Navigating the Burnout Abyss

19 Apr 2024

Navigating the Burnout Abyss

Aishwarya Mohapatra

From the depths of exhaustion to the light of renewal: my story of building back my resilience

At some point of our increasingly busy lives — whether due to personal factors, an intense longer-term work project, or during a rigorous academic stint — we have all faced burnout in some form or another. Burnout manifests in a whole spectrum of symptoms — we start feeling more irritated or cynical, productivity and quality of work decline, and we feel unrested and unable to charge our batteries over the weekend. If not addressed quickly, physical symptoms like headaches, GI tract issues, and long-term insomnia emerge. We start losing pleasure in the activities that bring us joy, and a vicious cycle takes hold: we constantly feel on the hamster wheel trying to expend more effort, but unable to accomplish something significant. We feel like we’re losing at work, relationships, and life.
The roots of my burnout were initially emotional in nature — my stressors started in 2022 when my Dad was admitted to the ICU. He had a terminal, rare lung disorder and needed a double lung transplant to meaningfully extend his life. My colleagues and friends kept my spirits up as I flew back and forth between San Francisco and Bangalore. They help me crowdfund, connected me with others who had organized transplants for their loved ones, and supported me in squeezing in projects at work. Eventually, the toll of taking life-or-death decisions with my Mom and watching Dad’s health decline and pass away on my 30th birthday got to me. Three weeks later, my paternal grandfather passed at the age of 94, albeit peacefully. I’d never encountered death before, and seeing it closely twice over introduced me to the concept of mortality. It finally destroyed my ability to get high-quality sleep! Ever since I was a child going to primary school, I have been a night owl, used to sleeping 4–6 hours on most weeknights and catching up on sleep in the late afternoons via a 1-hour nap or on the weekends. I’d been the world’s most optimistic soul, always believing in life taking a turn for the better. Suddenly all at once, I felt older than my years, heavy in my bones and soul.
As I came back to my “normal” life, I tried stepping up and took up my first managerial experience at work within a few months. The first lesson I learnt — I had not protected my boundaries. My reserves dwindled while I managed a large team spread across San Francisco, New York, and Gurgaon. I should have had everyone agree on one time zone of work, but I signed up to extend myself to at least 2 time zones. Earlier, I had been an individual contributor. Now, even with all my leaders mentoring and coaching me, I “felt” responsible for everyone else’s experience and performance. I started losing sleep bit by bit as every week passed, until I was not sleeping at all. Things came to a head 5 weeks in, when I passed out on my desk one morning and had to dial 911 and go to the hospital. The disruption of my sleep cycle had been affecting my blood pressure and kidney function. In the weeks before, I had been chugging water and taking bathroom breaks 2–3x as much, and I needed to take it easy to go back to normal. I was really lucky I could rely on my team to step in when I took a day off here and there, but by the end of the project, I was a mess — distracted, stumbling over my words, feeling like a failure (while my team did a phenomenal job and there was no reason to be so hard on myself), not sleeping, eating irregularly, in bed for the whole weekend, and the worst part — I didn’t spend time with my Mom over the weekends, who had come with me to San Francisco from our home in India after my Dad’s death. Post this project, we had planned for a trip to Philadelphia and New York before heading to Chennai for my visa appointment and then home to Bangalore. I went through that itinerary like a zombie. I barely did the trip, met very few friends, and went to no new places in my home city.
It took me months to recover. I came back to work, but a part of my resilience bedrock that I had built over the years had crumbled away. A lot of it was tied up with my Dad’s death — for the first time in my life, I was deeply afraid of failure, to the extent that I didn’t want to work on new types of projects. I was trying to stay motivated, but I was simply just not as efficient and scaling up slower. I struggled tremendously with insomnia at night…and in those times, the sadness of my family’s deaths would wash over me in endless waves I couldn’t break through.
It has taken me almost 1.5 years, but I finally took the time I needed to come back to my previous productivity and happiness levels. For anyone who would find it helpful, sharing what worked for me —

Mindset: First, I had to admit to myself that I was in the middle of an intense physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual burnout. I couldn’t sweep it under the rug or power through like always. I took a break, said no to a couple of step-up opportunities that didn’t fit me, rediscovered what made me content, and started defining new operating model principles. Most importantly, I recognized that I had defined work success and validation as a core part of my identity for a decade. This was something I had to break out of.

