Stories of Burnout: Recognizing Self-Care is Necessary for Us All
“I was feeling feverish and generally exhausted. This was on top of the nausea and dizziness which I’d been ignoring … Too much stress applied to a physical body part will eventually cause problems and, if the warning signs are ignored, long-lasting damage may well occur. ...Before all this [working in a crisis situation], I had considered myself both physically and mentally a healthy person... And yet this did happen to me – throwing all of my preconceptions about health into question….
Unable to read the signs, a vicious cycle was established. I worked more and more, both fueled by the anxious adrenaline, but also to distract myself from it. I exercised less due to tension and fatigue…. It has now been more than two years since my crash and I count myself very lucky that I have been able to take a slow route to recovery….Please take just a little more time to listen to what your body tells you, bearing in mind what could happen if you ignore the small soft voice for too long.”
- Robert Males, Doctors Without Borders volunteer (full story here)
“I knew I should be doing more but I physically and mentally wasn't able to. I did care, I knew I did, it's just that I couldn't feel it or show it. In that respect, I felt numb. I also felt anger. So much of it. … For physical symptoms, chest pain, dizziness and headaches were some of the common ones I had every now and then in the field, but which I had dismissed at the time as run-of-the-mill stress…. The most difficult for me, apart from the anger and inability to empathise, was the isolation, loss of enjoyment and impaired concentration. A 'people person', highly motivated and very organised are three traits I am known for. However, on coming back from the Democratic Republic of Congo, I found myself wanting to avoid meeting new people and also socialising with people I knew well. I also remembered how hard I found it to get daily tasks done...
As a result, your personal life back home suffers and, as it can feel, your sanity… I have deliberately narrowed my world considerably. I, maybe selfishly, don't want to think about the grand scale of things and everything going on out there (especially at the moment) - I just want to concentrate on my immediate surroundings…. Exercise, by the way, is another move in the right direction. I also try to set myself some kind of routine: breakfast, coffee, part-time low-stress work in the morning, gym and friends in the afternoon and evening…. I don't need to worry about the problems across the globe if I don’t want to… and I don't need to worry about whether my actions have an immediate impact on someone's life being saved.
... the heavy workload and high responsibility combined with the constant exposure to difficult situations and the want to make as much of a difference as I can but without that always being possible. Plus difficult working relationships that can crop up, joined with the constant feeling of not being safe or not knowing if you’re safe, so that even when in reality you are, you start to doubt it. This, combined with various stressors in my personal life over the past 18 months gradually added to the blocks of pressure falling on me bit by bit until my brain and body could no longer handle it.
… our focus is always on the people we are working with: our patients and their communities. It always will be. It's why we do it. To continue to do that, we need to look after ourselves too - something many of us neglect. It's been over two months since I got back and by having this break, by putting a simple change of lifestyle in place and with the help of MSF, I feel more 'normal' again. … burnout demands that you listen. I, now that I am aware, am listening and will continue to listen hard, ready to spot the signs in myself and others I may come across in a similar situation in the future.”
- Emily Gilbert, Doctors Without Borders volunteer (full story here)