Case Study:

How one ex-Googler coped with work-induced burnout

Written by CMI Insights Tuesday 05 May 2020
A moving personal story with lessons for anyone on the brink of wfh burnout. Key insight: “work is all about finding the right people for the right tasks, not about trying to do as much work as possible yourself”

Right now, nearly everyone in the world is experiencing stress. We’re in the midst of a pandemic; we’re concerned for our loved ones’ health as well as our own; we’re working in entirely new situations; and many workers have been furloughed. It is stressful. Big time.

The constant news alerts and new (usually depressing) information being released every day add to the stress.

And then there’s The Working At Home Problem. For those who are homeworking, it’s easy to be sucked into work at all hours and fall foul of the ‘always-on’ syndrome. Many of us will feel we need to be constantly contactable, to work harder than ever so that our manager knows we’re not slacking off or, worse, use work as a distraction from our true feelings. It may be hard to say no to work when you know your company is struggling and colleagues are being furloughed. You feel you should pick up the slack.

It can be exhausting – and it can lead to burnout.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, a former marketing lead at Google, has been extraordinarily honest about her own confrontation with burnout. We thought this was a good time to reshare some of her experiences. The problems started before she even joined the company:

“The months-long [interview] process had kept my stress levels high,” Anne-Laure recalls. “And when I was offered my dream job, [I felt] I could now finally relax. But, when I started the job, I started doubting myself. So many smart, talented people.” She was experiencing the classic symptoms of Imposter Syndrome.

“As a result, I decided to work really hard. I would say yes to everything. Someone needed a hand with a project? Of course, I was happy to help. A last minute presentation to finish? I would cancel my dinner plans… I would take calls in the middle of the night to make sure everything would run smoothly,” Anne-Laure writes.

Right now many people will be running at double their normal speed; it’s easy to imagine the same problems happening all over the world.

Opening up

Anne-Laure realised that she couldn’t continue working this way when she started crying during a video call. The stress of being constantly available and striving to over-achieve had left her energy stores desperately low; she felt anxious, always tired, and relied on coffee to fuel her during the day.

Fortunately she decided to talk to her colleague about it.

“I spoke to a colleague I had become close to. I said I may not be fit for the job. ‘This is burnout,’ she said. ‘I went through something similar when I started. You should talk to your manager’.”

Talking to your colleagues, friends, or partners is the first step to solving the problem of burnout. And while this might feel difficult right now, with many of us working in isolation, it’s still the right way to go.

Why not book in a virtual coffee and ask your parents for their advice, or blow off steam with your friends over Zoom? These steps will move you onto a solution-focused mindset. By contrast, when you don’t allow yourself any time off – either for self-care, exercise, or connecting with loved ones – you prevent yourself from topping up key energy reserves, instead dwelling on the problem.

Evaluating workloads

Back to Anne-Laure.

“When I got back to London, I told [my manager] about what I was going through. She was incredibly understanding. We sat down and reviewed all of my projects together. There were things that were so new to me that they were taking me hours, whereas someone who had been at Google for years could do it with their eyes closed.”

Together, she and her manager redeployed some of Anne-Laure’s projects to other team members and spoke openly about what aspects of the role were causing undue stress. Though it’s an incredibly difficult conversation to have, there are many benefits for your mental health.

Setting professional boundaries

It’s also in your manager’s duty of care to make sure you have a safe working environment – both physically and psychologically – so you should be able to speak to them candidly. For Anne-Laure, her manager taught her a great lesson in management: “work is all about finding the right people for the right tasks, not about trying to do as much work as possible yourself.”

“While remaining connected with your team is important, video meetings all day, every day, will not be sustainable,” says Sarah McIntosh, Director of People at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. “Try restricting calls to core hours (10 – 4pm) and scheduling short breaks between meetings to decompress and process. Finally, know where your support resources are, such as an EAP or a Mental Health First Aider, and remember to reach out to a colleague, friend or family member if you feel overwhelmed or drained.”

Enjoying the results

This bit is hard but it’s vital: you must give yourself permission to feel stressed, low, and anxious. There is no shame in these feelings; accepting them is the first step to moving on from them.

Your manager will be able to help you with the day-to-day practicalities of adjusting your workload, but why not try putting in place some small rules to help? Little things, like sticking to a full lunch hour, not working late, switching off your laptop at the end of the working day, and eating well will all play a part in keeping some of the stresses at bay.

It certainly worked for Anne-Laure. “After a few weeks, I started feeling better. I would spend more time with friends, started exercising again, and fell asleep more easily. I would also enjoy work much more than before. I was lucky to have such a kind, understanding manager who genuinely cared about her team members. It allowed me to talk to her pretty early when I started experiencing the first symptoms of burning out. I wish more companies would create a culture where it is okay to reach out when struggling, so people can feel safe and can proactively take care of their mental health.”

CMI are hosting a webinar on how to be the best “you” when working from home - why not secure your place now?

For more Covid-19  articles and insights to help you manage through the current crisis, visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

Why not log into ManagementDirect and search for ‘stress’ or ‘burnout’ for hundreds of videos, interviews, and book chapters for more advice on how to manage stress?

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