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 very interesting conversation with Irene Oliver Puerta. Here is Irene’s story…
Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
My name is Irene Puerta and I am originally from Spain. I moved to Finland when I was 19 and have been living here for 9 and half years.
I studied international business and graduated in 2018. Since then, I have been working in several consulting and business positions and studying for a Masters in strategic business development. I have not had a very linear CV; I’ve tried a lot of jobs and have jumped on lots of opportunities in my life to understand what it is I truly want to do. I have enjoyed being a consultant and business developer for the past 3 years. It’s varied, it suits my work style and it brings new ideas and projects in my everyday work life. My latest role has been in talent management consulting and I have really enjoyed working in this area.
In my personal life I have a lot of things that I am interested in: sports, reading books and singing. Recently, I have picked up herbology as a hobby and have been enjoying learning which of the plants I find during my hikes in nature can be used for medicinal purposes.
What is your burnout story?
I would say that I have been a little bit “on the run” since I arrived in Finland, basically focusing on financial survival and establishing myself in this country.
Initially, I was told that if I studied Finnish, I would receive integration support, but that turned out to not be true. Because of Finnish bureaucracy while entering the country, in order to access those language courses and social assistance I had to get a Finnish ID, for which I was told to declare myself self-sufficient, that is, having enough savings to take care of myself. So I did that, and then found out that since “I had money” I would not get any support. I was supposed to survive the full first year in Finland with the little savings I managed to bring from Spain (about 2000€) while doing quite strict attendance Finnish language integration courses that wouldn’t allow students to be absent for any work shifts. Can you imagine?
Once my savings ran out, I had to work to survive, so I had to end my integration courses, pick up several jobs as a waiter, Spanish teacher, and whatnot, while also attending Finnish language courses at the Open University to learn the language and pay my bills. After a year and a half of this, I applied to study a multilingual business management degree at Haaga Helia University of Applied Sciences. My entire family are entrepreneurs, so I thought that this was something I would be familiar with and enjoy. I studied there for a couple of years but then the course description changed to multilingual business assistance. Although I gained a lot of respect for assistants at that time, I didn’t feel I wanted to be one, so I got quite discouraged. That time was when my burnout symptoms first started to appear.
I still would have needed to work a part time job to make ends meet but no one would accept me in student jobs because I didn’t speak Finnish. I was offered unpaid internships but obviously couldn’t take those if I wanted to stay away from debt. Since I was quite discouraged at school, I focused more on my entrepreneurship interests and hobbies. During this time, I was doing lots of karate, and met an interesting guy at the club I was training at. He was a fellow business student and we both decided that we should try and build a startup, and that could be a job for me and a way to tackle my financial struggles. Soon after, we established Varis Books.
I kept myself incredibly busy during this time and at ages of 20, 21. I thought my energy was limitless. I had also just got out of a toxic relationship and felt free to do whatever I wanted and try everything out. Only now do I realise that I was filling up my time to avoid dealing with the scars I had gotten from that relationship and the struggles I had been through. I was keeping myself constantly busy to avoid being alone with myself, exposed to all the difficult realisations I was not ready to deal with.
So I lived this fast paced life for 2 years and eventually I collapsed. My start-up had many problems and I couldn’t seem to make it work. Varis Books was at the seed stage and we weren’t making any money. We argued a lot, and we closed the company. My business partner was in my martial arts club, so I stopped feeling like going there. And I was still financially broke. I panicked. I freaked out. At some point I felt like I couldn’t do anything anymore. It felt like an insurmountable amount of effort to get through my degree, the company issues, the anxiety, and my financial situation. It was a pretty dark time.
I decided that I needed to start over and get out of Helsinki. So I transferred my completed courses to an international business degree at the University of Vaasa. In retrospect, perhaps I was running away from it all, but this decision ended up saving my life. I had a friend there and we became roommates. My first year in Vaasa was spent just trying to cope through the anxiety, the panic attacks and the exhaustion that had built up over the previous two years. I sometimes couldn’t get off the sofa and would find myself crying for hours. My friend booked me with a therapist and told me I didn’t need to deal with it all alone.
I started to see that therapist and learned that despite everything that had happened in my life, I am still worth it, no matter what. Along the way I also met my now fiancée, who also helped me a great deal to recover from my burnout, and complete my bachelor’s degree.
