Talking more about burnout

A personal view by Julia Bognar, Senior Clinical Pharmacist, Priory Medical Group

Talking about burnout is scary, but it is important. As for someone, who has walked through it all, it is important to share my story because sharing somehow makes the entire processing part easier.

However, it is so much harder to talk when going through burnout. Opening up for others is risky and it comes with fear: fear of being seen as a less capable person, fear of being misunderstood, neglected, fear of being judged and labelled, fear of being unworthy and so on. Those experiencing burnout deal with a lot of anger of their own, shame, detachment, loss, frustration, denial, disappointment, insecurity, low self-esteem and hopelessness. Not an easy place to engage in any conversations! It takes some reflection to be able to step back and recognise the spiral that we are in.

The difficult truth for me is that burnout is not just the result of endless, stressful, overwhelming, or busy working hours. Our mental and emotional response to stress and pressure is deeply coded in us. In fact, our very response in the present may have been helpful for us during other stages of our lives, often in our early childhood. Or else, our present response could have been developed by our ancestors and it served well their survival and success in life.

More often the roots of our strong work ethics and high expectations of ourselves lie in our own personal history of somehow needing to prove who we are in order to be accepted.  Importantly, it does not mean that we were ever wrong. The real healing and development come from the understanding and, beyond that, from reshaping this sense of unworthiness. It is possible to turn it into strength, motivation, and power!

Burnout is therefore much more complex and is different from functional exhaustion, despite the two being used interchangeably. Maybe this is why it is so hard to open up at the workplace, which, probably unintentionally, but triggers some of this turmoil in us. That said, sometimes it can be helpful to take time off and do the ‘homework’ away. What I had to learn though is that simply taking time out, changing role, changing hours may only give temporary relief. The real game-changer is the ‘background work’, and I am forever thankful to those who encouraged me to do it myself.

When people say to me: ‘I was so burnt out, and just needed a few days away from work, but it’s all ok now!’. There are two things that go through my mind. Either this person is far from being well, masking their fear, insecurity, frustration, and struggle, even their depression. Or they just do not know what burnout is. It is not possible to recover from burnout just by sleeping for a few days! (However important good rest is for our personal wellbeing.)

I am sometimes asked about medications. As pharmacist, I understand the very diverse spectrum of how chemicals may affect us as individuals. Importantly, there are times when there is no other way, but to take tablets because these can help us cope and engage with our people and surroundings.

There is a music that shows so well the struggles of trying to speak whilst battling the waves of loss and failure that are embedded in the burnout journey.

Helen Hopekirk is probably one of the more neglected British romantic pianists and composers. Born in Scotland she moved to New York in her forties where she spent most of her life as a successful musician and music teacher. She was described by her peers as one of the most gifted performers of her time. She proved herself by working hard, having performed since her early teenage years and beyond. By clicking here, you can listen to my playing of the ‘Air’ from Suite. The piece brings to life a variety of emotions wrapped up in exotic and interesting chords. The main theme of the music returns in different shapes and while the notes are similar, the mood becomes more dramatic each time the theme is repeated. The peaceful, gradual fading in the end offers relief and comfort, promising that the storm is now over, and we have made it through.

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