Back from Burnout: Should I Tell my Colleagues?
by Brent Roy
“Slowly you may have transformed from a helper to one in need of help. It’s important to talk about this, to identify the wounds you carry.”
― Jenn Bruer, Helping Effortlessly: A Book of Inspiration and Healing
Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:
- physical and emotional exhaustion
- cynicism and detachment
- feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
The term was introduced into our language in 1974 but the World Health Organization (WHO) only officially recognized burnout in May 2019, classifying it not as a medical condition but rather an “occupational phenomenon”resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
WHO says burnout “refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
For anyone who has experienced burnout and for the medical care providers who assisted sufferers through it, we are already quite familiar with it. Having it recognized by WHO offers some official validation.
After spending the better part of a year away from work to recover from burnout, I jumped back on the proverbial horse and returned to work. My doctor cautioned me against returning to the system the way it was before. I needed to be careful to erect and respect boundaries, or be prepared for Burnout 2.0, which features an even longer recovery time.
Even the statistics were not in my favour. According to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, “studies have shown that the odds for return to full employment drop to 50/50 after 6 months of absence. Even less encouraging is the finding that the odds of a worker ever returning to work drop 50% by just the 12th week.” With those odds, my employer could be forgiven for planning its future without me.
Once I decided to return to work I found it essential to co-design a reasonable schedule and workload with my employer. Canadian employers must accommodate employees in various circumstances, including returning from an injury or illness. It is important to provide value to the employer with your skills as you gradually build up your hours and duties to match your position.
Privacy is a huge concern in today’s workplace and society, especially in the health field. Employees have the right to keep their medical information confidential and private. On the other hand, to provide appropriate accommodation, employers also have the right to know about their employees’ illness and can request medical information. It’s in an employee’s best interest to be forthright in that regard.
But is it necessary to be equally as forthright with your coworkers?
I’m back. Should I tell my coworkers?
A returning employee has every right to keep health and diagnostic information to him or herself. In my case, it seemed people were concerned about my health but were reluctant to ask for fear they might violate my privacy. That makes for slightly awkward working conditions, especially while the returning employee is building up to the pre-sick schedule and workload. I found it helpful to ask myself whether my colleagues would benefit from a discussion about it.
To whom are you disclosing?
Know your audience. The team I work with everyday has great camaraderie and high trust, despite working in several geographic locations. I felt safe and comfortable being honest with them.
What to say
Disclosure is more about them and less about me. I felt it was important they understand what burnout is, that it takes time to recover from it and build up the workload. It impacts the team because my doing less means they are doing more.
I wanted them to know that I was not yet back to the speed of work I was used to and not able to take on more tasks and projects.
Finding the best way and time to do it
The team already meets for a daily huddle phone call and on Wednesdays, it’s a Skype video call. Wednesday seemed like the right time as it would be the closest thing to face-to-face.
The team valued my courage to share this real issue that also has the potential to impact them individually. It encouraged them to take a look at their own approaches to balancing work and life and it gave them permission to ask me about aspects of my recovery journey and see me as a resource to help any of them prevent a ride down the burnout highway.
Burnout occurs when you’ve become out of balance with your life and work. Here’s a free tool you can use to find out where you stand.
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Brent is a life and leadership coach with a goal to help exhausted leaders reclaim their balance so their family life and careers bring equal amounts of joy most of the time.