Hi, I’m Nati. I work as People and Culture Manager at Selma Finance. I work closely with our Team Leads to ensure our employees have the tools and support they need to grow professionally, and with our CEO to shape a dynamic, thriving company culture. I also take care of all HR and recruitment related matters.
I graduated from business school in Helsinki just as the financial crisis hit, so the job market was tough. At times it felt like it would never end but, on reflection, this experience taught me never to take anything for granted. For about a year I did a lot of sport, some yoga, and helped a friend set up her business. I had time to think about what I wanted to do, and what I might be good at. After sitting down and making a large mind map, I figured that HR/People Ops was where I wanted to be.
Shortly after I landed a job as a community manager at Maria 01 in Helsinki. That was a lot of fun, it was like working with friends and just hanging out together. It also introduced me to the startup community. I learnt a lot being the community manager but I still felt like it wasn’t enough, so I left to go work at a consulting firm. There I started building the HR function from scratch, and I realised that I enjoyed building things and putting structures in place.
Anyway, I’m here to tell you about my burnout. It wasn’t an easy decision to talk about this (I changed my mind and then back again several times) because burnout is still regarded as a sign of weakness. I want to change that and talk about it openly. If we don’t tackle the issue then it remains taboo, right?
Working in People Ops often feels lonely, but the consulting company was especially so as I was new to this role and had little support or direction from management. I was expected to get on with building a function for a company which was not sure of how it wanted to grow and evolve. Then Covid hit, and along with it another level of stress and pressure altogether: the workload was huge, the expectations were higher than usual, and the needs and demands of colleagues - who were anxious, confused and struggling to adapt to the new situation – were off the charts. Being there for your people at all hours or the day (and night) was paramount, but it did not leave me with time for myself or my family. I prioritised other people’s wellbeing without much thought for my own.
Looking back, the whole pandemic thing took a lot out of me. There were a lot of unrealistic expectations which weren’t always clearly communicated. These expectations were also constantly shifting - there was a new idea of what we should be working on almost on a daily basis. I found out in my annual review that despite busting a gut on various projects and getting recognition for my efforts from colleagues, my boss had expected me to do something else entirely and was critical of my performance.
I don’t mind telling you that this knocked me for six. I felt anxious all the time because I was constantly seeking clarity for my role. I was doing a lot of overtime and hadn’t taken a holiday in a while so in June 2021, when things finally got too much, I decided to take 6 weeks off. I had many plans for my vacation but I couldn’t do any of them. I’d go to the beach and just nap there. I would come home, and nap at home. I would sleep well at night. I was surprised at how much I could sleep. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I also knew that I couldn’t face going back to work. Without realising it, I had burnt out.
I try not to have regrets in life, but I sometimes wish I had been braver when Covid hit. Our goal was to keep everyone’s jobs, but there was so much pressure that came with that. Amid all the chatter of possible redundancies, our small team pushed itself to the limits to achieve even better financial results, time off was postponed and we were all busier than ever. I stopped building functions and pitched in wherever and whenever I was needed. I became an ad hoc consultant on several projects, learning as I went along. Although we managed to avoid layoffs, I don’t think it played well on anyone’s mental health.
I wish I had been brave enough to suggest alternatives like strategic furloughing, but at that point I didn't have a good enough understanding of the bigger picture. I was doing so much that I didn’t have time to consider the flaws in our strategy. And maybe I should have fought harder to prioritise our people's wellbeing. However, as a junior member of staff you trust your seniors to lead, and it’s harder to have the courage of your convictions.
It was a huge lesson for me, but not something that was wasted. I’ve since learnt that there are workplaces where leaders listen to, and encourage feedback from, their team members. Everyone is empowered to find solutions to problems. I am no longer afraid to back my opinions, nor to challenge my colleagues to justify theirs.
Now that I have a better understanding of burnout, it’s easier to implement strategies to prevent it from happening again. I’ve learnt to build boundaries to switch off from work. I’m not there yet but it's getting easier every day. For example, I don’t have any work communication tools on my phone anymore. I also leave my phone at home more often, for example when I take my dog for a walk. I do not need to be reachable 24/7, I can have some ‘off’ time during the workday. My husband is quick to remind me if I reach for my phone or laptop in the evening.
