and new leaders we need in our (business) world and society.
I wish this story inspires you to become real about your life. To be brave, to start to reflect on your beliefs and life style. I desire that you take your body and soul serious and that you can see that you are more than a walking head. A head which pushes us to do more and better.
The first step is to take a moment to pause and reflect. To start to connect with your body and soul. This practice of pausing and reconnecting with your body will help you to transform your life where you align with who you truly are. Living from an aligned mind, body and soul is where burn-out has no chance.
Hi, I am Eva and I support women who are working hard to climb the career ladder or grow their thriving small business. I facilitate them to create a life and career with purpose and wellbeing so that they can create a balanced and conscious life. I do this by helping them to re-connect with their body and soul. This alignment creates authentic leadership and contributes positively to our current changing world.
In case you have any questions about burn-out, or you feel are ready to ask for support to create purpose or wellbeing in your life, feel welcome to contact me. Find out the different services I offer for women like you. I also would love to hear from you have had a burn-out and you are recovered and you wish to share your story on my blog to inspire other women, you can contact me here.