"It's like falling off a cliff": A personal story of burnout and its lessons

Jennifer Moss, entrepreneur and author of The Burnout Epidemic, tells MT about her experience of burnout and how she is preventing it from happening again.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 31 May 2023
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"You can have anything, but not everything." That's the important leadership lesson from enterpreneur and author Jennifer Moss, who unfortunately learnt this the hard way. After founding a successful tech business, and putting everything into its growth, she “hit the wall”.

After she recovered, she threw herself into learning everything she could about the burnout, why it happened and how it can be prevented. The result of her research was the detailed book The Burnout Epidemic, The Rise of Chronic Stress and How To Fix It.

In the latest episode of Management Today’s Leadership Lessons podcast, Moss speaks candidly about her experience and offers science-backed advice on how leaders and businesses can fix the problem. Below is an edited version of her story in her own words.

“You can have anything, not everything. I learned that the hard way.

As a founder of a tech company, I wanted to be everywhere. I felt the pressure as a female founder to be on multiple boards to advocate for women, because only 7% of women’s tech companies get funded.

When you're trying to be a startup that goes to a stay-up, you have to fundraise constantly. It was exhausting. I said yes to everything and it wasn't fitting into my priorities.

I had a baby in the middle of the startup. I gave birth and took the baby with me to meetings with investors when she was three weeks old. I wasn't seeing any of those signs as being strange. I thought, ‘this is fun and novel. I get to bring my baby with me.’ But that lean-in mindset is so dangerous. I should have been asking myself ‘why am I here?’

I am a typical case of someone who had burnout, in that it took me 18 months to two years to get to breaking point. I could see the symptoms brewing. I was more fatigued, I became withdrawn. I felt like I couldn’t change. I was hopeless.

I felt like I wasn't making an impact and didn't feel good at my job anymore. Yet I was working in the field I studied and that I'd spent a decade focused on.

I started noticing rising cynicism near the end. We know from the data that when we start to see cynicism in an organisation, that’s when it’s almost too late. When we've got to that point, it's very difficult to undo.

Individuals with burnout go through stages. They’ll have a little dip but then return to their set point. Then they’ll have a bigger dip, but return to their setpoint. When you hit the wall, it’s like falling off a cliff, you drop all the way down to the bottom.

If you’re not managing your recovery, it can last up to two years, and 20% of people experience post traumatic stress disorder. You don’t want to get here. Treat burnout as a very serious illness that you are not at fault for contracting.

In the end, I had to completely break away from the company I helped build. It took me four months to recover and realise how unwell I was and how much damage was done to my relationships.

The recovery

Very slowly, I started writing articles again. I studied. I interviewed people. Once I understood more, I felt validated. It wasn’t my fault, it was the environment and societal pressures.

Simple things, like going for a walk or spending time with people that give you an effortless state of belonging, are what will help you. They will make you feel better. But it’s very hard to do those things when you are demotivated or exhausted.

I now to remind myself how sick I got and make sure I do the simple things. Celebrate the small wins - like getting out of bed or having a shower - because burnout can mimic depression. At some point these small achievements will grow into bigger wins.

Be curious like a child. Find new things, explore art galleries and museums. Do things for fun, without any real goal or purpose. The mood boosting chemistry that results makes people feel happier. I now take media diets. I curate the headlines I see.

People might think this seems silly or oversimplified, but all pulled together, it makes a huge difference. I can say from my own experience, that it really does help you navigate very hard times.

Make the right sacrifice

There are choices to be made constantly in life, and one has to be at the expense of the other. That's okay. That's what life is. But if you don't have your priorities set, then you tend to choose ‘everything’ without any understanding of the consequences.

I set my three biggest priorities. My first was my family. Now, every time I say yes to something, I consider if it will take me away from my family. I ask what is the right amount that I can be away so I can have both things. It's an ‘and’ statement, not a ‘but’ statement.

Something can be exciting and I’ll want to take it on, but unless it aligns with my priorities, I don’t take it on.

Deathbed regrets

I hope by sharing my story that people don’t get to the point where they’ve risked the things that really matter to them and wake up and find it’s too late. I was lucky that my family was still there at the end of my burnout, but we were all a bit metaphorically bruised. I was really stressed, there was a time when I wasn’t engaged with them and it hurt me and my family. You don’t need to let it get that far.

We don't hear enough personal stories of burnout. People can't connect with big numbers. We need to do a better job of prevention and helping people before they get to that crisis point where they have to leave their career.

It sounds morbid, but I tell people to think of their deathbed regrets. Are you going to be disappointed with yourself for not sending that email out on that Wednesday afternoon 20 years ago? Or are you going be disappointed in yourself that you missed dinner with your children for six years of your life? Really think about what matters."