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 fun conversation with Em Seikkanen. Here is Em’s story…
Tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name’s Em. I’ve been in marketing and communications for almost a decade now. My first marketing job was at the University at Buffalo - managing social promotion and events - on a grant funded programme to support LGBTQ international students. I did this while working on my PhD, which I started right after finishing my bachelors - in which I’d earned my BS in marketing concurrently with a BA in English and gender studies. From there, I decided to leave the program and begin an international career, moving first to Istanbul, then to Berlin, then to Malta, and finally to Finland.
It’s quite a story, and perhaps a bit too exciting for a brief intro… but life itself is kind of like a story. One of my dreams is to one day write a memoir… if ever I have the time. But I don’t right now. And that’s okay, because I’m still having experiences to write about.
As it happens, storytelling is the thing I love best about my chosen profession - telling stories that inspire people to take action and do something that will make a difference in their lives is really fulfilling to me, and it’s at the core of what I love about marketing and corporate comms.
[A note from Stef: During Em’s introduction she told me that she hates the use of the word “holistic” in marketing and encouraged us not to use that at Velbi. This is an important point for later on in the blog.]
Can you let me know what happened in your situation?
When I decided not to finish my PhD (in Transnational Studies), I figured the best course of action for where I wanted to be in life was to leave the US and go abroad… indefinitely. But I didn’t really have many networks other than international students I’d worked with at the University or a few friends who had moved abroad to teach English as a foreign language. I knew that my writing skills and that English as my first language would be the things that would help me find success in ny field… but first, I’d wanted a bit of an adventure. I was already so tired from the rigorous work of an aspiring academic (and years of poverty-level wages that grad students tend to have) in the US. I’d also fallen ill in the semester before I left, requiring a brief hospital stay for pneumonia and subsequent gallbladder surgery after the coughing abated.
So at this point I also had a lot of medical debt and figured almost anywhere would be less exhausting and and easier place to enjoy life than this. But there were other factors too. Trump was running for president and more hateful, divisive attitudes were already becoming more normal. And there are some rifts with relatives, over political and personal values that it was really important for me to be far away from. But moving abroad rather than to another state is a drastic choice, one that was informed by what I knew of US working life: no matter which field you’re in, being a worker tends to be notoriously awful in the US. Your employer won’t necessarily take care of you, and as a millennial you know that there’s really no social support system in place to support you if things go tits up.
After the pandemic started, people like Adam Grant started speaking about languishing, and in retrospect I realize this was what my reality as a full-time student and marketer had been like before I left. At the time, I wanted a slower pace, great food, and adventure, naive as the latter sounds to me now. So I decided that the best place my friends who’d been abroad could help me network would be Istanbul, and luckily at the time there was a really good job market for native English speakers there. Especially if they’re English teachers. I don’t like teaching, but I was able to find work right off the plane as an English teacher at an educational consultancy helping students prepare for working in English-language universities. I also did some branding, content creation and some social marketing for the company I worked for.
Things got a bit too crazy politically in Turkey toward the end of 2016, so after the car bombing outside the Beşiktaş football stadium, I decided to move to Germany. By this point I was TESOL-certified (the US version of CELTA, teaching English as a foreign language). So in Germany, I was first granted a freelancer permit to teach English as a foreign language. Then I took a job at a very stressful, politically-charged journalism startup, to which my residence was tied for the rest of my time in Germany (you are typically obligated to have this type of relationship to your employer for residence in the first 18 months after you start working for the first German company, as a non-EU national).
This was tough and stressful for someone who was already a little tired, especially as my work was on a three-shift pattern. This meant I’d be working 7.30-16.00 for about four to five days, then I’d have two or three or three days off, then work 15.30 to midnight for three or four days, then have two or three days off, then work 23.30 to 8.00 for three or four days, then have three or four days off before starting again… if I was lucky and no colleagues fell ill (because then I might need to be called in to cover for them which would throw off the whole schedule).
