”Learn from the mistakes of others. You cannot possibly live long enough to make them yourself.” is what they say. I’ve spent many years working in humanitarian aid and I suffered from burnout right at the start. If it’s something you’re not careful about, the same can happen to you. So I want to reflect upon - and share - mistakes I made during my first job so that you can avoid making the same blunders.

Last year, I returned to the place where my career in humanitarian aid started 13 years ago. It was on the Indonesian island of Nias in North Sumatra where I saw a lot of “firsts”. This was the first place I was posted, after the 2004 tsunami and a devastating 2005 earthquake, the first place where I recognized what I am capable of, the place where I first learned about and I ignored many of my boundaries, and the place where I burned out for the first time, just after 15 months in the job (which has still made it impossible for me to return to my old life).

So, what exactly led to my burnout so quickly? There are a few triggering factors to consider, if you dare to take the same path. By failing to take heed of my experience and warnings, you run the risk of repeating the same.  So without further ado:

Here are my 5 Steps to Burnout in just 15 months:

1.  Fail to say “No” early on

One of the biggest mistakes I made was failing to establish boundaries for myself and others. I didn’t draw lines in the sand for others not to cross, felt responsible for everything, and thought I had to be a “yes man” in order to be accepted. Constantly taking on more responsibility in order to please others really took its toll on me.

At the time, I didn’t realize how much that would backfire and how hard it was to reverse until I was in too deep.

Take it from me - it is so much more difficult to draw such lines once you start saying “yes”. It’s much easier to start with clear boundaries from the beginning. You’ll have more respect from your peers in the long run by doing so, and you’ll make life much easier on yourself.

2.  Fail to focus on what is really important

My logistics department didn’t fully deliver what was expected from us for a large scale housing reconstruction project after the tsunami. To help fill in the gaps, I reacted and tried frantically to improve our processes, enlarge the team, create another management level, and develop a new database for orders – all by myself and all in a very short timeframe.

But I had no experience in handling logistics for such a big project and under complex procurement guidelines by the Asian Development Bank. So, I was trying to come up with quick-fix solutions that only dealt with symptoms.  We had problems caused by the remote location and strained supply chains, and missing local experts, which although is something all aid organizations there dealt with, made it a much more complex environment. Also, the engineers in charge of planning and constructing more than 1,300 houses were also inexperienced, overwhelmed and out of their depth.

They didn’t always know what to order and how much. This, of course, trickled down to us. How could my team deliver on time if the orders were often late and incorrect? I tried to make someone else’s shortcomings my problems. I focused on solutions to the wrong problems and spent all my energy on useless pseudo-solutions. Instead, I should have worked better with the engineers and helped them to prepare their orders more accurately and efficiently.

Make sure you stay focused on the important tasks. If not, it’s just a matter of time before you are totally overwhelmed.

3.  Fail to accept your feelings

Acknowledging your true feelings is a crucial sign of maturity and awareness. I was too afraid to be honest with myself about feeling totally overwhelmed, clueless, fearful, and not always able to handle the whole situation in a professional way. I blamed myself that I couldn’t be the manager I wanted to be, and was afraid that I would lose this job I’d really wanted, forced to return home with the weight of the world on my shoulders.

The stress of the emotional situation was exacerbated by threats in the field, as well. There was a constant threat of earthquakes, and I fell ill with dengue fever, which was pretty painful. As much as I tried, I didn’t understand the culture or language of the people, and suddenly was faced with corrupt government officials, beneficiaries with a hot temper, all of which were situations I’d never had to face before.

On the one hand I was in way over my head with my responsibilities and this was really hard to face, emotionally. But on the other hand it was difficult for me to accept the accomplishments I achieved. I couldn’t really accept positive feedback from colleagues or acknowledge that it was a result of my leadership that my team improved. I just could see the negative. And that was not a sustainable way to work. 

The moment I finally sent off my resignation letter (after I finally hit rock bottom) was such a relief. I should have allowed myself to listen to my feelings, my body, and my troubled mind much earlier. At least I learned that in my next job, but that is another story. Listen to what your mind and body are telling you.

4.  Fail to create distance between yourself and the job

Another mistake I made was that I was totally immersed in my job. This was a job with more responsibility and more challenges than anything I had done before in my life.

I learned to like it as well - the stories, the status, and the large team of 60 staff with me in charge. As unhealthy as that was, it slowly became my defining image. I identified myself by the job title on my business card. It gave me a feeling of achievement, and seemed to make me a member of a special elite group, in charge of making the world a better place. This job showed me what I was capable of, what unknown skills and talent I had, and how I could face difficult challenges.

This image I’d created in my mind seemed in danger when I thought about quitting the job. All that would be left of me was a failure, a defeat from which I would not recover (or so I thought). This was my last chance to prove myself, to my family, team members and anyone else who’d taken notice, so I couldn’t risk failing.

Of course that was all bullshit. I am more than my job title and my value as a person wasn’t defined by my job (and neither is yours). I just couldn’t see it at the time, because that was what kept me alive, what ensured that I wouldn’t give up. I was addicted to this falsehood that I created for myself.

Don’t make it so much harder for yourself by burying your self-worth in your job -- you’re worth so much more than that!

 5.  Lose conviction in the purpose of your job

“They don’t need houses, they need road access!” Those were the words of a consultant after he came back from a trip to the most remote villages in our program. He was an expert and he voiced a concern that I had for quite some time. When I heard his verdict, I suddenly lost all trust in our work. Why the hell were we building houses if it didn’t matter? My motivation tanked, and I felt all the stress I’d experienced, trouble and pain would be for nothing. That was the moment when something inside of me died, and frankly, was the beginning of the end. 

But I failed to see how much positive impact we had, our work made sense, just in different and smaller ways. I found great colleagues (some of whom I’m close friends with even today), I learned a lot about myself and my potential, I did the best I could, and I had lots of fun there, too. The fact is, you’re going to have moments of doubt, and they may even be confirmed by the experts you’re working with, but you need to remember your truths and why you’re there to assist. However, reminding yourself of the good you’re doing, even if it’s a smaller amount than you’d hoped, will be your shining light on the tough days. Keep affirmations close at hand, and don’t lose sight on your purpose.

So, was that the end of my pursuit of a job in humanitarian aid?

Did I manage to get out, recover from my burnout and choose a career path that was healthier for my well-being? Of course not!  Without knowing it, I was hooked to the excitement, the challenges, and the exhaustion that made me feel alive, all of which are a part of working in humanitarian aid. I dove back in with blinders on. Half a year later, I passed through immigration at Juba airport in South Sudan to embark on my next job in an even tougher environment, a job that put me on my knees after just four months.

Hopefully you’ve seen the choices that frequently lead to burnout, and make different ones.

It’s imperative to set up respectful boundaries and listen to yourself as you progress through the tasks of your job. And know, that even if you feel you’re on the verge of this now, you don’t have to suffer through this alone. You always have the option to reach out to some friends in the field with more experience, but you can also reach out to me directly if you worry that you’re headed down this slippery slope. Remember, I have a ton of experience in this, and none of it was worth it if I can’t use all of what I’ve learned to help others. I’m here to help you with any questions, concerns, or next steps you may be wondering about. Just do me a favor, don’t burnout on your own. It’s really not worth it.

About the Author Robert Laude

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