In October of 2020, between UK lockdown number 1 and 2, I was lucky enough to escape to Cornwall for a week’s holiday. It was great to get away - like many people, it was the first break I had managed to fit in since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. However, the biggest benefit of the time away from home was the realisation of how close I was to emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. The opportunity to step off the treadmill of work and to get away from some of life’s stressors allowed me to recognise that I was approaching a state of burnout.
To be honest, this was a shock. After all, I am a Professional Supervisor and as such I am well versed in the need for self-care and fully appreciate the importance of putting myself first. I engage in group supervision for my interpreting practice, and one-to-one supervision for my supervision practice. Yet I had still managed to miss some of the signs that should have warned me I was hanging on by my fingernails.
What were those signs? Looking back, I realised that my sleep patterns were significantly disrupted or ruptured. My appetite had disappeared, and I had lost interest in food. I felt as though my emotional reserves were severely depleted to the point of the tank being empty. At the same time, paradoxically, I had a sense of being overly full which meant I was emotionally leaking at inappropriate moments. This led to a wild seesawing, with extreme highs and lows of mood and an inability to judge if my feelings were justifiable or not.
On returning to work I started to delve a little deeper into burnout, so that I could build my resilience back up and avoid reaching a similar point in the future. My first task was to consider the stressors that had led me to the brink. My focus was firstly on the pandemic (of course) and secondly, the fact that most of my work as interpreter, professional supervisor, and trainer had moved online.
In terms of the pandemic, I felt I had been managing the situation reasonably well, but then thanks to a Brené Brown podcast, I was pointed in the direction of Tara Haelle’s article on ‘Surge Capacity’ and several lightbulb moments occurred. Hang on a moment, I am in the middle of an unprecedented disaster, with no definable end in sight. Not only that, I am also dealing with ‘ambiguous loss’ - all the things I enjoy, all of my important connections with my friends and family, all of my rituals, have either disappeared or suffered a major disruption. No wonder I was feeling sad, angry and lost.
With the shift to providing interpreting via remote platforms, I realised that I was struggling with the fact that my work was now in my home. What was previously my safe space, my sanctuary from the challenges of my profession, had become my workplace and I was finding it exceedingly difficult to separate my working life from my home life. I was often interpreting calls that triggered a sense of ‘moral injury’. The emotions, feelings, and distress that those assignments evoked could no longer be left at the clinic or in the therapist’s room - they were now squatters in my study!
Having identified some of the stressors that had contributed to my state of near burn-out, I looked at what I could do to keep my stress at a manageable level and at the same time, top up my resilience tank. Brené Brown was yet again a lifesaver, in the shape of her podcast on burnout with Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Being told that physical activity was the top trump when it comes to completing my stress cycle gave me some much-needed encouragement to up my exercise levels. Even when I least feel like it, I know that just a 20-minute walk around my local park will help to let some of the accumulated stress out of my system. I also took my concerns about the merging of my work and home life to group supervision. Our supervisor shared several techniques to help us create a boundary between work and home life. The most valuable for me has been to change the lighting and scent in my room at the end of the working day. Just the simple act of subduing the lighting and using an aromatherapy lamp is enough to tell me, “work is done, you are now home”.
When it comes to avoiding burnout, I am a work in progress. There are many other techniques I now employ to help me remain healthy and resilient. However, I am also more aware of how easy it is to find myself on the slippery slope towards emotional and physical exhaustion and I have put in place a number of ‘trip wires’ to alert me to that potential risk.
Alexander, M. (2021). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/12/nhs-staff-moral-injury-distress-associated-with-war-zones-pandemic. Accessed April 2021.
Brown, B. (2020). https://brenebrown.com/podcast/on-my-mind-rbg-surge-capacity-and-play-as-an-energy-source/ Accessed September 2020.
Brown, B. (2020). https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-emily-and-amelia-nagoski-on-burnout-and-how-to-complete-the-stress-cycle/ Accessed October 2020.
Haelle, T. (2020). ‘Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful’. https://elemental.medium.com/your-surge-capacity-is-depleted-it-s-why-you-feel-awful-de285d542f4c. Accessed September 2020.
Coronavirus has hugely impacted on the lives of people all over the world. For many, work has been significantly disrupted. For others, altered beyond recognition. Furloughed, laid off, or made redundant. Working remotely, based at home, or continuing to work through the pandemic as a key worker. Whichever way you look at it, things ain’t what they used to be.
I have been in lockdown and out of work since March 2020. A double whammy of redundancy and the impact of Coronavirus has rocked my sense of self, disconnected me from what I have always known. I have spent much of the last four months reflecting on the central role work plays in our lives, how we can overidentify with our professional roles, and the extent to which we define ourselves according to what we do.
Work is a cornerstone of our lives. We devote a lot of time and energy doing it, thinking about it, and seeking it. We use it as a mirror to evaluate ourselves, depending on the extent to which we succeed or fail in our chosen career. Whilst it is good if we can enjoy work and find rewards in what we do, overidentification with work can be unhealthy and can prevent us having a stable, independent sense of self.
My experience as a Professional Supervisor is that signed language interpreters often overidentify with their professional status. I wonder if the allegiance we have with the Deaf community leads us to be more enmeshed in our role. Then there is the issue of demand traditionally outstripping supply. The temptation here can be to overwork, to accept assignments when near burn-out point, because ‘if I don’t do it who will?’ Being out of work, therefore, is a new experience. For me, this is the longest period of unemployment in my adult life. As with many other colleagues, this is the first time I have not been needed, the first time I have not had a full diary booked months in advance. It is important to take time to examine the effect this has, and how we can manage the feelings and emotions we experience.
What can we do?
Being cast adrift from our work, no longer feeling useful, not using the skills we have sweated blood and tears to gain, can have a devastating impact. These are some of the things I have been doing to try and centre myself, to rediscover who I really am, and to start to regain a sense of self-worth.
References and Further Reading
Davies, J. (2019). ‘You Are Not Your Work. How to escape “workism” and reclaim your identity.’ https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tracking-wonder/201903/you-are-not-your-work
Koretz, J. (2019). ‘What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity.’ https://hbr.org/2019/12/what-happens-when-your-career-becomes-your-whole-identity
Shohet, R. (2008).’Passionate Supervision’. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Zetlin, M. (2015). ‘Define Yourself by Your Work? How (and Why) You Should Stop Now.’ https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/define-yourself-by-your-work-how-and-why-you-should-stop-it-now.html