We’re constantly chasing this idea of being finished and completing. But if we’re constantly chasing and it never happens, it can become really demoralising. I try to remember that there will always be work to do, whether I do it in the evening or wait until morning. If it’s not extremely urgent, tomorrow will do just fine.
I said at the beginning that this job can be lonely, but it doesn’t need to be. Surround yourself with people who can support you - your boss, your team, communities of people who have similar roles in other companies/countries.
Keep yourself active, it’s a great way to decompress after a long day in front of the screen. I’ve found having different hobbies helps me switch off. I like hiking, walking, and running when I need to burn off that extra energy and frustration after a hard day at work. Alternatively, I might bake something yummy - I’m fairly decent with an oven as things go, and the process of baking allows me to block out all distractions and simply be in the moment.
After a particularly rough day, don’t be afraid to take some time for yourself and lick your wounds. Some days it’s run in the forest and some days it’s a couple of hours on the sofa with a large bar of chocolate and my favourite Netflix series help me to process setbacks, and to come back stronger. Finally, a big shout out to my Yorkshire terrier Bruce Lee. Anyone who has one will tell you that pets constantly remind you to enjoy the simple things in life, and that you are more than your job.
As I have learnt from my experience, there are different degrees of burnout which can present in different ways. However, there are some signs that I look out for when I’m speaking to my people. For example, there are different ways to ask them how they are doing. “How are you?” doesn’t seem so genuine anymore, so I try to ask them in different ways.
“What is your win of the week?”
“What have you learnt this week?”
“Can you tell me something interesting that happened to you?”
“What have you done today/this week towards your wellbeing?” (Surprisingly, this often sparks a nice conversation).
It’s a bad sign if they can’t answer any of these questions. If they haven’t got anything nice to share, or they’re unable to see the positives, something may be wrong.
If they haven’t taken time off in a while, it might be because their workload is too much, or they feel like they can’t afford to fall behind. Encourage people to take time to rest and recharge, and put clear cover structures in place to set their mind at ease. Remember that your Team Leads need to set a good example on this.
Another red flag is how much they talk about work, and how they talk about it. You can tell a lot by what people say and how they say it. Constant shop talk and obsession with workload are not healthy signs. You need to learn how to read people - it comes with practice.
Sometimes burnout is not just about work. People’s personal lives may play a part. Or it can feel like too many things are going on at once. It’s important to build trust with your people, for them to open up to you about things outside of work. Sometimes all we need is for someone to listen.
If I had any pearls of wisdom to dispense on managing workload and safeguarding yourself from burnout, I would say:
Learn how to say no. I’m still learning and it’s far from easy, but it helps on multiple levels. If you do say no, explain why and how it impacts everything else on your to-do list. And if you say yes to a request, explain to the person how it impacts everything else too, so there is clarity for everyone around what happens when you take on that extra task.
Be demanding of your time with your boss. Everyone needs a sounding board, be it to vent, check, or ask for advice. Your boss needs to know what you are thinking. Even if they have a hectic schedule, you are a valuable resource and quality time needs to be found where they can really listen to you.
Ask for feedback constantly. People don’t like giving feedback, especially if it’s negative, but it's so important. I like having regular one on ones, where mutual expectations are outlined beforehand and I can get timely feedback on how I’m doing.
Take ownership of your professional growth, rather than relying on someone else to do it. Nobody else is going to forge a career plan for you. People Ops is there to support you, and help you find the right tools to grow, so identify what you need to do your job well, and what you need to grow and develop professionally, and demand them from your company.
Your development is closely linked with company goals, so make sure you know what they are and see if they align with the way you want to grow. If the two are mismatched, you won’t develop as much as you want. You may need to look elsewhere to fulfil your personal goals.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, if you do feel like it’s all getting too much, find and fix the problem – not the symptoms. Taking time off to ‘recharge the batteries’ is all well and good, but it doesn’t help if you are launched back into the same old setup when you come back to work. All the negative feelings come rushing back and soon you find yourself back at square one. I left the consultancy company because I did not see a solution to the problem. I heard it was fixed afterwards, but not before a bunch of people had followed my lead.
Many people experience burnout without realising what has happened to them. I hope that more people who experience burnout talk about it, because then more people can learn about it. It is not a sign of weakness, just a symptom of being human. Taking time for self-reflection to reflect on your experiences and identify what you’re going through is important.