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My work has always defined me, but now I am burning out

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Victor Koldunov/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Victor Koldunov/Alamy Stock Photo

The question I have recently taken six weeks off work due to burn-out, diagnosed by my GP. In the past 10 years I have only ever taken half of all my annual leave and have never been off sick even though there are days I probably should have stayed at home. I am extremely committed to my job in the NHS.

My dilemma is how to avoid getting burnt out again. I love my job and get an enormous amount of satisfaction, kudos, legitimacy and engaged interest. I gain not wholly but a large part of my identity from it.

This needs to change as I age, I’m over 60 now and my children are all living their own lives, visiting frequently, but I can no longer be defined by my role as their father, which I loved.

How do I begin to gain pleasure and meaning from, for example, gardening? It does not have the same exciting pull as a busy job? Who am I if I give up work? And how do I find out without losing purpose? Hope of volition?

I need to find ways to stay mentally healthy at work, to slow down and smell the coffee, but as I have never done this I’m lost as to how to start. Any advice?

Philippa’s answer I wonder what sort of burn-out you suffered from? Perhaps it was the kind you get because there is a pandemic and your workload has doubled; or general over-stimulation – not the sort of stimulation that feeds you, but the sort that drains you. You are looking after other people’s bodies in the NHS, but to avoid burn-out you also need to take heed of your own.

Burn-out is usually too much of something, and too much of the same something. Whatever it is that burns you out also burns out some of your capacity to form new bridges that connect what you already know to what you have yet to learn.

You love your job, maybe so much so that you have been escaping into it? But what are you escaping from? When you slow down at work and smell the coffee (that’s a good idea, really smell it, stay in the present, rather than rushing to what you must do next), a gap may come into view. It sounds as though this gap is making you panic a bit. Let’s call the gap an existential void and let’s change your relationship to it. Instead of fearing it, welcome it. You are not going to fill it with gardening, but I’d like you to do some metaphorical gardening. Keep that existential void weed-free, but see what crops up in it. Allow yourself to feel that void without rushing to fill it. Fill it with more of your usual work and you’ll burn out again. See it as a new patch of earth where you can grow something new. Just feel it for now.

I’m going to throw a lot of metaphors at you now because we dream in metaphors, and they give you some answers

You know when you get in from work and there is nothing obvious to do? We have a gap. So often so that we don’t allow ourselves to feel the slight discomfort that comes with that existential void, we start scrolling phones, or turn on the TV or open the laptop and return to work. But if we don’t do that, if we just sit with it, that’s when an idea might come to us, something we’d like to read or make, or people we’d like to see. Allow yourself to feel a sort of emptiness, but instead of filling it with instant gratification (rarely gratifying in the long term) you can give yourself the chance to think new thoughts, create things or strengthen your relationships with others. I’m wondering if this work of redefining yourself is something you need to do alone. Burn out sometimes leaves us feeling more isolated than we actually are. Who’s around you? Might they be a support, or even a resource?

I’m deliberately going to throw in a lot of metaphors at you now because we dream in metaphors, and they may be the key to giving you some answers.

You can think of yourself as an island. An island that can easily build bridges to other islands, ones that represent new ideas (or old ones you haven’t visited for a while), new learning, new ways of just being. For a long time your bridges have been heading to parenthood island or work island and they are like motorway bridges, so maybe you are feeling it’s now time to turn them into something smaller. Maybe build some new ones. If you build one and it doesn’t go anywhere, that’s OK, build another. When finding out who you are and what you need – a lifelong task – you are allowed to experiment.

Or maybe you can think of yourself as a piece of Velcro with hooks looking for new loops to hook into. If we don’t have any hooks we have no way of making any connection with our world, which makes it hard to make meaning out of our existence. Think of yourself as arriving at a time where you have space and the capacity to build new bridges and form new hooks.

These were my metaphors, but in your dreams you will find your own. Write down those dreams when you wake up. If you don’t habitually remember them, tell yourself you are open to remembering dreams. See what metaphors your unconscious is coming up with. They may just lead you to where you go next.

Allow yourself this fallow time so new ways of thinking, feeling, being and experimenting have time to form. Nature abhors a vacuum, so I’ve got a feeling the gap you have in your life will grow fruit, but you’ll just need to sit with it to discover what that fruit is. It’s time to listen to what your body is telling you.

If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk

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