After leaving here, exhausted and drained, my then-partner and I moved to Malta in 2018. At the time, I was pretty burned out. That job had put a lot of stress on the relationship, which wasn’t always the healthiest situation in the first place, and our dog was getting older and required a lot more care. Plus, the culture shock and Mediterranean inefficiencies of our lovely farm village were more stressful than anticipated. It’s quite different to live somewhere than to travel there, after all.
At the start of the next year, following the loss of our dog, we decided to move again, this time to my partner’s native Finland, where I have been for the past 3 years. When I look back, it’s mad to think that between 2015-2022 I lived in 4 different countries - 5 if you include leaving my home country, the United States! The last 6 years have been a whirlwind. Moving to lots of different countries in a short period of time was a lot of culture shock, and having been in that toxic and draining relationship from 2017 - 2019 didn’t help.
Within the first 5 months of living in Finland I was trying to find a job, network, learn this tongue-twisting rhythmic language and integrate into society. Trying to get comfortable in a country where you aren’t able to speak a language - and where because of this you will never truly fit into the culture - is exhausting. So it’s no surprise that my relationship fell apart around this time too.
I put on a smile, kept networking, kept consulting, and kept searching for a job. I moved out, and then was doing divorce proceedings and pet-sitting for three animals who eventually needed to be returned to their Finnish-Australian owner in Australia months after the restrictions started (which would eventually mean another application through Migri - the Finnish immigration service). It was a lot to go through all at once.
In June, I got my first job at a startup here. That was also a whirlwind experience. The company had growing pains and was trying to figure a lot of stuff out. So I started looking for a new job, and finally found one. In fact, I had two offers at once, and chose the one that paid slightly better, because of how Migri required me to take a job at or above a certain salary (3000€/pm) due to the fact that I was a specialist worker.
It was this Migri bureaucracy that forced me to take the offer that ultimately led to my burnout… but I believe it was a bit cumulative, the result of everything that had happened in my life before the job too. Now, I wonder how I had all of this energy to move to a new place, do all the right things at immigration over and again, and then try to learn a new language and integrate into different cultures, one right after the other.
But the poor fit with team’s operations and management rapidly showed me how that job had been the wrong choice. My manager, who self-proclaimed to love criticism, would be singling out one teammate in team meetings to tear them down. This isn’t criticism. I’m no stranger to criticism, having worked in Germany. And I like constructive, useful criticism: it makes you better at what you do. But what was happening was not constructive. It was merely toxic management resulting in part from an culture of burnout in the entire workplace. My teammates and I would be pressured into overworking or agreeing to more work than is possible for an expert to put out at a sustainable rate.
For example, I was expected to manage an entire content strategy and calendar as well as producing eight blog posts, requiring SEO keyword research and technical on-page SEO as well as off-page. Three of these were guest blogs requiring interviews with subject matter experts. This was in addition to a 20-page eBook, planning and executing a webinar with three experts in different time zones, PR work like press releases, and daily social media post creation and management on 3-4 platforms… all in a six and a half week period.
Two and a half months in, I wanted to curl up and sleep for weeks, to be somewhere else or do anything else. I knew that I was burned out but I knew I didn’t have time to stop. It didn’t help that more work just kept piling up. Of course, this is what happens when you’re painfully under resourced, and my manager had told me early on that she knew nothing about marketing and I would have to manage it all on my own. This was fine as I am an experienced professional.
But the company kept changing their direction and seeming to pivot in what customers they’d be targeting next every 3 weeks, after operating over 5 years. This made it incredibly hard to do my job. And I felt like I was not allowed to excel. Worse, everyone seemed to be active in Teams late in the evening and sometimes on the weekends too. After leaving the company, I was ultimately relieved to be out of such a negative environment, and felt like I dodged a bullet in the long term. But it was stressful, too. Living off of savings and consulting contract to contract always is, but it’s better than killing yourself for a job that just doesn’t appreciate you and your expertise.
Now that it’s over, I’m just glad I’m not working at that company anymore. And when I reflect on my time before taking the job, I feel like I needed a break for almost a decade before coming to Finland. It’s even weirder that I find this level of exhaustion normal: I am from the US and our work culture is shit, so constantly teetering on burnout is the norm.
