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 September 2021 we were lucky enough to speak to Maria Iho. Here’s Maria's story.
So Maria, tell me about yourself.
I am a mother of two and wife of 30 years. I’ve been a Technical Communicator for the past 25 years and enjoy it tremendously. It’s a versatile role that’s allowed me to work in different areas, from medical to mechanical to software.
It might be unpopular to say in Finland but I am a tea girl and always have been. When walking into the office kitchen I often ask “where’s my hot water?”
Can you tell me about your burnout experience?
I have experienced two burnouts. The first was short and intense and the second lasted for longer. During my second experience I was acting as an employee representative during a company acquisition. We’d gone from a small garage company to a part of a big American corporation and had to restructure and reorganise in order to save money. Which I now know means that we had to make redundancies.
I was thrown into a vicious whirlpool a few times. As an employee representative I engaged the employees to find initiatives for saving money and presented these to the employer. In the first few negotiations I thought we could make a change, together, and we could save people’s jobs. Time and time again my employer just thanked me for the input but things did not go forward.
It was hard for me to understand at the time but the whole situation was like a ‘dance.’ Our employer needed to seem like they were doing the right thing but had no intention of actually following through on any of the employee proposals. People were eventually let go. It was done in the most cruel and public ways.
I was extremely upset. Made worse by my MD at the time, who said to me: “cmon, did you really think you could have had an influence on this? I need to show people in the Americas that I can cut costs by reducing headcount.” Maybe that was supposed to offer me some comfort during a difficult time but either way, it did not work.
I felt so many things at the time. Upset. Bad for my colleagues. Failure. Naive and ashamed for believing the negotiations were a real dialog. Exhausted. I needed some rest. I took sick leave for the rest of the week.
When I got back to work on Monday, I punched in, saw my boss and started crying. He immediately told me to punch out and go home, even taking the effort to walk me to my car. Initially I was off for 2 weeks, then 1 month. But I still didn’t feel right and my boss wouldn’t take me back until I had completely recovered.
Overall I was off for 6 months. It was a dark time that I don’t remember much. I felt like I was in this black bubble. Now I am able to reflect on the situation and appreciate how my boss handled the situation. I was lucky to have him. He saved me.
How are you managing it now?
I do a few things…
I am ruthless with my time management. My flexible time is for me first, not the company. And if I need it, I take it. If I work a longer day here, I will make a plan of when my next shorter day is. If I get requests late at night I just leave them be until morning. Uninstalling tools like Teams or Slack from my phone really helps with this. I do not need to be on alert and available 24/7.
I also do yoga and meditation. These extracurricular activities bring balance in my life and remind me that not everything is about work. I schedule them in my calendar to remember to do them.
It might seem obvious but I also totally refuse to take on employee representative responsibilities. I can’t let so much of myself go again. I also don’t want to feel the shame I felt the last time. I was so open and tried so hard but in the end it did not change the outcome.
Looking back on your experience, what would you have done differently?
I would have been more attentive to what my husband said at the time. He was trying so hard to ‘wake me up’ but I ignored it. I was in ‘world saving mode.’ Thankfully when I did finally ‘wake up’ he was still here. He pulled my back up on my feet and brought me balance. He was with me through the entire experience. I am so lucky to have him in my life.
I also wish I knew what I know now. Work is work. That’s it. I’ve learned my lesson. It’s just a shame it had to be so harsh.
If you could give 1 burnout prevention tip to someone else, what would it be?
You need to know your early warning stress signals. You need to share them. Then you need to listen to them.
For some people, their stress signal might be losing sleep or waking up in the middle of the night. For other people it might be reading the morning paper and 10 minutes later forgetting what it is they read. For me it is swearing or using foul language. I told my colleagues at work that whenever I swear or use foul language you should ask me “hey, what’s going on? Are you ok?”
I appreciate that this means knowing your colleagues more deeply. But you don’t have to share everything, just enough for them to understand that “whenever I behave like this, let me know.” They are then able to give you both professional and personal support. I’ve been lucky in my career that I have had great colleagues who would do this for me.
Once you know what your early stress signals are and you have shared them, you have to listen to them. Make sure you ‘wake up’ before the situation gets any worse.
This has been a great conversation, thank you! Is there anything else you want to add?
I would like everyone to understand that it’s not you.
Often work is organised in a bad way and we believe we are the problem: “I am being over sensitive.” “I am over-reacting in this situation.” “This is what work is like everywhere.” When you are tired your self-blame becomes worse. You don’t have the strength or energy to challenge the situation. You just try to survive.
It’s also the employer’s responsibility to make the environment in a way that best supports you. It’s not because you have small children, or too many hobbies, it’s not because you cannot “relax a little, don’t take it so seriously”. It’s because of the job. Trust your gut. If it tells you it is time to move on, then go. Go before you are too tired to look for and start a new job. It is your job to take care of yourself. Do it well, darling.
If you felt inspired by Maria’s story or just want to say thanks, you can. Reach out to her on LinkedIn.