Burnout, how I avoided falling into the precipice

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I would like to share my personal experience of how I avoided falling into the burnout. With no intention to give lessons to anyone, I only hope that my story can help others become aware of their own condition so they don’t end up on the precipice.

It was by attending a workshop with Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung Judge on The Use of Self that a click triggered in me. Two days of deep diving on the use of the Self and the Presence forced me to see myself on my internal mirror. It was especially during the exercises that I realized how much I was hurting mentally and physically, and how much I was hiding it to myself. Two years that I was on this dangerous slope at work, and lately in my private life also, without wanting to realize the obvious. I will not mention here the causes that led me to this descent into hell, each of you will easily deduce by the following or will see his own.

The use of Self - sketchnotes

Use of Self is the core element in how effective we are in successfully executing our intended roles. It is built on our awareness of who we are, clarity of our intentions, consciousness to the situation, our choices and managing ourselves purposefully in acting“. – Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung Judge

Becoming aware of my inner feelings that I was trying to hide, the denial of my malaise, the illusion that everything is fine or will be better tomorrow, the lack of compassion for me, all this was a big emotional shock. The shock was all the more violent as I knew perfectly the symptoms and conditions that can lead to burnout. Because I have deepened, illustrated and communicated these thanks to two specialists, Florence Bierlaire and Dr Marie-Pascale Simonnet.

Comment définir et identifier le burnout
Sketchnotes: Comment sortir du burnout?
Sketchnotes: Burnout et résilience

People at-risk burnout, including me, are:

  • perfectionists
  • with values and the meaning of a mission
  • enthusiastic
  • generous
  • motivated
  • workers

The symptoms I felt and refused to admit:

  • lack of vitality
  • disillusionment, disenchantment
  • loss of joy
  • indifference
  • fallback on myself, isolation
  • cynicism
  • impatience
  • irritability
  • loss of concentration
  • inefficiency
  • sleep loss
  • feeling helpless and losing control of my life
  • demotivation
  • anxiety
  • loss of meaning at work
  • last fatal symptom that I narrowly avoided: collapse and demolition

While crying I warned Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung Judge that I was leaving her workshop well before its end. She kissed me, congratulated me for my courage and my awareness, and wished me to take care of myself from now on.

The same evening I was at my doctor, the good Dr. Sory. After listening to me for a long time, he put me on long sick leave for advanced mental exhaustion with the strong advise to see a psychologist. That same evening, I drew what had just happened. Having opened my eyes on my bad condition thanks to the workshop of Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung Judge, the visit to my doctor, and the decision to take care of myself to avoid burnout:

When I said I don’t want burnout

Some time after, I felt that I had just avoided the worst. That I had asked for and then received the help and support that I needed. Even if the recovery looked difficult and long. As drawing is a therapy since childhood for me, I need to express on paper what I feel, I drew what I felt this way:

Listen to your internal sensations to avoid burnout

Visits to the psychologist helped me to establish a list of actions and ways of thinking that would take me back slowly but surely.

I accept:

  • My exhaustion state, being on treatment and that it will last a long time
  • I will be fragile for a long time, so I must protect myself and be extremely careful. Not to trust an apparent quick return to feeling better (a relapse would be worse)
  • I have one body and I have spent more resources than it has (identical to the problem of overconsumption of our planet’s resources)
  • I must say loudly what is going wrong and ask for what makes me feel good
  • I cannot please everyone by always being nice
  • I can disappoint by saying no or by refusing to do something
  • I am the only person who can take care of myself

I pledge, as long as I am not back to the top of my health, to:

  • Listen to the signals of my body and every day evaluate how I feel thanks to introspection (15 minutes of meditation)
  • React immediately the day after to return to an acceptable level of well-being, if the result of the evaluation was not satisfactory

I commit myself now and for the future to:

  • Take back control of my life on what is under my responsibility
  • Put barriers at work to avoid permanent stress
  • Say stop to work overload, only work for the resources of one body and one mind
  • Stop what pumps me energy and makes no sense
  • Regularly regenerate myself through what makes me feel good, walks in nature, drawing, meditation, reading, traveling, family, etc.
  • Ask my employer, my direct hierarchy, what they will put in place for me to go better. If I assume my responsibilities, how do they assume theirs to prevent my burnout and burnout of other colleagues?
Ma remontée depuis le gouffre de l’épuisement mental

I returned to work recently. I received a lot of encouragement from my colleagues, understanding as well, and always the same observation that burnout risk at work is increasing for more and more people and more and more often. From my direct hierarchy, I have also received attentive listening, understanding, rearrangements of my work (I have, for example, gone from one to two days of teleworking), and other measures that should help me.
I am aware that I am still far from being at my normal state of well-being, I am still fragile. I must remain very careful. But I know that I am on the right track.

