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 spoke with Marjo Turunen. Here is what Marjo had to say…
Marjo, thanks so much for having this chat. Would you like to start off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
I am a learning enthusiast, an educational expert, and have two master’s degrees in the fields of education and learning. When I want to relax, I enjoy knitting and flea market shopping.
And, on top of all that, I am a Finn who’s been living in Germany for 5 years already. I strongly identify as an expat, but I no longer feel like I’m living in between two cultures. Finland is a big part of my life, and I have the famous Finnish sisu, but I’ve made my home in Germany, and I really like it here.
So, would you tell us what happened?
It happened in two stages. I moved abroad for work a bit over five years ago. I was working as a private teacher, helping children to adjust to the German culture. And in the meanwhile, I was adjusting as well. The job was extremely demanding, and it didn’t help that the children tended to be very unhappy about having to live in Germany. Working alone definitely didn’t help either, and by the end of 2017, I was diagnosed with burnout and depression. From there, 2017-2018 was a horrible time, and I focused on my recovery.
After the worst part was over, finding a meaningful and motivating project helped along with my recovery, and I started new studies in education science. All was well until about summer 2019 when I was faced with another challenging situation. In Finland, studies are very much a social process, with low hierarchies and students being treated as individuals. In Germany, you’re just a number, there is zero flexibility, and the pace and demands are extremely exhausting. Facing this as an international student, and with most of my professors being German with very little understanding of cultural differences and the challenges I had adapting, was rough. This led to my second burnout. And then Covid-19 hit, which obviously did not help.
And how are you doing nowadays?
Now I’m doing well. I participated in cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps you analyze and rebuild thought and behavioral patterns. It’s a very pragmatic approach and it really dismantles why exactly you think and feel the way you do, why you should or shouldn’t continue acting in a certain way, and how to identify symptoms of exhaustion specific to you. Now I know, for example, that when I start grumbling about minor stuff at my partner, I’m probably too stressed and need to take it easier. Also, friends and family have helped a lot, and continue to be a valuable source of support for me.
What would you have hoped would have gone differently for you?
I know now that I could not have stopped depression from happening. I had not developed the skills and understanding of how recovery works and how important it is to take care of yourself daily. My work as a student union leader in my previous university, surrounded by motivated and capable overachievers, set me down the road to neglecting my own wellbeing and signals of stress. It’s harder to stop when you fundamentally enjoy what you do, but it can still burn you out.
And, having been in a leadership role at 21 and as a young woman, it was really rough to step down, back to the normal world and junior positions. I wasn’t ready for any of it.
Despite all this, there is a silver lining of sorts. In therapy, my counselor asked me to write down what I was grateful for about depression. That was difficult, but it helped me drill down on the change that I’ve created in my life since. Now I know better how to take care of myself.
What I think could have made a difference for me is that there could have been some support. Or at the very least awareness, empathy, and understanding on taking care of my wellbeing in any of the places I worked or studied. At the student union, it was a given you work yourself to the bone, even if that’s not healthy. And at the latest university, some of the professors could have been more aware and empathic about the challenges their students were facing and acknowledged them. You couldn’t talk openly about being too tired or burnt out. You would have become a pariah. Especially as a young woman, you’re immediately seen as too emotional and therefore incapable of finishing your studies or work.
It is the culture of silence that needs to change. Earlier this year Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles spoke up about the pressures in the Olympics and their mental health and wellbeing. That is an excellent start for this culture of silence to change. Maybe we could all start changing the culture of silence. Prioritize our wellbeing and spread awareness of mental health.
If you could give 1 burnout tip to our readers, what would it be?
Do one thing you enjoy every day! It can be anything you like. Maybe it is walking in nature or your favorite movie or sports or baking. Just do something that you really enjoy doing. For me, it’s knitting, and if I start skipping that, I know I’m starting to slip and need to correct the direction I’m heading to.
Anything else you want to add?
In October, I participated in a Finnish Women Worldwide (FWW) seminar. There, I learned that it’s very common for female migrants to struggle to find work that matches their education and experience and they become brain waste. And therefore, it is common for migrant women to diminish themselves for no reason. This can also be transferred to people with burnout. When you are exhausted and don’t have the power or will to do things you start easily to diminish yourself, and again, for no reason.
This leads me to what I want to say to everyone who might be struggling: be open, be bold, and don’t make yourself small. Even if you feel tired, your experience and skills are still there. You’re not defined by your current circumstances or your current mental state.
If you felt inspired by Marjo’s story or just want to say thanks, you can. Reach out to her on LinkedIn.