You expect to feel tired, drained, unappreciated, expendable, and a little depressed to make it “up the ladder.” That’s just part of “adulting.” But people are really suffering. What starts as burnout can eventually turn into more significant mental health problems which is really sad, because it’s a miserable way to live.
How are you managing your situation now?
I have really improved my boundaries, and when having conversations with new workplaces I am clear about what I can deliver and what’s reasonable to expect. I don’t allow myself to be pressured into promising more than I can reasonably take on. I also like to unwind by walking, cycling or swimming. Or by reading or watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or horror movies. I need a combination of active and calm activities to stay balanced.
Keeping a good routine is also key, eating well, sleeping, taking regular saunas (which still feels really luxurious to think about as a non-Finn). But one of the most important things here is to make sure I have a good sleep schedule. I know it sounds boring and stuffy. But the long term effects and damage a shift pattern can cause takes a long time to repair, and at the end of the day, it’s great to have that schedule down. Don’t mistake this for also taking the opportunity to mess up your routine to do something fun every once in a while! Because taking breaks is also super important.
I used to overeat when I was stressed, and it took the help of a dietician - and gallbladder surgery - to really break that habit. So now I’m really strict about maintaining a decently healthy diet. I also drink much less nowadays than when I was younger. I was never a big drinker, especially not by Finnish standards. But I am a massive beer snob, and good beer is too expensive to really enjoy here without breaking the bank. Plus, imbibing less also makes it easier to stick to a healthier diet. For the most part, I try to avoid dairy, sugar, gluten, and heavier, fattier foods… though I don’t always succeed! I also love cooking and baking to destress. This is sometimes at odds with my own diet, luckily for my friends who often reap the rewards of any excess baked goods!
Intense exercise is also really important to help me manage my burnout. Me, the elliptical and Missy Elliott have a threeway about 4 times a week, and when the weather is nice I walk upwards of 50 kilometers per week and try to cycle 100 every week, too.
[A note from Stef: both myself an Em laughed out loud at this point.]
Maintaining my own boundaries and having better communication skills in all aspects of my life also helps. When being given a lot to do and a tight deadline at work, I am much better at pushing back and basically, saying “no” when the demands of the job are untenable.
It’s nice because for the first time in my life, I do not feel like I am burnt out. But weird, since I’d internalized that burnout is the norm, not an exception.
Is there anything in your story that you wish would have gone differently for you?
I wish I had cultivated better boundaries when I was much younger. If I had forced myself to do this then, I feel like a lot of the negative experiences I had wouldn’t have happened.
I also think about this when I reflect as far back as high school. I didn’t really have room to say “no” to a lot of things without negative consequences if it was something I was “supposed to” do. In my family’s Catholic faith, I learned to believe girls especially should behave according to a very narrow set of “appropriate” behavior which was really damaging and restrictive, and conditioned me to bear pain in silence while negatively affecting my self-esteem in the long run. Unlearning that was challenging, but worth it.
Any tips for how others can prevent burnout?
If you are not able to manage up very, very well, then manage yourself very well. Maintain your boundaries and be honest about what’s possible at work. And if/when “managing yourself well” means going to bed at 22:30 on a Friday - like a fuddy duddy - just do it, don’t worry about the #FOMO.
This can require a lot of discipline. There are times where nothing seems like it will fix all of my problems as much as eating an entire pizza would. But I know doing that would make me feel like trash for a couple days. And going without eating for three days to compensate for that after the fact is also a bad idea. Balance is key.
Making sure that you come first is also imperative. Work is a job. You are a person who has a life. It’s about being holistic in your approach to self-care.
[A note from Stef: we both exchange a wry smile at this point, remembering that “holistic” was the word Em hated!]
Anything else you want to add?
We need more things to help prevent people from burning out. So I really hope Velbi will catch on because your concept can help so many people.
[A note from Stef: let the record state that I didn’t pay Em to say that! But I did buy her a very nice rhubarb sour. Does that count as bribery?]
If you felt inspired by Em’s story or just want to say thanks, you can. Reach out to her on LinkedIn.