I learned at my expense what it is to believe being a superman who can do everything, quickly and well, often to please, even more often for fear of disappointing someone. I learned that the lack of congruence at work, the lack of meaning in too many activities, create cracks that only get bigger in me to become an abyss. I learned that being nice all the time with everyone does not help to respect me. I learned that not listening to the internal sensations of my body is the worst thing I can do. I learned that I am the only one responsible for my well-being.

I thank the following people for having helped me, advised, guided, supported, informed, loved, consciously or not: Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung Judge, Florence Bierlaire (psychotherapist and friend), Dr. Marie-Pascale Simonnet (Psychiatrist at the European Commission), Andrea Agosta (my psychotherapist), Dr. Sory, Agnès (my boss), my family starting with my wife and my children who have endured hard times, my friends and colleagues.

Update (01/05/2024)

Multitasking doesn’t work, here’s what does – sketchnotes
[…] I once believed multitasking was the key to productivity and efficiency. It took a burnout to realise the harmful effects of multitasking on my mental health […]

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13 Replies to “Burnout, how I avoided falling into the precipice”

  1. Many thanks Claudio for this deep, clear and honest analysis of a burnout incipit. It must not have been easy to describe it in such an effective (and splendidly pictorial!) manner, avoiding any edulcoration or excuse. Although this clarity of thought, generosity and intellectual honesty are the characteristics which define you, I trust it will be extremely useful to many other colleagues who (like me) have long struggled to recognise these signs, achieve better awareness of their condition and put in place, sooner or later, remedial strategies beneficial to themselves, their families and -sometimes- their colleagues too.

    On a slightly different note: isn’t it curious that the same organisation which so often creates the conditions for this kind of conditions to happen, is also so generously and knowledgeably supportive of ex-post solutions? Your analysis is an excellent tool to raise awareness and prevent deepening of these problems, yet shouldn’t we ask ourselves what else could be done, as a systemic change, to prevent from the beginning the arising of such too common conditions, while at the same time increasing everybody’s genuine enthousiasm and motivation?

  2. Love you so much for being adorable you, in all shapes and forms. I been trough a lot since I left the EC 3 years ago, and I think now that persuit for “meaning” is a very misleading path. I often remember your lovely company, people like you make people like me thinking that the world can be much more uplifting, but then, the world just …is, and now you have also learned something important.

    1. Is there a misleading path, dear Leina? or just a path to go wrong, learn, and progress? Each of us has her own path. Above all not to judge ourselves but to learn. This is what I am trying to do, having more compassion for myself, more courage, and accepting my vulnerabilities.

  3. This is tough! Thanks for sharing, Claudio. Wishing you all the love you can give to yourself and accept from others. Sending you a big warm hug through the ether.

    1. Thank you dear Andrea! Thanks for your wishes and for the big warm hug (well received while waiting to exchange a real one)

  4. Thank you for sharing, dear Claudio, helps a lot for others, too.

    Bon courage with everything!

    1. Thanks to you, dear Miruna, for your comment. I really appreciate your kind support.

  5. Hei!
    Thnx for sharing! Your story looks similar to my – I used more energy than my body had/was able to produce! 80% for reasons you described, except my personal life is fine. I think I noticed it earlier and my hierarchy immediately reacted on this before it gets worse. Thnx God Xms is coming with the break.

    So, I will slow down at work and started to take long sleeps. This helps me more than any medication. Now I need to start to have also lunches. For me more complicated- I cannot eat in bad canteens. Stomach starts revolt. Ps. We share the canteen, you should know. Will start to work on that as well. I hope to be fully armed in my team in January.

    1. Thank you @Rexonaut for your comment and for sharing your story. I am happy that you noticed the symptoms earlier and that you took the right initiative to react. Keep going taking care of yourself.

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