I now understand where my limits are. But the burnout never really leaves you. I still get hyped and super excited about too many things at once, which is what caused my burnout in the first place, and I have to remind myself to “hold my horses.” I have been through that before and I know where it can end. I know that when I feel the urge to start occupying my life with too many things, there is something I am avoiding dealing with, and I should really stop for a while and look into it.
I think sometimes companies even use this high energy and curiosity people like me have to their advantage. They see you are motivated, curious and driven and keep exciting you and pushing you to do more and more and more. In sports there is a trainer who understands and teaches you what your body is capable of and where your limits are at. At work, or when it comes to your mind’s limits, this rarely exists. There is nothing and no one to pace you. You have to learn this yourself.
How are you managing the situation now?
In the past, my days were 16 hours long. And I was able to do it. I was having fun and I felt happy. But it was not real, and it was not sustainable. Now I know that I am not able to go to such extremes.
I have learned to read the early signals of exhaustion much better now. The knots in your stomach, the random headache that has come out of nowhere, or that day where you feel very exhausted and like your mind won’t do anything other than try to distract you. My understanding of these signals is all thanks to therapy.
Is there anything you wish had gone differently for you?
At high school, I wish I was taught what people’s energy levels and limitations are and also what burnout actually is.
In Spanish high schools you choose the subjects you want to take at 16 and this decides what universities you are able to go to. To get good grades, you have to take 7 hours of lessons a day and study an average of 3 hours more in your free-time. So pushing yourself to the limit and sticking to your plan no matter what is taught at an early age, at least in Spain. This needs to change.
This mentality continues at university too. I now think that universities shouldn’t allow their students to do more than 60 credits a year, even if students would want to speed their graduation up. Some people are probably able to do it and will want to do it. But it is sending out the wrong message: that being overworked and not having a life is “worth it” if it gets you an advantage at climbing society’s ladder. It is not sustainable.
Not surprisingly, this mentality also continues when you work. I wish that companies would offer their employees the resources to tackle burnout and then give them at least 1 hour a week off their work to be able to address it, for example, through therapy or support groups. And that overtime work would be simply banned throughout all levels of corporations. This might not always be possible for smaller companies, but for larger ones, I think it definitely is.
People are taught that we have to be so productive - and give our 100% - to succeed, to achieve, and to benefit the system. But really, nobody can keep that up; we are not machines. This mentality causes people to burnout and it doesn’t benefit anyone. Not the individuals and definitely not the system. We should as a society truly ask ourselves how to change the depression and burnout rates, the sick leaves, and the low motivation.
I think if everyone would slow down as a joint phenomenon, society and the system would progress, be healthier, and be much more sustainable. This should be taught at high school, at universities and then again at whatever company you work for. Having a work-life balance really shouldn’t be such a radical notion.
If you could give any burnout prevention tips, what would they be?
One of my karate trainers once told me that you should only have three great things in your life. Your social life and relationships count as one of these great things by default. Otherwise, how do you have fun? If you work or study, that’s another. That leaves self-care and your own interests as the third great thing you should have in your life. You need to make sure you give yourself free-time. You need to make sure that you give yourself the space you need to recover and be creative. You need to make sure that YOU are one of the great things in your life.
If you do more than three “great things in life” at the same time, it will likely lead to burnout. So get comfortable pacing yourself. I recently signed up to a singing school, which I loved and was my own interest, but was already doing 3 great things in my life: my work, studying for my Masters and my social life. I had to be firm with myself and follow my own advice. I stopped with the singing school and decided that getting a singing teacher for 1 hour a week was a much more balanced solution.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to share?
I try to avoid companies that describe themselves as a family. I think it is a bit creepy how they use some family principles to manipulate your actions. For example, even if you are desperate to leave a company, you might stay longer than you should because you are told that you should be loyal to your company, or you may have gotten emotionally attached to your colleagues. Or you may be encouraged to “go the extra mile” for your “family”. I think this is psychologically manipulative.
At the core, we work, so we literally rent companies hours of our lives to make ends meet, for money, to provide for our needs, interests and lives. But our true family is in our home and among our relatives and friends, not in our office. We may still bond with our company’s message or our colleagues, but we mustn’t allow any emotional messages to manipulate how much time, work or energy we feel we must do or give.
And then, finally, people should hold money as something that enables them to live a good life, with food and a home. And money doesn’t matter so much if you don’t have the time to enjoy it. Sometimes it’s important to ask yourself: “what are you sacrificing all of this time for?”
If you felt inspired by Irene’s story or just want to say thanks?, you can. Reach out to them on LinkedIn.