Our Beating Burnout blog shares the real life burnout stories of real people. We focus on how burnout impacted them, how they overcame it and what advice they would give people to prevent it.
In December 2021 we had a lovely interview with Jessi Christian. Here is what Jessi had to say…
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
My name is Jessi. I started my career as a journalist in Germany, where I focused on online and print. Now I am a certified life coach and Head of Marketing at The Shortcut.
I enjoy stories in all forms: books, series, movies and I particularly love musicals. My favourite musicals are Hamilton - sorry for being cliché - and Dear Evan Hansen.
Tell us your burnout story…
I was living in Berlin, studying at Humboldt University and working as a Student Journalist at ZEIT Online, one of the most read newspapers in the country. I did a lot of shift work, including nights, holidays and weekends. On some occasions I’d finish a night shift at 12am and have to start a morning shift the following day at 8am. At the time, I also had a crappy boyfriend.
On paper my life looked good. I was living in a cool city, I had a partner, I was a journalist for a reputable paper and I was studying at a prestigious university. But I was so overworked. One Tuesday morning I woke up and knew that something was very wrong. Not in the sense that I was just tired but I felt nothing. I felt empty inside. It was hard to even get up to go to the bathroom. Because it was such a dramatic change in how I felt and because my sister was training to be a psychologist at the time, I knew I was experiencing burnout. Later on I was also diagnosed with depression.
The insane thing was, that even though I found it hard to go to the shops I was always able to make it into work and university. It was non-negotiable. At one stage, I had to very honestly ask myself: “what is it that I want in life?” and “where do I want to be?” It was then that I realised I was where I “should be” but not where I wanted to be.
It was difficult to understand the difference between what I was taught to want and what I actually wanted, I had to second guess everything: “Do I want to live in this city? Stay with this partner? Study this subject? Work at this newspaper?”. It took some time but eventually the answers to these big questions were always “no.” The following summer I moved to Sweden, quit my job at ZEIT Online and started my Masters at Uppsala University. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had the support I needed and I started doing stuff that was fun for me, like volunteering at a cat shelter. Needless to say, I love cats! This was radical for me. It was the first time I did something for me, because it made me happy and not just because it was for my CV. It was a big mind-shift.
As well as your mind-shift, how else are you managing the situation now?
Managing sounds kind of wrong to me. I don’t think I managed my burnout, or managed my depression, I healed from it.
I like to compare mental health with physical health. It’s like I had a broken leg. First I had to give myself some time for my “leg” to heal. As it got better, I was able to “exercise” it more. I also had to accept that my “leg” might never be the same as it was before and that was ok. I was grieving for the person I was before and who I was likely to never be again.
Nowadays I use my energy and talents for things and people that matter to me. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy parts of being a journalist, I did! But I was only doing it because it looked good. Now I have been able to break out from the mold, even though it was scary and made me feel uncomfortable.
Is there anything you wish had gone differently for you?
That’s a difficult question. My biggest issue with my healing journey was the doctors I had met. I went to a doctor and explained my situation. They gave me sleeping pills and asked me whether I really wanted to work with a psychologist because it “might be like opening Pandora’s box.” I couldn’t believe it! I had to convince them that I wanted therapy.
When I was finally referred to a psychologist my treatment was not that much better. I was prescribed swimming and reconnecting with nature. At each visit I was told just to “keep doing what I was doing” even though I didn’t feel like it was helping. Eventually this led to me having to spend time in a psychiatric hospital in Germany. Even at the hospital things weren’t great. One doctor told us that we weren’t allowed to touch each other, as this was comforting for us. I couldn’t understand the logic. Touch is so natural and important to humans. Thankfully throughout my healing journey I did also have some great doctors and some great therapists, whom I am very grateful for.
I guess when it comes to my professional life, I also wish the culture of the work environments I was in was different. As a journalist, I was shouted at, screamed at and bullied. I was treated very badly if I made an error. If someone else above me made a mistake, I sometimes got the blame, too. The worst thing was that it was accepted behaviour. I remember speaking to one of my colleagues at the time, explaining to them that I had gotten the blame for my superior’s mistakes. They turned to me and said: “What do you expect? You are a student writer. This is how you are going to be treated.”
There was a lot of “This is what it is like. Get used to it.” attitude that I did not like while working in Germany. We even have this expression: “Lehrjahre sind keine Herrenjahre”, which means that learning years are no master years. This expression is being used to legitimise bosses being terrible to their subordinates. If you are still learning, you're not a master and this is the way that you are going to be treated.
If you could give a burnout tip to anyone else, what would it be?
You have to be honest with yourself about what you want. No one else is going to do this for you. Most of us have very good intuition. Most of us know if we are unhappy at a job. Most of us know if we are being treated unfairly. But we might stay somewhere because we want to please people: “the team will struggle without me” or “I’ve been there for so long, my colleagues are like a family.” These aren’t good enough reasons to stay.
Ultimately preventing burnout is about listening to your intuition. We’ve learned to silence this quite well over the years because it can be easier. It’s scary to move somewhere else and it takes a lot of mental energy. But when we start listening again we often realise that “this place isn’t right for me anymore, I need to move on.” I can’t believe I am saying this but I need to thank the crappy boyfriend for helping me do this. He asked a lot of questions and second guessed everything in my life. It literally drove me insane but it was the only way to be honest with myself.
If you want to avoid falling down the rabbit hole, then I would recommend working with a life coach or a therapist. A therapist can help you in the beginning of your healing journey and a life coach can help you thrive again after burnout.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to share?
Making drastic changes in your life, like quitting your job, is scary. But for the people who are at that crossroads, take the plunge. I want you to know that it’s really, really worth it.
If you felt inspired by Jessi’s story or just want to say thanks, you can. Reach out to her on LinkedIn.