professional burnout, overwhelm, overwork, stress
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As Crispy As It Gets: My Personal Burnout Story

I don’t know when my professional burnout started, exactly, but I remember the day I knew something was seriously wrong. It was a Tuesday, and I was supposed to be in a meeting like a good little worker bee, but I just didn’t go. My project manager came to collect me and found me with my head down on my desk.  She laughed and told me to get my ass in gear, but as I gathered my things and headed to the meeting, I felt more like crying.

I had just spent the last hour looking at my paltry 401K balance online, refreshing the browser over and over, hoping it would magically turn into a golden parachute. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. I realized then that I could work another 30 years and still barely have enough to retire at 70. I also realized that I wasn’t going to make it.

professional burnout stress corporate culture

Symptoms of Professional Burnout

I know now that professional burnout manifests itself in a variety of ways (more on that to come), but for me, it looked like the following:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Inability to get excited about things
  • Irrational (or maybe rational?) anger at my bosses
  • Forgetfulness
  • Inability to take care of myself beyond the basics
  • Feeling like everything was pointless
  • And I was so, so tired

Basically, I felt awful most of the time but wasn’t really sure why. I loved my job, didn’t I? 

Burnout Sneaks Up On You

When I started my career as an advertising creative, I was so excited just to be there. I was working with fun people on fun projects, and my job description was basically “write interesting, funny, weird stuff”. I was getting paid for my ideas. How cool is that? 

Early in my career, I made very little money, but I was meeting lots of interesting people, traveling, learning new things, and growing as a writer. But as I moved along and up in the industry, things began to change. There were more meetings, more late nights, more weekends. My ideas began to take a back seat to whatever the client’s daughter had mentioned during carpool that morning. There were endless rewrites and do-overs, and the egos started to be a little much. I once had a boss who literally LIT MY SCRIPT ON FIRE in front of me to illustrate that it was garbage. (Gen Zers, it was a different time. Don’t even get me started on the sexual harassment.) All of this was supposedly “normal”…and it all kept happening on an endless loop. 

At some point, I started to get pretty crispy around the edges. I didn’t sleep well. I was drinking too much. I couldn’t be bothered to eat healthy foods. If I wasn’t working, my evenings and weekends were spent on the couch or at a bar. Then, I’d head back into the office each Monday to do it all over again. My symptoms kept getting worse until I was barely functioning.  

The idea of spending the rest of my life this way crushed me. I wish I could say I went all Norma Rae and fought for change or pulled a Peggy Olsen and peaced the fuck out, but I just didn’t have it in me. Sadly, I spent another year at this job until I was laid off.  Shit. The only thing worse than hating your job is being unemployed in New York City.  

Professional Burnout Stress Rage

Finally, Some Relief

Being laid off is scary, but on some level, I was so glad it was over. Then, an absolutely evil corporate rule in my severance agreement – I would forfeit my severance if I started a new job while they paid it – turned out to be a gift.  Determined that this company that had taken so much from me would pay every cent owed, I sat on my ass for two months and collected those checks. 

And even though I was stressed about finding my next job, it was actually a pretty peaceful time for me. I got some real, meaningful rest. I spent time reading and playing with my dogs. I met friends for dinner and went to visit family. I cleaned out my closets and got back into running. It was great. I never wanted to go back to work and experience professional burnout again. 

But of course, I had to. Like most people alive during this post-capitalism hellscape, I exchange my time for money to pay for shelter, food, health care, and diversions. Sadly, there is no backup plan. Unless I want to head into the wilderness and learn to live off the land, I simply have to work. 

Fast forward a few months, and I found a new job, but I knew I needed to do something different. Sure, I was giving my job 9-5…or 6 or 7…but I was determined to have some part of the day that was mine and mine alone. I had to find time for things that felt good to me and restorative to my spirit. Evenings were tough since I often worked late, and weekends weren’t enough to keep me going for a full week. That left mornings. Ugh. 

A Morning Routine? Really?

I’ve always been skeptical of morning routines. So many people swear by them, but to me, they often felt like perfectionist traps or just more work before the real workday began. Would making my bed each morning really set me up for a glorious day? Doubtful. If my morning routine felt like an extension of work or was a thinly disguised productivity hack, I knew I would rebel against it, so I set 3 criteria that any part of my morning routine had to meet:

  1. Do I actually enjoy it?
  2. Can it be done for a minimal amount of time and still be worth it to me? 
  3. Do I really want to do it? Or is it something I think I’m supposed to do? 

It took several months of trial and error, but I finally settled into a morning routine that made me feel more connected to myself and the world around me. It arms me for the day ahead with an extra little reserve of patience and perspective. My job is still challenging – some days downright maddening – but it doesn’t take me out at the knees like it used to. 

It’s been a few years since my sad 401K realization, and though I’ll still probably be working til 70, I now have better tools to manage all the feelings that brings up. Once a skeptic, I think an intentional, authentic morning routine is a big part of that. In fact, I’m such a believer that I decided to start Morning Human. If I can help one other stressed-out soul recover from professional burnout and find a little peace to start their day, then I know I’m doing something worthwhile.  

So that’s my story. Want to tell me yours? Drop it in the comments below!

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