Have you ever experienced burnout? Starting a day with plenty of things to do but you don’t feel like doing any of them? Losing the drive you once had for things you love – and no energy to do anything but just curl up in a corner and stare out the window? Sometimes you don’t realize how burned out you are until a break happens and you have time to reflect.

That’s what happened to me several years ago when I got let go from a job, a job that I had been at for over 13 years. There were a lot of good times and learning experiences and treasured coworkers there. But in the last couple years things went south. Micromanagement came in, the pressure to meet deadlines became intense and the joy of helping people went out.

We had a good team in our department. We divided up the work to be done and tackled it in a “divide and conquer’ method. We collaborated with each other and learned from each other. Everybody had tips to share to improve our process and we were successful. But then upper management decided we weren’t doing good enough and were missing some deadlines. Instead of using the team to investigate the processes and ask how we could trim time, they set an arbitrary new production standard to achieve the goals without any adjustment to processes. We all told them that it was unreasonable but they were unmovable – and none of the leadership was actually doing the work.

In addition they determine that we should all run any changes we might have in mind through the designated lead and not collaborate amongst ourselves. Changes in process had to be approved in advance. And then they assigned each individual a specific part of the work and demanded that mandatory overtime. In fact there was a month where we were expected to work 3 hrs OT every day and 1o hrs on Saturday. The extra bucks from all the OT (25 hrs per week – 100 hrs for the whole month) was nice. But after a certain amount of OT the effectiveness goes down and people burn out.

It’s like you start out like the top plant picture – all green and fuzzy and growing. And then you end up like the bottom picture – all nibbled away, brown, and fading. Some people managed to meet the new standard, at least for a while, and got to stay. A few of us didn’t and got let go. We tried our hardest, cut out breaks, worked through our lunches, and cut corners where we could. But in the end it didn’t work.

I remember the day when the HR Director came to my desk (never a good sign) and I followed her back to her office where my supervisor was waiting. They didn’t even let me go back to my desk to get my stuff. They did say that I would be able to get unemployment but they had to let me go. My first reaction when I went out the door? Relief. “I don’t have to go to work tomorrow! I don’t have to keep pounding my head against the wall!'” It was as if I had been set free. I did still have to look for work, but I was liberated.

I realized then how burned out I had been for about the last 2 years – the stress I had been under. I even had a tooth/muscle spasm issue one month which caused me to lose 20 pounds because I couldn’t eat without pain. And when I got my next it was so much a relief to be valued again, to be part of a functioning team. To have a boss who trusted me to let me set my work style and time schedule and wouldn’t dare micromanage. And later that pattern continued even though my managers were far away on the East Coast when I was in Seattle.

Burnout doesn’t always happen that way, but it is painful none the less. This was my experience, how about you? And how have you managed to overcome it? Tomorrow I will share some things I have learned that I think can help us all avoid experiences like mine.