Little Shack in the forest.

Disconnecting from work and reconnecting with nature can help to alleviate severe burnout.Credit: Getty

My burnout started a few months into the pandemic. The parts of my job that I enjoyed the most — working with innovative teams, interacting with the public and planning for the future — were all cut off. As a solar physicist at the Center for Astrophysics Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had several responsibilities, from mentoring a handful of students and half a dozen postdocs to doing research, programme management and science operations for a suite of instruments.

One Monday in June 2020, I was stretched to my breaking point. I was tired and cynical at the start of the day — and my schedule, full of meetings, was exhausting. In my mind, everything was wrong — no matter what my colleagues said. I ended each call just trying not to yell at the person on the other end. I felt like I was going to cry or scream at whoever said hi to me next. Everything at work just felt meaningless. My extreme reactions that day made me realize that I needed to do something drastically different.

Seeking help

After that Monday, I felt like a failure in all parts of my career and life. To me, being overwhelmed and tired was evidence that I wasn’t cut out for my career in academia, and that I didn’t deserve to lead my team.

I’m very lucky that I reached out for help and listened to advice about dealing with my ‘impostor syndrome’ — the feeling of being inadequate at work, despite performing well. I had, and still have, a life coach outside work, who helped to guide me. She asked me to list my successes: writing papers, mentoring students and giving public talks about the exciting science that my team was doing. She also encouraged me to talk with trusted friends about what I was experiencing. When I did, I felt like a weight was lifted off me. Their responses were positive, and many of them had experienced similar feelings.

Although I was working through my impostor syndrome, I still wasn’t fully convinced to take time off. I looked for more opinions. I talked to two psychologists and my employer’s employee assistance plan counsellor, and they all suggested that I take time off for burnout. I googled ‘burnout’ and looked at the symptoms, and realized that I had been experiencing it for years.

As any research-oriented individual would do, I looked up how to recover and worked with experts. I took time to design a programme to convalesce, so I could return to my vivacious and creative self.

Physical rest

The first goal of my two-month programme was not to do anything for the first two weeks. I had been used to conferences, committees and day-to-day meetings — so I initially resisted. What would people think? Was I not good enough? I made the leap to take sick leave — and after I told my co-workers, many said they had similar feelings and wanted advice.

I booked myself a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains in western Maryland, where the only noise was the wind in the trees. There was no Wi-Fi for about one kilometre, and mobile-phone coverage was spotty. I spent those first two weeks walking in nature around the cabin and focusing on anything other than work. I found it difficult at first to disconnect, but the lack of Wi-Fi helped me to settle into this routine and let go. It was an absolute privilege to go away for an extended period and heal.

I have so much gratitude for my colleagues who covered for me during this time. It took my last bit of energy, but before I left I listed all my tasks and made suggestions about who might cover them. I worked with my boss, who was supportive, to delegate the responsibilities to several people so that no one person would have to shoulder the entire workload.

My operations role was assumed by the instrument scientist. My scientific research project was put on hold. Two other colleagues agreed to help my postdocs. I felt both scared and relieved to delegate my responsibilities. I was anxious that my colleagues might decide that they didn’t need me at all, but I was thankful that work would not be not my responsibility for the next two months. Had I taken rest along the way, I wouldn’t have needed to be out of the office for such a long time.

The things I initially did weren’t what people are typically advised to do when they want to organize themselves better: set clear goals, check e-mail less often and automate tasks to be more productive. That advice might have helped me to be more efficient in my job, but it wouldn’t have addressed the root causes of my burnout, such as an unrealistic workload. I needed other tools: long walks in the woods, tearful days to let out my feelings, journalling, long baths and reading books. I took lots of time to just listen to the wind in the tops of the trees because I needed a reset.

Restarting and gaining clarity

After the physical rest, I worked to find a basic routine. I tried to incorporate things such as a daily run, yoga and preparing myself healthy food. Then I started to set goals, which helped me to discover what I wanted to continue to do when I returned to work.

I didn’t want to focus on the negative parts of what got me to burn out — such as microaggressions, unclear expectations and lack of a support system. I decided I wanted to work on programmes that empowered women and members of minority ethnic groups in science careers, helping them to bring creativity and innovation to tough problems.

Path forward

Once I knew what I wanted, it was easier to plan how to go back to work. The focus on specific goals gave me a base from which to operate, so I didn’t feel overwhelmed. With a clarity of purpose, I worked with a mentor who was able to direct me to a position that fitted my new goals. It is a rotation from my previous job, which is a great way to grow in experience, change pace and reset work habits. Even in uncertain times, there is opportunity.

We all have a choice. I am being intentional with my career to build a fulfilling life. Sharing my story has given others the strength to recognize their own burnout and is helping to create the innovative work environment that I want. Through this process, I reignited the passion for science that I had lost. Slowing down and healing from burnout wasn’t an ending, but the beginning of an exciting chapter in my career.