Was I burnt out?

Was I burnt out?  Did it matter?  I took an unintended break and now I know it’s because I had to.

This recent article in the New York Times (HT/@intldogooder) took me a bit by surprise as it was not what I was expecting to read about burn out.  I read through it and immediately identified with this paragraph:

While most people think job burnout is just a matter of working too hard, that’s not necessarily true. Professor Maslach and Professor Leiter list six areas that can result in burnout: work overload; lack of control over the work; insufficient rewards; workplace community problems, such as incivility and a lack of support among co-workers; a lack of fairness, such as inequality of pay, promotions or workload; and a conflict between one’s personal values and the requirements of a job.

Burnout for me, as an aid worker, was always about stress–stress caused by too much work in difficult situations and not being able to take care of myself through proper diet and exercise.  I had worked on those two areas in my life and do indeed feel like it made a difference however, it wasn’t enough.  I was restless and listless at the same time and it wasn’t a feeling that I could shake.  I wasn’t looking forward to doing what I had loved doing over the previous 8 years.

Burnout is not just when you need a vacation to recharge. It’s when you feel overwhelming exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure (NYTimes article)

I was engaged in many conversations, all with women, where all of us were basically fantasizing about quitting aid work and doing something else.  Not by coincidence, the “something else” was creating support systems for people like ourselves, who were dealing with lots of stress in our work and not being able to reconcile it with our ideas of healthy work-life balance. It’s still something that many of us struggle with—how do we take the break or just even quit aid work.  Aid work gives us meaning but at times it feels futile.  And if we don’t do this work, what will we do?

If you are having these conversations, take a step back and examine it seriously.  Is it real job dissatisfaction that could lead to burn out? Or is it simply a case of being a holistic, three dimensional person, with multiple interests and not enough time in the day to do it all?

I took the break I needed without realizing that I was.  And I did other things.  This blog finally took shape and went from being an idea into a reality during that break.  I became a practicing health coach with clients.  I did the odd consultancy.  I took a job with an applied research institute that was still considered humanitarian but was removed just enough for my comfort zone where I woke up every morning and loved going to work.  I disengaged with the politics of aid agencies I had worked for in the past.  I started a second FaceBook account (ostensibly for health coaching) and de-friended colleagues that I felt were draining my energy on my personal account.  I ran two half marathons, made friends and engaged with people outside of work, took trips to places I said I wanted to see but always put off.  I made a conscious choice to be more present in my relationship.

I did this all and came out the other end better for it and I feel that it’s despite myself.  (Looks like I may have an issue owning my achievements). I say it’s despite myself because I never thought I was burnt out.  I just thought it was life and I was going through a phase.  I can look back now with 20/20 hindsight and see that this was not a good place to be and will certainly be more in tune with the signs if they come visiting again.  It’s so important to love what you do.  Whatever it might be.  If you are getting ‘burnt out’, you should take it seriously.  And it could be taking a break or being able to identify what parts of your job are causing you dissatisfaction and using that as a starting point to begin to solve the problem.  Because as we know:

While people need to figure out what they can do on an individual level to prevent burnout, change will be limited without a shift in organizational thinking, […]— a challenging proposition at best. (NYTimes article)

I’m standing here on the other side of this to tell you it can be done and it’s worth it.  Even if by mistake.

As always, we would love to hear your thoughts as we know this is not a topic that receives a lot of attention but it is something that aid workers, both women and men, contend with.  Give us advice, comments or just share your story below.


About Zehra

Zehra is a livelihoods and cash transfer specialist working in humanitarian contexts. She has also been a health and lifestyle coach for humanitarian aid workers. Loves food, bollywood and tweeting (@zehrarizvi).
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7 Responses to Was I burnt out?

  1. bharati acharya says:

    Great post Zehra. I have had lots of conversations with people, mostly women, about burnout in this field. Mental Health professionals often talk about culitvating resilience on physical and emotional levels through attending to diet, exercise and social support. All are so important. Yet, sometimes “burn out” can be attributed to something deeper and more existential–
    a crisis of meaning and purpose that descends upon us when the change we are trying to work for does not happen, or happens too gradually and subtlely. I love the quote by the author bell hooks ” cynicism is just a mask of the disappointed heart.”

  2. Heal+Restore says:

    Wonderful post Zehra, and how inspiring you’ve reached the other side!

  3. Pingback: Women building resilience in our own community – the community of expat aid workers. | Women in Aid

  4. Thanks for this post and I am totally with you. I also only realized months later (after also taking a “mandatory” break) that it was burnout. It’s crazy how it can sneak up on you!

  5. Catarina says:

    Great post and I am totally with you Zehra. I also only noticed months later (also following a “mandatory break” and becoming a health coach funnily enough) that it was burnout. Crazy how it can sneak up on you!

  6. Very much appreciate your post Zehra. I too have been looking at this having experienced some burnout in my own career and now as a manager, carefully looking at how to support those that I work with to hopefully avoid major burnout scenarios.

  7. salsachica13 says:

    thanks for this post Zehra! I can definitely relate.

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