The modern world of work is not set up to nurture our well-being. We strive to maximise efficiency and chase productivity gains. Then we pride ourselves on pushing through when we’re sick.
We are living, breathing beings who best thrive in a rhythm of work, rest, and play. Yet we often operate more like machines. And we do this unconsciously, unless and until some catalyst forces us to wake up.
My Path into Burnout
My own catalyst came in the form of a car accident that happened while I was working as a busy manager in the health field. I’m sure I’d received plenty of nudges along the way, but it took an incident this serious before I was willing to put down my work and pay attention.
The day after it happened, I remember feeling the impulse to push through and head back into work. My to-do list would wait for no-one!
But a stronger instinct took over. This told me, in no uncertain terms, to sit back down and rest. In the six years since, I’ve been un-training myself from living and working in a constant state of overwhelm.
What had me there in the first place? I found there were a few big drivers:
- Equating productivity to self-worth — Like many people, I internalised the cultural narrative that being productive makes for a valuable person. I learned early on that producing good work was a way to be seen and acknowledged.
- Lacking an off-switch — I’d become so used to working hard, producing results, and taking on extra responsibility, that it began to feel natural to be in constant doing mode. This got me locked in a state of constant physical stress, and simply overriding any bodily signals exhorting me to slow down.
- Feeling like an imposter — As a woman moving through roles of increasing responsibility early in my career, I was often in the deep end learning how to swim. I spent a significant amount of effort trying to anticipate and over-deliver against imaginary expectations. Playing out this pattern repeatedly over time became exhausting.
- Work as a distraction — Like so many people, losing myself in constant busyness was a great distraction for things I didn’t want to pay attention to. It allowed me to avoid feeling the discomfort that would come if I slowed down.
The Long Road Back to Well-being
What did it take to find my way back to well-being?
There really were no quick fixes. Dropping the relentless self-pressure and stress, and moving toward greater ease and well-being has been a daily commitment and choice. Here are three things I’ve found crucial in the past six years:
Declaring my Well-being as a Top Priority
First and foremost, I made a conscious commitment to make my well-being a fundamental priority. I continue to make this commitment and choice daily. This is a bold act in our modern world, and we can all find reasons why it’s too hard. I was no different.
It has meant making intentional and sometimes difficult decisions that fly in the face of cultural norms, like opting for sideways instead of upward steps on the career ladder. I was regularly told of my potential, and people often couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t accept the management roles on offer. Instead, I chose roles that were more junior than I was capable of, but that gave me better life balance, and more time and energy.
This required me to be crystal clear on my values, and courageous enough to put them into action, because following this path challenges the norm. And while it was a little unnerving at first, I held strong to my values, and over time found that my fears about status, money, and others’ judgment became irrelevant.
At the end of the day, who is any of us truly accountable to, if not ourselves?
Taking Heed of My Body’s Signals
We live in a culture where logical thinking is revered above all. From the moment we’re born, we learn to use our mind to drive, and often tune out our body’s signals.
I’ve intentionally learned how to reconnect with my body. This literally means spending time noticing physical sensations – tightness in chest, tension in calves, expansive feeling in stomach – and tuning in to the information that provides.
I’ve also learned to take heed of these signals. An example is choosing to rest at the earliest opportunity when I fall sick. This is vastly different to our cultural conditioning to push on through, over-the-counter meds in hand.
I also try my best to ride the wave of work, rest, and play — following bursts of hard work with sufficient downtime to replenish myself. We all know how fruitless it is to try and make ourselves productive when we’re feeling anything but. I use my most productive hours (mornings) to do my most creative, strategic work. And I use the more sloth-like times (afternoons) for more menial tasks. I still work hard and get results. I just allow myself to work in a rhythm that recognises that my energy levels fluctuate.
Relentlessly Challenging Conventional Wisdom
This is a big one, and a continual practice. We’re surrounded by the stories of our society, family, and self. It’s the nature of the human condition.
Choosing to prioritise my own well-being has meant being willing to move from blindly accepting to questioning the stories that make us vulnerable to burnout in the first place.
Society’s stories have us believing that we’re only as good as what we produce. They tell us the 9-5 hustle is normal (rather than an arbitrary standard from the industrial revolution), and that there’s something wrong with us if we can’t perfectly juggle that with all of life’s other demands.
Our social self is the side of us that seeks to please and fit in with others. It tells us we need to keep our bosses happy, we can’t say no to extra responsibilities even though we’re stretched, and that we have to give 110% to everything we do.
And our internal stories are perhaps the stickiest of all. These stories have us convinced that we can only succeed if we push ourselves, and of all the catastrophes that could occur if we dare to slow down.
Left unchecked, these stories keep us stuck. Getting unstuck requires a relentless commitment to first, bringing awareness to the stories, and then, tearing them down — creating new truths that support our wellbeing instead.
Taken together, all these steps have helped me rebuild a sense of well-being, and now I live and work with far less pressure and more ease.
And there’s always a silver lining. For me, it’s the space that this journey created to uncover an even deeper purpose, which has led me into coaching. For my clients, this experience invariably involves a rethinking or deepening of their most authentic life, too.
What silver lining might be waiting in the wings for you?
This is a condensed version of my original article on Elephant Journal.
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