The Breaking Point: Recovering from Burnout

Presented by Pauline Narvas at You Got This 2020: From Home

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Okay, hello, everyone, thank you for joining me today. It's great to see so many of you tuning in from at home. I'm Pauline, your second speaker for today's conference, and I will be talking about how real burnout is, and sharing tips on spotting early signs of burnout and dealing with it so that hopefully you can take this on board and apply it to your own life.

Obviously, all of the stories that I share here today are focused on when things were "normal", but obviously the whole dynamic has changed at work, and at home, and meet-ups as well, so I'm going to try to touch up on them as well throughout the talk. So, yes, just a quick intro on me.

Hi, everyone, I'm Pauline, I'm a keen creator, mostly blogging on important topics to me such as well-being, mental health, tech, personal development, and more. You can find more on my blog I'm currently a digital engineering graduate at BT on their digital engineering graduate scheme.

Right now, I'm focusing on the wonderful world of site reliability engineering, and that is - it's all really, really nice and fun, never done DevOps in my life until six months ago, so still learning loads. I'm due to graduate in September, which is both very exciting but also terrifying. And I'm an advocate for women, black folks, and people of colour in tech. I work on a lot of initiatives with various different organisations to help bridge gaps in STEM. And, yes, I wear a lot of different hats, but, to be honest, I absolutely love it.

So my breaking point. From my introduction alone, you could probably tell that I like to dip my toes in lots of different things, and that is great, especially as someone who didn't have a tech background, because of all of these wonderful things that I've been involved in, I've really been able to pave my way into tech, and the next few slides I will try and explain and just showcase my story to you. So back in January 2018, I had just finished my final year January exam, and as soon as I finished them, I immediately thought about all the free time I had to do other things like plan talks, go to events, plan events, write posts, film stuff, learn more tech stuff, do more tech stuff, and apply to so many different jobs.

So, what did I do? I did it all, literally, everything. And just in time for graduation, I was obsessed with this concept of grind and hustle, hustle and grind, and making the most out of every second of the 24 hours that I had. Obviously, the work that I did really did pay off, and, today, I'm in tech, learning so many different things, and actively contributing to some pretty cool stuff. At the time, I thought I was becoming super woman, but listing it out like that now, it makes me feel really silly not seeing this inevitable future of burnout, but just as a side note, I still think that I am Wonder Woman, Super Woman, but I'm less dependent on external things to make me feel like I am. So surely after finishing my final university exams, I moved to Leeds, where I currently live, to start my summer internship the following Monday. I had hardly moved into Leeds, or even so much fully took like a proper breath at this point.

So, this is just an example of what my calendar looked like from finishing my summer internship and then going into my grad scheme. It was a similar structure to when I finished uni, I started my internship on Monday. You can see here on the Friday I finished my summer internship, and I was feeling pretty good, pretty positive, because I contributed quite a bit.

I was proud what I achieved in the last three months whilst trying to adapt to working from home, working from home, adapted to living in Leeds, so then on the Saturday and the Sunday, I had to start preparing for my grad scheme, and so the first two weeks of your grad scheme, I actually had to go to travel across the country in all sorts of areas because they had several different sessions, and so I had to pack, I had to make sure that on Sunday I was at Ipswich for Monday at, like, 8.30. That was a full-on day. We had train delays. I was probably travelling that day for almost like seven hours. It was absolutely ridiculous because of trains, but then the Monday to the Thursday, like the Friday, I just had full day induction, and as you can see from the emojis during the week, I went from being optimistic, upbeat and excited, to feeling really quite burned out and ill. I pressed on.

I actually was really unwell during my induction event, and I think it was a mixture of home sickness, but also trying to take everything in. It was really, really overwhelming when you start a new job, as you probably know. So then, once again, when I started my actual job in Leeds, in addition to adjusting to my new working life, and learning stuff at work, I just sort of suffered from really bad anxiety, and fear, after moving away, and after doing all the induction, and pretty much I just felt super, super overwhelmed, and so what I usually do, and I have always done this, and I can't really explain why, but whenever I get overwhelmed, I just continue to overwhelm myself with other things by adding more to my plate. It sort of was like a hope for me to crush my anxiety.

I don't know if anyone else feels this way? I've never really spoken out loud about this, and I would be interested to know if anyone else has done this, they add themselves more to make themselves feel better but it goes the wrong way? So I added more to my plate to hope to crush my anxiety. That didn't work. It did work throughout university, but when I entered the working world as well, with personal stuff going on, I just kept doing it, as you can see there, I did more learning, I started teaching my first Girls Code First courses after work, I did more meet-ups, blogging, more learning, and my days were just learning, working, and working towards a goal that I really - that at the time was really important to me, but eventually, I started to realise that this is un sustainable, because what does this result in? It results in burnout.

So burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion, caused by excess and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. So that is how I was feeling. And it took me quite a while to spot the signs, and it somehow is quite difficult to spot these signs of burnout when you're so focused on your goal.

