Staying Afloat Under Pressure: A Public Servant’s Personal Story of Burnout

3 minute read

An anonymous contribution to the Spotlight on Governance.

Burn-out is something that happens to others, right? When we are appointed to executive positions, we are seen as part of the solution, and we try hard, until we’re down to our last ounce of energy. So how can we recognize that moment when we are sick and need to stop everything?

A few years ago, and it seems like yesterday, I was leading a very political program, in the middle of a government transition. I had a challenging personal situation at home and, as if that was not enough, I was volunteering for a local sports organization. I became sick, very sick. A benign cold turned into a serious infection. After a few days of recovery, I found that I could not go back to work. Even after I healed from that infection, I could not concentrate, I could not find energy to engage in even simple tasks or conversations, I felt the need to isolate myself all the time, and I had developed sleep disorders. My doctor recommended I take some time off.

I’m a very energetic person, always involved in too many projects. However, in that period, I had no energy at all. I would sit on the couch at home trying to motivate myself into doing something simple like going out to have a coffee at the nearby Tim Hortons, to no avail. I could not read, watch TV, or undertake any task that required even a slight cognitive effort. My short-term memory was affected, and my concentration was nonexistent. I felt hopeless! Shame, guilt, distress; I can’t start to describe how bad I felt during that period. My world was crumbling. Everything I had invested energy into, had identified myself with, seemed to me now out of reach forever. What was I going to do with my life? I remember telling someone, in those days of despair, that I understood how someone can come to believe that suicide is a relief. Those are the scariest words that ever came out of my mouth; ever. I can’t believe today that I said this.

I was very lucky to find on my path some very qualified professionals. A therapist who helped me tremendously in recognizing what had value in my life, who got me slowly, 5 minutes at the time, to resume some activities that I had forgotten that I liked: woodworking and music. Slowly, very slowly, increasing the pace 5 minutes at a time. My family doctor was also of tremendous support, encouraging me, pushing all the paper work required by my employer, and ensuring I felt safe. And slowly, very slowly, imperceptibly, a day at the time, I re-emerged. It took only six months; I’ve been lucky.

Of these events that happened over ten years ago now, I cherish two very important lessons. And the most important one is to have things in our lives; hobbies, passions, interests, that give us pleasure, and to carve out some time in our crazy schedules to do them. Despite the pressure, despite the guilt, despite the perception of futility from others, it's important to take time out for oneself. This is what keeps us mentally healthy, generates endorphins in our brains, makes us feel good, and helps us fight stress. This is how I re-emerged and this is still today how I stay afloat. The second thing is to understand our warning signs. Our body whispers to us before it screams. Understanding my limits and my signals and knowing when to push very hard on the emergency brake when I feel them is also what keeps me afloat. I no longer perceive this as a weakness. To the contrary, it’s a sign of strength.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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