Lessons in Burnout

I’ve been working solo for the last month and a half, my co-worker having been deployed to the Covid floor to fill the gap left by staff taken out by the virus. My workload hasn’t diminished, being one man down; if anything, there’s more to be done. The ability to slow down seems to have escaped me; my need for speed has become a twisted coping mechanism. If I keep moving, I keep producing and if I keep producing, I feel like I’m accomplishing something. I know this thought process is whacked–I’ve been working through a pandemic on the front-lines–I’ve accomplished a lot just by showing up, but in the daily moment by moment, I feel like I’m racing against an imaginary clock and I’m not winning.

Constant check-ins with myself, reminding myself that I’m only one person, that I’m doing the best I can and that I can (should) slow down are futile. All I have to do is check my email, and another list of “must do’s” are awaiting me.

On one particular day, I was already feeling stretched when the mile long list of ASAPs showed up in my inbox. I felt my jaw clench and a prickly heat radiate from my chest to my head as I went for the step ladder. Almost one hundred snowflakes that had taken two of us over two hours to put up, now had to be brought down by yours truly. I was angry. The whole production of hanging Christmas decorations in the hallways seemed redundant to me in the first place; our residents were isolated inside their rooms over most of the holiday season. It seemed we’d been forced to create a false image of Christmas joy where sadly, there had been none.

Up and down the ladder I went, reaching overhead; fighting to find the gossamer strands suspending these snowflakes in mid-air through the glare of my mandatory protective face shield. The whole time I was plucking them from the ceiling tile, my resentment built.

Whether from frustration or fatigue, I lost my balance on the step ladder when the tread of my shoe got caught. It happened quickly, but in that slo-mo way that car crashes occur. In an instant, I was flat on my back, staring up at the snowflakes that now mocked me. My timing and locale was impeccable–right in front of the nursing station at the change of shift. Brilliant.

I heard the collective gasp of my co-workers and it only served to further fuel my anger. Sitting up quickly, I grabbed the offending ladder and fired it across the hallway. Like my walk about a week earlier that saw me nearly slide into the ice cold river, the requisite “For fuck’s sakes!” left my mouth.

“Are you okay?” the charge nurse asked. Historically, this has never been a good question to aske me immediately following injury.

“No. Actually, I’m not,” I snapped. What came next, surprised even me. “I’m burned out and I’ve had it!”

Then came the tears. Tears that I’d been stuffing down for the past several months. This literal ‘fall-out’ culminated in exhaustion, frustration, sadness and anger, and I really didn’t care anymore who bore witness to it.

Oddly enough, a few days prior to this event, I listened to a podcast by Brené Brown. She was interviewing the authors of the the book, Burnout–The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski.

In the interview, they spoke of the research done by Hubert Freudenberger on the phenomenon of burnout. He broke it into three stages which they explained in their own words:

Emotional Exhaustion: The fatigue that comes with caring too much for too long. Check.

Decreased Sense of Accomplishment: A sense of futility; that nothing truly matters. Check.

Depersonalization: A depletion of caring, empathy and compassion. Check.

I’d been nodding my head vigorously while I listened to them describe the last several months of my life, and then they added another layer–the Human-Giver Syndrome. It’s just what it sounds like–perpetually caring for, and about others at the expense of your own wellbeing. Because of the age-old stereotypical perception that women are to be pretty, nice and calm, the Nagoskis explain that it’s far easier for women to get caught in this role and Brown added, that there’s shame involved when they fail to meet the requirements. Well, I was none of those things the day I landed on my butt in front of a hallway full of my peers. Some may think I should have been embarrassed or ashamed by both the incident and my reaction, but the opposite was true.

I could finally stop pretending.

As if an imaginary pressure valve had been released, the words I’m burned out, brought relief. I was giving voice to the stress and the stressors that had been feeding on me for nearly the last year, and with that validation, came the tears. Following the advise of Emily and Amelia, instead of focusing on the cause of my tears, I just watched them. Big plump juicy tears landing on my cheeks, fogging up my glasses and soaking my scrub top. Snotty nose, requiring more than one tissue, and necessitating the change of my medical grade mask. Eventually my breathing slowed and the tears stopped. This is the sort of thing that is apparently required to go through a stress cycle. Each episode of stress has a beginning, a middle and end. Exhaustion is what happens when you get stuck in an emotion and don’t allow yourself to go through the whole cycle. I rode the mechanical bull of anger from one end of the cycle to the other and didn’t get kicked off. Booyah! (Getting kicked off a ladder doesn’t count.)

It’s taken me a while to get there, but there’s a freedom in being vulnerable; being brave enough to say, I’m not okay. I’m tired. Since that day, I’ve been able to be authentic about what I need to maintain my wellbeing while serving my residents. I don’t carry residual pain, neither physical nor emotional, from my stumble. In fact, it’s probably the best thing that’s happened in a long time.

6 thoughts on “Lessons in Burnout

  1. Love it once again Monica! You have the ability to put into words what everyone else is thinking. I’m glad you weren’t hurt by your fall, that is scary! (P.s. why did the snowflakes have to be taken down…it is winter time!)


    • Ah, but my workplace is very much driven by appearances, themes and subterfuge. Thanks for recognizing the goal of this piece– to say what everyone’s been thinking. I appreciate your support of my writing and our collective work.


  2. You had me pulled in so deep with your penchant for storytelling that I almost caught you when you fell off the ladder! Almost…
    You are such a gifted writer Monica!
    Stay safe and keep well… you are loved and admired.


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