Self-care: It is embarassing how much I’d neglected basic self-care. I never learnt how to cook beyond basics, and one that came back to bite me in the back when I moved to the States in 2019. I used to eat junk food and chug coffee like gatorade to get through my work day. After a lot of experimentation with cooking and deliveries, I realized this year I just hated cooking whenever I live alone. So, I committed to a couple of meal delivery services like Factor75 and Shef, and I am now a happier soul.
I also made physical activity a mainstay of my life. Investing in an elliptical and gym subscription, building a routine around a morning walk or heading to beaches in San Francisco or the Embarcadero during the evenings, and meditating for at least 2 minutes a day vastly improved my memory and concentration levels.

Therapy: I went through a roster of therapists and coaches. As an early 90s kid born in small-town India, therapy had never been recognized by my family as a mainstream method of managing health. Finding the right therapist and coach to talk about my life, how it had changed in the last few years, and what was going to motivate me to live a better life — this really helped.

Friends and travel: I am a city girl, and headed to Manhattan another 3 times in 2023 gave me all the dopamine highs I needed. New York City in the Fall is simply beautiful. My friends, most of them busy consultants themselves, opened up their homes to me during my ‘lost traveler’ phase.

Spirituality: Finding my faith again was a long journey. I’ve always prayed somewhat regularly…but somewhere, sometime, I had stopped in the last couple of years. I hadn’t been able to let go of my hurt and anger at God for letting my Dad die. So I had to start again somewhere — I began with reflecting about the beauty of God in the ocean near my home, and wondering if my Dad was with me in spirit when I saw something beautiful. When I felt overwhelmed with myself or with my day, I let nature take some of my pain away. Finding my way back to my relationship with God has given a new reserve of resilience and optimism.

Sunset at Marshall’s Beach, a small stretch of sand near the Golden Gate bridge, San Francisco

Planning a sustainable shift: I made the call in the last few months to move away from a management consulting career. It was a hard decision, because McKinsey has some of the smartest, caring people I’ll ever meet, and at least in the US, management consulting is all I know. I get bored easily and doing different projects at work always kept me excited! What if I got “stuck” in my next workplace in any way? What if it didn’t work out? It took a few months to execute, but preparing for interviews for different companies in the Bay area introduced me to all the positives of a change in my career, and so many exciting developments happening across various industries. Looking back at everything I learnt at McKinsey, b-school, and Flipkart, I could finally take stock of my skillset, connect the dots, and see some cool new ways of making a difference. I still ran to something and would never work a 9–6 job, but hopefully, instead of being a bit of a validation junkie riding a metaphorical rollercoaster, I am now jogging to a new phase of life where I am able to stay motivated from what happens beyond work. The possibilities of what I can do with my spare time are endless. That’s how I wrote this article, too.

In conclusion, all I can say is this — if you’re in any phase of hitting burnout, please pause, slow down, and change direction. Once you burn out completely, recovery takes a long time!
Don’t be afraid to take time off. Voice what you’re feeling to your loved ones, friends, and if you can, trusted colleagues so you can set better boundaries. Take what you need in terms of time and resources to recover, and plan for a new way of operating. Make time for what energizes you, and slow down for a few minutes at least in the day. Walk on some green grass and feel the sun on your face. My favorite activity is to watch puppies in a small dog park near me so I can look at least one thing and think — “That is so cute!” Recapping your work day / personal day with what you are grateful for, even for a few minutes, is a powerful activity.
Paraphrasing Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post — “Burnout should not be the price for success”.

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