Kayla-Tess shares her experience with burnout and losing her cool at work, which had further consequences and life lessons for her. Sharing these stories helps to remind us that we are all human fighting our own mental and emotional battles and that we have all taken strain in some form or another during our lives. She shares an honest account of a time when she was burnout and how she coped and overcame it. These stories also aim to encourage us to enforce our own boundaries in our personal and work lives when we feel the early stages of burnout.

Unpacking my burnout experience

I can identify many times in my past where I was to some degree burnt out, in denial of burnout, or very close to burnout. It is a constant battle. But my most severe confrontation with burnout was exactly a year ago. October 2019 was a busy period where I was running and supposedly thriving but found that in the business and false feeling of productivity that I started dropping balls. Initially, they were administrative balls and independent mistakes which I could resolve with a quick email or 2 well past midnight. But then it affected my presence, the way I treated and interacted with family, friends, and eventually clients too.

And then I swore at a client- it was direct, intentional, and disempowered the client and all the other clients and facilitators around me. I had lost the trust of the client and staff body as a whole because this act contradicted everything I had been teaching the clients up until then.

I was leading a team of facilitators conducting a 2-day life skills programme at a local low-income school on the Cape Flats. These programmes usually come with their challenges- extremely large classes, disrespect for authority, hormonal teenagers, traumatized kids releasing their trauma through questionable behaviour and decisions… Usually, I would be ready and excited by these challenges, viewing them as an expression of help to which our team was equipped to respond to.

But for this particular programme I recall feeling extra tired, drained, and just going by the motions for the sake of completing it. It was during day 2 while we were doing a trauma release workshop when some kids chose to leave the session as they didn’t think it a relevant workshop for them.

We never force kids to stay as we want the engagement to be from a place of personal agency and not punitive force. So the kids left whilst the others stayed for individual counselling and prayer support.  While my team counselled these kids, I was on ‘mamabear’ watch desperately trying to protect the space from those who left the session. We had kids knocking on the windows, laughing at the those in tears and praying. We had kids throwing food at me whilst standing guard at the door. We had kids screaming and swearing in the passages. Basically, all the behaviours that could make one implode when one is already teetering on the edge.

Reflecting on the experience

In retrospect I see these kids responding out of a triggered place- they chose not to deal with their trauma through prayer and counselling but it had still surfaced through the preliminary content and had to be released somehow.

At the time I didn’t view it that way and found myself angry at the selfishness, destructiveness and disrespect of these kids. This experience was not the only burnout factor at the time, but it was the last bit of pressure that caused me to look a girl in the face who was laughing at us through the window and call her ‘a bitch’.

The worst part is that initially, I didn’t see it as a problem- my team members brought it to my attention and had to explain to me why it was problematic during our program debrief. I am now a firm believer that it was problematic- but then, all I could think about and validate was my own experience. When my own stuff screams louder than that of the people whom I am serving, I know then that I am approaching or am already burnt out.

The consequences I faced

A week later I found myself booked off for a few days, and booked in for immediate therapeutic supervision. I was writing apology letters to educators, the learners, and my facilitators. The interrogation from my staff to ensure I was ready to re-enter the field was excruciating as was the burden of knowing I had so many people questioning my leadership, mentorship and authority.

It is scary how unchecked burnout can lead to a single explosive moment which overshadows all the positive acts in your career and relationships. I am happy to report that the experience served me well in that I now have a preventative personal and professional burnout plan too. This plan includes monthly therapeutic supervision sessions for me, compulsory leave periods during all school holidays, the employment of a second programme co-ordinator who now runs half of the programmes, and monthly trips to the spa for my beauty treatments!

Trying to balance and juggle life

Lockdown for me has been a juggling act- with different systems like family, work and school all ‘resuming’ at different times and at different paces. I am struggling now more than I was during hard lockdown because now I am trying to balance my children’s fluctuating school schedule and a lack of childcare with an increasingly busy work schedule.

Just the other day, for example, my kids are both home with snotty noses- It is not Covid, it is allergy-related. But the school’s rigid post health policy means they would have been sent home anyway. Trying to work with 2 toddlers running around is hard and the temptation to put them in front of the tv for the whole day is real and I may just give into today for the sake of getting my work done!

The mom guilt is therefore thriving as a result of this tension– work versus children- who will win my attention for today? The only way I am coping is because it is seasonal and because the end of year holiday is soon approaching! Preventing burnout is therefore also about acknowledging how long you can last in a crazy busy state of mind. It is also then planning for that busy season and also planning rest time thereafter before progressing into the next stage or season of productivity.

Comparatively speaking, hard lockdown wasn’t a challenge for our family because my attention was not divided- it was family alone. It was art projects, garden camping trips, lego, tea parties. baking, cooking, sleeping late, lots of series, date nights and sex with my husband! Because I was confined to one space, life was well…. simpler. 

Common signs and symptoms of burnout

Signs and symptoms of burnout for me will always be: bags under my eyes, forgetting to eat because it doesn’t seem a priority compared to my to-do list, excessive nail-biting and jittering, migraines, mouth sores and getting a cold and a general state of misery, shortness, and distraction when engaging with my kids and husband. When I start to lie to my supervisor and pretend everything is okay, that is when I know I am no longer on the burnout spectrum, I am 100% burnt out. If you are feeling constantly drained, tired or irritable from prolonged stress it’s time to make some changes.

Placing boundaries

Personally, I am also conscious that I struggle to say no and so I am constantly having to challenge my own boundaries. This is not something I have fully grasped or conquered. It is something that my husband and supervisor hold me accountable for which I tend to dislike in the moment but appreciate in hindsight. Thus this blog is a reminder to me too to place boundaries when needed.

Preventing burnout sometimes means disappointing others- asking for extensions, apologizing when I can’t do something I thought I had the capacity for, acknowledging that I am out of my own depth or asking others for help. This is super hard for me as I don’t like to let other people down- I am a people pleaser of note! I am getting there though, I continue to be intentional and think, if anything, my decision to be vulnerable and struggle through this makes me more relatable to my clients, makes me more human and ‘beautifully flawed’.

I trust this is helpful!

Written by Kayla-Tess Pattenden, Edited by Caley Wildman

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