Burning out was the best thing to happen to me – but it won't be for everyone

I’ve never really been the best or smartest at anything but usually found a way to be effective through a strong work ethic. As I was promoted to more senior roles, my way of coping to the increased targets and responsibilities would be to essentially work harder. Then in 2006 everything changed while I had a job in a significant leadership position - I burnt out.

I’m not ashamed to admit I burnt out. Actually, I now look at it as the best thing that ever happened to me (more on that later). It occurs to more people than we think (53% of Americans feel burned out and overworked - Source: Staples Advantage). Looking back, a large part of my problem was I worked hard but not smart.

The signs

I got to a stage where I slept less, worked long hours, found work difficult and didn’t enjoy or feel achievement with it. It was a recipe for disaster. Even though I was stressed, easily irritable and always felt tired, I consumed enough coffee and sugar fixes each day to keep me going. While colleagues, friends and family were concerned, I was so far gone I refused to acknowledge there was a problem. Then 1 day an anxiety attack got me to realise that something wasn't right – that I needed help.

Looking back

What became most apparent was I had developed a habit of always being on high alert - checking emails after hours, only getting 3 - 4 hours of solid sleep a night, working long hours due to a mindset of I must, I have to etc. Even when I wasn't physically at work I didn't really rest because I was thinking about the tasks outstanding, what needed to be completed, tomorrow, this week, this month and so on.

As I recovered I started to see the important aspects I had ignored like balancing work with my health, enjoying the simple things, being present in conversations with family and friends.

What’s different

I now work smarter which has led to not having to work as hard. Sure, there are still busy periods, challenging deadlines and targets, but I have a better way of coping with them now. As crazy as this sounds I’ve developed an off switch because I’m no longer on high alert – my productivity systems now manage my workload. The same can apply for anyone because the techniques can be learnt.

What I experienced motivated me to turn a negative situation into a positive passion. For the past 10 years I’ve specialised in productivity by helping people and the organisations they work for be more effective at what they do. It’s exceptionally rewarding when I get to make a difference to someone achieve outcomes in a scalable and sustainable manner because prevention is better than the cure.

There’s no doubt burning out was the most challenging and humbling experience I’ve had, but I look at it as the best thing that happened to me because I came through the other side with my health, family, better balance and purpose with a new career.

However, not everyone who experiences burning out is as fortunate. I've met many who have fallen into a deep depression (the World Health Organisations predicts depression will be the second leading cause of disability by 2020), whose relationships didn't survive or who lost their zest for life.

Prevention is the best approach, yet too few workers have developed a rhythm of work to relieve pressure and achieve outcomes in less time. Unknowingly they make work harder than it needs to be.

What real changes do you need to make to your work or lifestyle?