I know that happened to me. I want to make such a huge impact as soon as I enter this new job, I want to make an impact and have people take me seriously. I was focused on learning about the company, how they work, learning about the different codebases, and I wanted to contribute from day one and hit the ground running. Sometimes, that's not a sustainable or healthy in the long run. And these are just some warning signs that I slowly started to realise and recognise over time, and that you should also look out for. So friends and family kindly telling me to slow down. It's like everyone was warning me about it. It seemed like I was taking too much on and slowly spiralling out of control, but I just couldn't see it.

I actually always responded to friends and family with things like I know what I'm doing, I'm doing fine, it's only this, it's only that, I just need to do this, I just need to do that, leave me alone, stuff - stop trying to derail me.

Sometimes, like I said, it felt like they were trying to stop me, or slow me down for some reason, and it actually, you know, upon reflection, it was actually the fact that they cared for me, they were just talking to me, you know, taking me to one side, and being like you need to take it down a notch, and just keep calm, and everything, so that because they cared about my mental health and well-being. If people are saying this, it might be good to take a moment to reflect. They might just be genuinely worried for you.

The second one is not getting enough sleep. I was actually running on five to six hours of sleep most days in 2018, and I knew that sleep was important at the time, but sometimes I just physically couldn't sleep because all I wanted to do was go through my to-do list and tick it off, and do some more learning, working towards my goals.

I was just so wired with all the things that I needed to do, and, you know, this is obviously a massive red flag, because if you're replacing sleep for extra hours of work to tick things off your to-do list, that's so unhealthy and a massive red flag. Nowadays, I just - I prioritise sleep. It doesn't matter if I don't get my goals for the day done, I just go to sleep. It's okay. Everything's fine. And, yes, that is a massive red flag.

Losing interest: so my interest in things like my blog, videos, and even like health began to suffer. People began to notice the lack of enthusiasm that I had towards things, and I found myself stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts, and I was irritable to the people that I loved the most, and you know, it was just really negative. If you start losing interest in something that you used to get up for in the morning, it might be a sign that you're running low on batteries.

Similar to my last point, if you feel like constantly down and experiencing lots of negative emotions, I know I felt like this because of all the things that I said yes to, I started to realise that my 24 hours wasn't enough, and this actually led to a lot of dread and anxiety, so I said yes to everything, I felt like I needed to do everything, and, because I knew I didn't have time, it just spread me out even more. On top of that, I started to feel anxious, avoiding people, and getting like - I was just in such a negative cycle that I wasn't very pleasant to be around. And, yes, it just wasn't good, because, like I signed up to something, I was really excited about in the first place, and then suddenly like I don't want to do this any more.

Overall, my days just started to feel like one big chore, and I hated it. Again, another big red flag. Cognitive problems: so, if you're forgetting things, a little bit all over the place, and making silly mistakes, bursting out into different emotions, you might be experiencing burnout. I know that this is something definitely my partner can tell you I do a lot whenever I'm piling up with loads of different things, saying yes to everything.

I could just be all over the place to the point that I can't even think straight. And falling ill: nothing hits you more in the face than this one. During the summer of2018, when I confirmed my prays on the grad scheme, I took the weekend to prepare for the induction event the following week, and, like I said, it was an intense next few weeks, I was travelling up and down country, feeling exhausted from all the travelling, mentally exhausted from all the networking, and one night, like I said earlier, I actually fell quite ill to the point like I had to skip a few days on the induction event, and actually ended up missing more stuff.

It got to a point I was actually in my hotel room just staring at the ceiling because I was, like, "Why do I feel so bad? I feel terrible right now." That was like the first hit. And people deal with over whelm in different ways. This was my way. I was taking on more things. When I eventually got better, I was, like, "Catch me up. I need to make sure I'm up to speed with everything."

When I actually started my grad scheme, I was actually ill for a few days with a random cold, or a really bad migraine, and that was - it was really weird because I never get ill. But then every single month when I started my grad scheme, the first six months, I was always ill for five days, three days with a migraine or a cold. My immune system was saying, "Pauline, you need to go back a bit, reflect. You need to calm down, don't stress yourself out because it really shows." It really physically gets to you.

This leads me on to this Ariana. She actually shared her story on burnout a few times now, and I highly recommend that you listen to a few of her interviews and talks about the subject, because she has some really great insights. But there was one day that one story that she talked about where she actually collapsed from overworking herself. This actually led her to waking up with a pool of blood on her desk.

She was so mentally exhausted, she must have fallen asleep or something and then hit her head on the table. When she woke up, there was just blood everywhere. She ended up having a broken cheekbone as well which is crazy. That is what exhaustion does to you. She actually said in the past, "I had a thousand wishes before this, but now, after the incident" she only wished for one thing: to get better. It reflected to back what I said before, that my body was screaming for help, saying please slow down, please stop. When your body is screaming this at you, you just have to take a step back and listen.

