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 October 2021 we had a great conversation with Lassi Lankinen. Here’s what Lassi had to say...
Lassi, so nice to be talking with you. Can you start off by telling our readers a bit about yourself?
I am an international Finn who has found his way back home.
I’ve lived in many different countries and have learned that there is no such thing as “normal.” This has helped me to stay open-minded, liberal and up for new adventures.
Professionally, I am a sales person. This can also spill over into my personal life. While exploring the world, I created a set of travelling business cards. It’s true! Really. Each one was unique and had one of my characteristics written on the back. It helped me break the ice and meet lots of different people.
So, what happened in your situation?
I was at the same company for 5 years. I started as a Junior Sales Rep and got promoted to an Account Executive very early on. The role was challenging. I had lots of new responsibilities and I still had to deliver on quota. It was an extremely sales driven company. In the beginning I did well and exceeded my targets. From my second year onwards I was part of the “President’s Club” as I was a consistent high performer.
At this point of my life I was only focused on work. I sacrificed a lot. I was young, I was ambitious and I thought I was happy. My efforts at work didn’t go unnoticed and I was soon promoted to a managerial position. Again, this role came with extra responsibilities and again, I still had to deliver on quota. It got to a point where I did not feel comfortable asking my own team to make the same sacrifices I was making for work. It then dawned on me that, if that’s the case, then why am I doing it?
Despite having this mini “revelation” I continued to put a lot of my time and energy into work. And eventually, it changed me. One of my friends from Finland, who was visiting at the time, said: “my girlfriend thinks you’re an arsehole. You only think about money.” It was then that I realised that work had not changed me for the better. It had changed me into a person I never thought I would be. This was difficult to accept. I began to question why I was working like this. But still, I was taking on more responsibilities and I was put under even more pressure.
The amount of work I was doing put pressure on my relationship. And it ended. It wasn’t the only reason why the relationship ended but it was a key factor. I was very alone. I had not built social relationships in Utrecht. Most of my friends were through my girlfriend and the other friends I had were from work and mostly spoke about work. I asked myself another difficult question: “is this really worth living?”
Some days my hands would shake, some days my voice would be shaky, some days I was unable to speak. I was convinced that something was physically wrong with me. Things got worse over time. I started forgetting things. I’ve always been an organised and systematic person, so this was strange. But as you probably guessed from the story so far, I kept on going...Eventually it led to full on panic attacks. There was constant crying. I couldn’t control my body. This could happen at any time and any place. I did not know what was wrong with me. I had not learned about burnout at this point and did not think there was anything mentally wrong with me.
I told my company about what was going on. They listened and brushed it aside, they thought it was all ok. So the pressure continued. I went to a doctor and was advised to take some time off to try and recover. It wasn’t long before I went back to the doctor. During that appointment they referred me to a psychologist. Within 15 minutes of the appointment with the psychologist, they said: “you are not going back to work, probably for some time, things have gotten quite far.”
During my time off I had regular psychology sessions. Once I had the time to reflect I realised that my relationship had helped keep me in the job for that long. Now I didn’t see any way that I could go back there. Nothing had changed and nothing was going to change. After 4 weeks of sick leave I said to my company that: “I don’t need any more sick leave. I quit. I am not coming back.” Immediately I felt so much better. The weight of the world was finally off of my shoulders. I booked a one way trip to Malaysia and went to go and enjoy life again.
How are you managing things now?
I am doing really good. It took some time but now I feel as competent as I did before my burnout.
I have learned what my mental and physical symptoms are, so I can immediately react to them and deal with them. I have also learned that work is not everything. It’s just work. People will tell you this a lot but when you truly realise it, it’s mind blowing. It gives you a sense of control in your own life. You realise that you can close the laptop and try something else, it’s not the end of the world.
Following on from my burnout I am more conscious where I work. I don’t only focus on the dollar but look deeply into the organisation, it’s culture and its people. That’s why I am working where I am now and I am really enjoying it.
I had also promised myself to start going to therapy but for some reason or another, haven’t yet. I believe that this will be very useful for me and very useful for everyone else too. So don’t be like me and be more proactive!
What would you have hoped would have gone differently for you?
I don’t really believe in regrets.
But I do wish the organisation I worked for would have had support functions. Because they didn't, I could not see how I could go back there. If they did, maybe my burnout could have been prevented? If they did, maybe they would still be benefitting from all of my hard work?
It was a very hard time. So exhausting and so lonely.
If you could give 1 burnout tip to someone else, what would it be?
I have a tip for organisations and two tips for individuals if that’s ok?
For organisations it starts with being aware that burnout actually exists. They then need to capture information on how people are actually doing in the company. Then they need to actually take the time to assess it. And they actually need to train people on how to handle it effectively. From my experience, a lot of organisations aren’t aware that burnout exists. The issue snowballs and it becomes very difficult to manage.
For an individual, have that mind blowing moment where you realise that work is not everything. If you realise that work is not that serious, then it really helps. How to actually do this is another thing.
Then make a conscious choice when choosing where you work. Choose a company that aligns with your values and that takes care of its employees. If you don’t have that luxury and you just need to pay your bills on time, then choose your manager instead. Choose someone that will have your back and support you when the going gets tough.
Thanks so much for your time Lassi. It’s been great. Is there anything else you want to add?
Going through burnout is such a heavy experience that it should be a priority for companies to think about why it keeps happening. If you’re already experiencing stress and challenges in several areas in your life, work can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. My straw was the breakup with my partner at the time.
Having been through a severe burnout, I realise things could have gone much, much worse. I was financially stable and didn’t have anyone else that relied on me, so I could take the time and space to recover from this work-related situation. If I did not have this stability, I might never have made it back to working life. But because I was able to recover, I was also able to reflect on my situation. I realised then what was important to me. Now I see my burnout experience as a positive thing but this is with the power of hindsight, of course.
If you felt inspired by Lassi’s story or just want to say thanks, you can. Reach out to him on LinkedIn.