By Sue-Anne Lim
Have you woken up in the morning feeling like there are bricks just weighing you down on your chest? Or, maybe you felt like a deflated tyre trying to catch enough breath to get yourself going for the day, but no amount of breathing gets you up?
Perhaps you even hoped that you were sick that day, a personal emergency would happen, or even you would meet with an accident on the way to work? Just so you don’t have to get up and face going to work.
You may be wondering “What’s there to look forward to today at work?” Work, work, and more work. All that just feels so meaningless at the moment.
Exhaustion, tense, dread, and feeling like every movement toward work felt like moving a ton. That was how I felt when I was experiencing a burnout.
This was way back before the Covid-19 pandemic, but the number of hours is almost the same as the hours people are working now. I was out at work for 15-18 hours a day, including time in traffic. I would wake up with my heart palpitating with my eyes barely open. It was something I didn’t notice then, but my chest was tight all the time and constantly anxious. Eventually, I felt like I was going about day by day like a ‘pancit tayar’. If you have ever been in a car with a flat tyre, it is still moving but with this drag and extreme slowness. That is how going about my days at work felt like. I also had to attend classes for my professional papers on the weekends. More than once, I sat in my car crying outside of my workplace or my classes; feeling this immense dread of heading in.
Almost everything in life has turned to be about work or study. I dropped all volunteer work that is a regular routine for me since I was a teenager, and any other activities that I used to enjoy, including dance, yoga, and just plain hanging out with my friends.
I was just too tired for all of it. I also constantly felt like I was having a fever and kept visiting my family doctor who knew me since I was child. There usually was nothing wrong, but she could see something was different. From this healthy person that only visited her once a year for a minor cold, I was a physiologically healthy person who somehow just felt like she was burning up from within. There was just emotional and physical exhaustion all day long – the first sign of a burnout.
Going through the motions of the day felt a little surreal and my patience was running short. I had no tolerance for anyone having a differing opinion at work. I was usually a pro at handling difficult bosses and client demands, but I had no more energy to muster and would just completely avoid them.
Anyone getting in the way of me doing work, I would hold my breath and try my best not to snap at them, but the annoyance was evident on my face. I had anxiety over phone calls. The calls always felt like they yielded no results or felt totally outside of my control. For example, clients demanding for work that was stuck on my boss’ desk, authorities that do not agree with our opinion of tax treatment, or difficult bosses who have unreasonable demands. Hence, I took to unplugging my phone at work as I could not bear needing to answer such calls and not know what to do about it. Naughty, I know. Well, these are the signs that sprung up for me that I didn’t think really mattered at that point as the awareness of what I may be going through was very low. This sense of cynicism and detachment is, something that I only realised later, another sign of burnout.
It only hit me when I got a performance review and was told that my work capacity was at 150%. Wow. Something to celebrate, right? I did not think so then. I just thought to myself “That’s not an achievement, the numbers are rigged”, and I just felt really sad. Nothing I did really felt like it was enough. I had no sense of achievement and started to lose meaning in the work I was doing. I was not engaged. Even my subconscious was trying to tell me something as I got utterly hooked to OneRepublic’s song ‘Counting Stars’. I was obsessed with the line:
“But baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard
Said no more counting dollars
We’ll be counting stars
Yeah, we’ll be counting stars”
– Counting Stars, OneRepublic
Clearly, I felt no sense of accomplishment or efficacy in what I was doing; that I spent three quarters of my day doing. This is a third sign of burnout.
It is a funny thing, burnout. The person experiencing it often feels that it is pretty obvious that something is not right with them. However, often times, one looks perfectly fine on the outside. Unlike being physiologically unhealthy, like a rash or a cough, being mentally and emotionally unhappy is pretty invisible. And often times, we choose to remain silent on our suffering telling ourselves, “we should not be feeling this way” or “others can take the workload, I should be able to”. However, these are the times to reach out and to verbally tell someone. It is not the easiest as there are many out there who struggle to understand and empathise with what you’re going through.
Short of saying “I need help”, I started exploring my inner world. I saw a counsellor who gave me a career choice test that helped me better understand my interests and personal orientation. I asked my husband about what the essence of my being would be most suited for, putting aside my degrees and work experiences. I also took up the offers to attend personal development programmes that have helped people I care for and respect. Most importantly, I took the very difficult step to step out of the environment that was not helpful in my journey inwards to me. I was met with a lot of dissent from my family and many of my colleagues did not quite understand.
However, amongst the dissenters, I found loving and genuine supporters who saw me as an independent who can make choices toward a more fulfilling life in spite of the challenges along the way. These individuals helped me make quite a tumultuous transition from a tax consultant to, now, a registered counsellor. And, I am sincerely thankful.
Super important to note that I am not suggesting that everyone who experiences burnout needs to make a career change. This is merely what came out of my own personal journey in finding me again. You may relate or take away some things from here that may be helpful for you. Or, you may not. Either way, I do believe in your capacity as an individual who is more than what others say you are and has something precious to offer this life.
Questions and comments that you may have on what I have shared are welcomed. You can reach me at [email protected].
Sue-Anne Lim is a licensed counsellor as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practitioner. She was formerly a tax consultant at EY and has years of experience working in the corporate world. She provides counselling to young adults and corporate clients. She focuses on making space for emotions, gaining clarity in career journeys, and working together with clients to address burnout by moving toward leading a value-driven life.