‘I love my burnout’ – Breaking Through The Taboo

Dutch version

Yes, I can say it now: “I love my burnout.”

At the beginning of 2012 I had a major burnout. For six months I’d been ignoring all the warning signals: I hardly slept anymore, sat upright in bed every morning between 5 and 7 AM with adrenaline rushes and started each working day completely exhausted.

I had heard once that it’s best to just keep working during a burnout. Experience has proven that nothing could be further from the truth. Following that strategy only worsened the long-term consequences. And the fact is: it could have been prevented.

It is essential that work stress and burnout are recognized not only by the employee affected, but above all, by the person’s manager. We believe that handling burnout is a joint responsibility of both employees and employers. And that it must be tackled collaboratively. The first step is breaking the following taboos and myths:

It won’t happen to me – A common statement among employees in organizations. Even when the first signs of a developing burnout present themselves – poor sleep, accelerated or irregular heartbeat, mood swings – we still think it will not happen to us. “If we just keep working, surely it will go away, it’s only temporary…” It is naive to think that you can handle it alone. So tear off those blinders and make it a topic for conversation. Now. Not tomorrow.

That doesn’t happen to my people – This phrase often comes up in conversations with employers. “And if it does happen, it is not our fault.” We also hear it in the market: “Don’t write about burnout. Employers do not want to hear that word. They are allergic to it. ” For employers, too, putting your head in the sand is anything but an effective strategy. Especially when you realize that it is often your most engaged, most interested and best performing employees who are at the greatest risk.

Trying to help…unhelpfully
Executives and HR officials have not learned how to deal with stress and burnout. Faced with an employee who is struggling, they bombard the person with questions such as, “Right, well when are you back? When is this thing over? Your team needs you.” The effect is that the employee feels even more miserable, does not feel seen in his / her existence and sinks even further into a negative spiral. The employee wonders “Am I welcome and valued here, even if I admit to being ill?”

At one organization named as Best employer in the Netherlands, we hear managers make suggestions such as: “get some treatment,” “take medication” and ’take a day off when you need a rest.” Acting more like people farmers than managers, these questions demonstrate that short-term returns are more important than humanity and sustainable employability. Fear rules. Because we don’t look the problem straight in the eye. Because we have collectively lost the connection with ourselves and with each other.

Working together on recovery
Learning to recognize the symptoms of stress and burnout is important. More important still for many people and organizations is accepting that burnout even exists. Acknowledge that an employee has burnout. Acknowledge that you don’t know what to do with it. And that despite everything, he or she is still welcome. With everything there is. And that you are willing to work together on recovery. Both employer and employee need to do their part, not try to throw it over the fence to the other.

An industry is developing to address and handle burnout. There are companies who claim that they can get burned out employees back to their jobs “Good as new!!” within 6 weeks. With a warranty, even. As if burnout is a defect and sick employees are broken machines simply in need of refurbishing.

While it’s true that there is a structure to the recovery process and there are a number of clear phases, each approach is individual. Because it’s not a question of simply repairing something broken – the process often involves reinvention of oneself.

You are in it together
When it comes to burnout in organizations, employer and employee both play their parts. “What in the leadership of the organization makes employees sick?” Attention should also be paid to that question. Otherwise we risk simply returning a recovering employee to the same unhealthy workplace conditions that contributed to the problem in the first place.

A healthy organization works on prevention. It is aware of the well-being of its employees and, should the circumstances arise, works together with the sick employee on recovery. This requires connections to be restored: with yourself, the other person and the customer.

Let’s start at the beginning: break the taboo on burnout. Throw it on the table. Look at it. Let it be there. And above all, tell your employees that they are welcome. In their entirety.

So, why do I love my burnout? My burnout and the difficult recovery process that followed made me a happier person by helping me understand who I am as a person and what’s right for me. It also taught me to set better boundaries, to make choices that better suit who I am and who I want to be. It seems even adversity has its own hidden gifts, provided we are honest about it and are supported in our efforts to engage with it.



Johan de Jong is a trainer, (organizational) coach and director of Healthy Company Consultants. The HealthyCC team works with and within organizations on ‘Connecting leadership’ and the development of Talent and Teams. In addition, they offer individual coaching for employees during stress & burnout.