Last year I had my first and only full-blast burnout. My goal by sharing this story is to normalize discussions around mental health, especially in scale-ups and in leadership roles, where I feel there's an extra taboo around it.
I remember it was a dark, cold, rainy Berlin winter day, one of those that already makes you miserable without the whole burnout thing as a backdrop. I was having lunch with my friend and peer at a place close to the office and burst into tears for what felt like the 20th time that week. I remember telling him “I feel like I lost my center, man. I can’t remember what it feels like to feel well.”
He finally convinced me to leave early for my vacation, something my manager at the time had been trying to do for weeks already. I had planned 20 days off to spend Christmas with friends in Barcelona and then travel with my family to a beautiful island in Rio. I had been powering through my stress, dreaming of caipirinhas, home, and family time. At first, it was just a couple of more months, almost there… Then a few more weeks, it’s okay, I can handle this… Then a few more days, I’ll be fine…
As I said, I finally decided to take some time off earlier and, after a couple of days just laying in bed feeling like a puddle of misery, I finally went for my trip and started my healing process, which is exactly what I want to share in this article.
The first thing I did on my road to recovery was starting a journal. I had two goals: to process my emotions, and, once I was able to find my center again, to document that reference point, so I could go back to it if I ever found myself unbalanced again.
Journaling also helped me identify the signs I was ignoring and that were clearly showing I was going down the burnout rabbit hole. The clearest red alert, in my case, was that I started having trouble sleeping. At some point last year, I powered through 3 or 4 days of not sleeping at all. I remember leading a workshop with my team in Sofia those days and feeling like a high-functioning zombie, I couldn’t think past just getting the next task done.
In the process of journaling, I also learned a few important things about myself. One of the most relevant being that I’m an introvert. Being an introvert doesn’t mean I hate people, otherwise, my career choices would come across as very odd. It actually means that being with people drains my energy instead of recharging it, and, yes, this also applies to the people I love. Ever wondered why you don’t see me around the meetup scene that often? Yup, guilty of extreme introversion!
I read this amazing book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and it really helped me understand more about this whole being-an-introvert thing. One of the key insights I got was that introverts can act extroverted to accomplish something they truly believe in, as long as they have the time and space to recharge.
Looking back at my pre-burnout months, I realised I had no time to recharge my social batteries at all. I was traveling 50% of my time for work, and you know how those business trips go, right?
You have breakfast with someone else who happens to be on a business trip at the same time as you, then spend the whole day meeting people. After that, you check your emails and actually get some work done for a couple of hours. In the evening, you go out for drinks or dinner with colleagues you don’t often see, and maybe find time to give your partner a call. Finally, you go to bed around midnight, exhausted, and repeat the cycle the following day.
When I was coming home from those already intense business trips, we often had friends over to visit us from other countries, which meant I ended up never having the time alone with my thoughts, in silence, to recharge.
Besides my introversion findings, I also realised my whole life was revolving around work. My friends were from work, whenever I was in social gatherings the only thing I was able to talk about was work, and my happiness or lack of it was directly related to how well things were going in my job. I’ve always been a self-declared and proud workaholic, but all of a sudden the burnout made me realise that having my whole identity revolving around work was a dangerous and unhealthy thing.
When I came back to work after my vacations, I noticed that my resilience level was not the same anymore. Things that wouldn’t put me off my balance in the past were triggering waves of anxiety and impostor syndrome. I was open about that at work and, to this day, the level of overwhelming support I received from everyone around me still warms my heart.
It’s no secret that I think SumUp is a special place. To add to my portfolio of stories around that, I remember being under a lot of pressure with Talent Acquisition topics when I came back and feeling on the verge of losing my center again. I reached out to both our founders, whom I worked closely with, and said “Guys… I just came back from burnout and I’m really struggling to handle things at the moment, my resilience threshold is way lower than usual.” The response? Our CEO actually took some time off his crazy schedule to start a conversation with the whole leadership team and agree on clearer priorities, asking them to stop pulling me and my team in several different directions. Our co-founder and CFO took me to a long lunch just to talk and help me remove some of that self-imposed pressure on myself. He is also one of our main internal ambassadors for mental health topics and is constantly offering personal support when he sees people struggling, and raising awareness around this topic with the people leaders at SumUp. If these guys are not the embodiment of our value of “We Care”, I don’t know who is. Warm, fuzzy feelings, all around.
After a few months of understanding and digesting my burnout process, I also started taking concrete action to take better care of myself. I started therapy and SumUp got me some coaching around the time the lockdown started in Berlin, because I was also transitioning into a new role. Both things added up to an amazingly supported self-knowledge deep dive.
And I know it’s a tone-deaf and extremely privileged thing to say, but, if I’m being truly honest with you all, I’m actually grateful for the lockdown. It gave me the possibility to work in a remote setting, where I manage my social energy a lot better and I had a much needed break from business trips and social gatherings for a while, without feeling guilty about it.
When I decided to tackle the topic of my whole identity revolving around work, I chose to revive some old hobbies. I started watching films and musicals (HUGE Broadway geek here!), cooking, and, the most impactful one, I started reading again.
Reading made me feel like an interesting human being again and gave me back this sense of wonder at the world — I was learning, growing, and having other interests beyond work. I read everything from politics, sociology and psychology to spirituality, fiction, and autobiographies. My initial goal was to read one book per month, and by the time I’m publishing this article, I’ve just finished my 33rd book this year. Can you tell I’m proud of myself? I really am.
What helped me keep the flow and discipline for reading was a mix of written books and audiobooks, as I became a huge fan of Audible and am always buying extra credits there. Plus, I created a “reading Kanban board” in Trello, which helps me monitor my progress and stops me from starting 20 books in parallel without finishing any (yeah, I’m one of those people).
Last but not least, I also started using an app called Sparkle to define and track some self-care routines. My self-care routine consists of really basic stuff, like connecting and disconnecting from work at a certain time, taking a break to have lunch without looking at work stuff, eating healthy, staying away from social media, keeping up with my hobbies, and taking some time daily to refresh my brain with mindfulness meditation.
Now that I have the proper space to recharge my social batteries, even spending time with people became one of my self-care points. Every now and again I need to break my routine, and that’s okay, as long as I don’t do it too many days in a row. Seeing the progress and reflecting on how these things made me feel when checking in with the app has really helped me stick to my routines.
With the global scenario of the pandemic and people constantly worrying about the health and economic sustenance of themselves and their communities, I started to see a lot of people around me on the road to a burnout, if not fully there yet.
In the cases I’m the closest with, I see a mix of a few elements. There’s a fear of showing vulnerability and losing a precious job in these dreadful times. I’ve also observed that some people don’t feel that they are entitled to feel bad. The thought of “Well, at least I have a job, I should be grateful, so many people have it so much worse!” pops up often. I must admit I also fell in this trap of lack of self-compassion and comparative suffering when I burnt out, and there wasn’t even a pandemic out there. I recommend listening to this amazing podcast by Brene Brown on comparative suffering, and reading this great book by Kristin Neff on self-compassion if you need a kick and tools to get out of this mental loop.
I hope that by sharing my story more people will feel comfortable to speak up about their mental health struggles and ask for help. There’s no reason to feel ashamed if you’re struggling to cope with stress at work, especially in times like these, when there are so many other layers of stress in our lives already.
And, if you’re down the burnout rabbit hole already, trust me, you can get out of it! Remember the things that give you joy, create a structure around yourself to start doing them, set some limits at work, and ask for help, both from friends and professionals. You’ll need people around you to lift you up and support you through this journey.
Stay safe and healthy! And, trust me, you got this!