Recovering from burnout: the power of music

Julia Bognar works in the NHS for a GP surgery in York as a Senior Clinical Pharmacist. She came across the CultureClub.Social website whilst browsing for arts involvement for NHS staff and wanted to connect with staff at the Trust, particularly those with a similar interest in music. Below is her story and towards the end are a couple of youtube films of Julia playing and I urge you to watch. I’m sure Julia’s experience will resonate with many. The Arts Team are very grateful to her for opening up and sharing both her personal experiences and her music with us here on CC.S.

“It is not easy to write about a personal experience with burnout. I know that everyone’s story is different and, though the phenomenon is becoming more and more prevalent across the healthcare workforce, I believe that stigmas still surround it.

I am sharing my story not just to raise awareness.  I hope that perhaps those being at risk of the consequences of a more severe episode, may pick up on some of the early warning signs sooner by reading this piece.

In truth, I don’t know if burnout can really be avoided or prevented. Some people are just more prone to it than others.  This by no means is a reflection on anyone’s work, but more so that as individuals we all have different ideas, personal values, and approaches to what we do for a living.  In addition, while burnout is often seen as a purely work-related event, we all carry other baggage with us and sometimes it just falls apart. 

Besides, the common triggers that can lead to burn out may be very different for people.  For example, things that (I now know) could knock me sideways, might not even touch others. The reverse is also true: things that don’t really affect me could possibly be quick and harsh triggers for someone else.

For me, having to come to terms with the fact that I burnt out took longer, and so has the recovery. I did not really understand what was happening to me. In all honesty, it was a close friend who just would not let go of the idea that I needed more help, that I changed, and so she kept pushing gently to get me to see what I was really going through. On the surface I remember being very irritated and snappy with anyone trying to talk to me about work outside work, and probably at work too, to some extent. But I was perfectly OK with any other conversations, so once I navigated the topic, I was suddenly magically fine.

I had physical symptoms too. When going through burn-out, some people, like myself, may experience gastro-intestinal symptoms. Others report pain or fatigue, some overeat, while some don’t even feel hunger or thirst. In my case I knew that I was on my way when I first felt hunger again after a working day.

Mentally, some people become detached from their work and have very negative feelings about their jobs, while others overcome this by doing even more work (just to silence that voice).

In my experience, the hardest part of burnout is that it is isolating, especially at the workplace. Most people will probably never talk to their co-workers about how they feel because they are ashamed of their own feelings and thoughts. Unfortunately, it is easy to develop risky and unhealthy patterns.

It took me some time to learn to look at burnout as a wake-up call and as a beginning of something else in my life, rather than a personal failure. I saw value in therapy and mentoring because they helped me to see my own sources from a new perspective. I also had people around me who received me as I was and supported me through this (knowingly or unknowingly). Rediscovering music throughout the process was just a bonus, though music became part of my life again in stages.

In one of the first sessions my therapist asked, ‘What role does music play in your life?’  I think I said something along the lines of ‘I have CDs in my car.’ The next clue was a charity meeting where I was probably even less of my usual self and one of the other trustees called me afterwards to check in. She just mentioned in passing, how surprised she was by witnessing one of her patients being transformed by music. She just told me about this refugee (a former Syrian pianist) with severe PTSD who was taken to an empty concert hall with a piano. His first chords on the instrument were the beginning of his therapy and healing here in the UK. A little later I bought a house, and incidentally, the vendor was a dedicated hobby pianist, who left their Beethoven collection behind for me. Shortly after, my partner surprised me with a Chopin collection for my birthday (Chopin being one of my favourite composers).

At that point, I decided to get a small piano. I just wanted to try how it might feel playing again after all those years (I hadn’t touched an instrument since I was 16). I must admit that playing did not go well the first time, but it was still good fun and I enjoyed it, so I was keen to find a tutor. The rest is history. 

Thinking back at my shy and shaky playing when I first met my tutor, I have certainly come a long way during the past few months. Growing as a musician is an exciting journey that I did not think I would ever embark on again. I have never regretted the time and the effort that I have put into music since. Besides, I can also enjoy the benefits of music through my work: I focus better, and I am much more self-aware. Music speaks to everyone and it’s such a joy and inspiration to be able to use an instrument to bring the notes to life! Indeed, the experience and the joy of playing music on the piano remains the same despite having to fit music around a full-time job and other life commitments.

Below, I would like to share a couple of pieces that I’ve recently discovered for myself.

Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ is one of the most well-known pieces of music in the world. This is also one the first pieces that I learned some months ago, so please forgive the shaky 4th and 5th fingers! Interestingly, we don’t really know who the eponymous ‘Elise’ was, but the composer’s admiration and desire for her affections is obvious. Watch out for the mood changes throughout the piece. Modern theories argue whether Beethoven composed this in the format and structure we know ‘Fur Elise’ today. 

Bela Bartok’s Rondo was written in the early 20th century. The Hungarian composer may be known for the opera ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’, but he was also an ethnomusicologist who fully embraced the folk tunes of the diverse Carpathian communities. Listen to the three little, short melodies incorporated in this work: some may have been children’s songs while others were played, danced, and sung in the pubs celebrating a long day of work in the rural mountain villages. It is a fun and exciting piece with loads of dynamic changes!”

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