So, how can we deal with burnout once we experience it? So dealing with burnout is something I'm still constantly learning about, but I feel like over the years, I've started to develop some strategies since my breaking point that I continue to practise today when I spot early signs of burnout.

So, the first one is to be honest with yourself. Looking back at that time in my life, I know a lot of it was caused by unnecessary pressure I put on myself. I had to ask myself some really tough questions like: why am I actually doing this? From this one simple question, I realised that I have quite a bit of a deep-rooted belief that pressured me to say yes all the time.

One I found personally found, a belief I found is my self worth. This is something I - is my self worth. It wasn't something I realised until I had an honest occasion with myself. I didn't realise how much self worth I had I attached to a project, or lines of code I wrote that way, or a new job, because that is very, very toxic.

There is this hustle obsession, productivity addiction, and a ridiculous worth ethic I linked to my identity. It doesn't help when you see the most successful people you look up to, and they're like the shining example of this, these people are great for inspiration and motivation, without a doubt, but where do we actually draw the line? That is something that you just need to be honest with yourself, and, if you are equating yourself - your self-worth, it might be worth stepping back and see matters. This helped me shift my mindset around productivity overall. It turns out rest is a huge part of success.

Stopping to consider: usually, like I said, I like to ask myself these questions: how does this serve me? How does this serve others? Can I do this on time and with top quality? If not, can I recommend someone else? These questions really deserve honest answers, it's like a framework that I've developed nowadays whenever I'm deciding to do a project, or deciding to speak at an event, and this is just so much more of a considered approach rather than just jumping head first, and also the last bit is if you can't do it and you say no, make sure that you pass that on to someone else, because it might be a really good opportunity for someone else to take up. And yet, I've been practising it the last few months, and it's been really fun!

Block out time for you. So this is just the physical act of blocking out time on your calendar can help you commit more time for yourself. This works for me, and I have a few blocks throughout my day now where I think literally just focus on whatever I want. I call this Project Me. These blocks during my day have helped me to stay sane. I fill them with things that really inspire me, that really energise me, and that includes exercise, journalling, blogging, and taking care of my plants. Sometimes, we just need that physical block of time to do that.

Disconnect: in our 24/7 world, sometimes, we need to talk away from the internet for a bit. Social media is fantastic, especially during this time, because you connect with more people, and it's great to stay connected, but, sometimes, seeing what other people are doing can make life feel like a bit of a sprint. So when it is more of a marathon, and staying offline, invest in more offline habits - reading, drawing, or going outside to talk around safely, connecting with friends instead of feeds. I took my first social media break ever last year for a couple of weeks, and I returned feeling so much more at ease, and I think that we deserve to give ourselves a break from the overwhelm of social media, and let our minds warned for a bit.

Staying mindful: I personally love keeping a track of how I'm feeling day in, day out. You can do this with journalling, or using several different apps. I can recommend some that I've been using recently, and I will link that in the Discord later. This has helped me be more aware of any early warning signs of burnout as they crop up, and I always use this as a way to remind myself of positive messages that my self-worth isn't defined by my productivity because sometimes we need these reminders.

Yes, this is just do nothing, walk away for a bit. Literally switch off everything, and just walk away. It's okay. I know it can feel like you need to be on something, like social media, or constantly be doing something, but sometimes you can walk away and do nothing. That's fine. Recharge your batteries. For me, in 2019, that was my year of recharging. I spent most of my time travelling, reading books, and finally catching up with the MCU with no regrets. Ironman is the strongest Avenger!

Yes, so this doesn't actually men the end of taking up opportunities. Just because you have decided to prioritise your health, it doesn't mean that you're quitting, it just means that you're taking a break, and you'll be returning with a new burst of enthusiasm and energy that allows you to do your very best.

If there is one thing you want to remember from this talk, and take away from this talk, it's this: we need to let go of this destructive belief that, if you keep working hard constantly, you will succeed, because it's just unhealthy, and un sustainable.

I love this quote I'm showing up on the screen right now. So you won't find true balance unless you install checks on your time, energy, and other resources. Draw the lines you will not cross lines with permanent markers, laser beams, and barbed-wire. Defend your bandwidth with repeat ed and firm resolve. Your survival depends on it. We aren't machines, so let's stop acting like one. Thank you so much, and stay safe out there, folks.

About the talk

Being in an industry that technically doesn’t stop, we can all get caught up with chasing on what the next new shiny thing there is to learn or take part in. As someone who was keen and ambitious in “breaking through” the industry, I found myself thinly spread to a point that was unhealthy and potentially dangerous long-term. Burnout is real. In this talk, I’ll share experiences as well as tips on helping spot patterns that lead to burnout and how to deal with it before it gets out of hand.

About Pauline Narvas

Pauline is an avid blogger on her blog,, Digital Engineering Graduate at BT and Equality in Tech Advocate.

Photo of Pauline Narvas

Pauline Narvas


You Got This is a network of community conferences focused on core, non-technical skills coordinated by Kevin Lewis.