It was only when boarding the plane, after a particularly mad period in Venezuela’s political meltdown, alongside an array of draining family matters, that it hit me. ‘What a wreck,’ I mouthed at the red stress blotches staring at me from the mirror in the airplane toilet.
Despite a sleeping tablet, I tossed and turned through the night flight. The ensuing weeks of holiday did little to assuage anxiety over the simplest of matters, like where to park a car. I barely smiled.
When the burnout began
Over the latter years of a 25-year career in Reuters – plus some time in newspapers before that - I’ve often felt “burned out” in the lighter, colloquially understood the term of the word. I mean, who hasn’t, right? As a bureau chief, you’re not doing your job properly if you’re not happily up to your neck in a demanding file, complex office logistics, 24-hour email torrent and staff management challenges all at once.
Yet in my case, something was beginning to nag. Surely, I shouldn’t be getting so irritable at home, feeling overwhelmed by things I’ve been handling for years, or waking up in the middle of the night with leads, screentops or emails gnawing away in my mind until dawn, along with irrational fretting for the family’s future and guilt over bringing up children in hostile environments. There was, it turns out, an actual serious condition called ‘burnout’. And quite a few of us seem to have experienced it.
Colleagues expose their struggles
Dean Yates and Mike Georgy have used this space, and their social media, to write about post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder. By exposing their struggles, they’ve busted some macho myths about being a foreign correspondent, and shown that acknowledging vulnerabilities isn’t giving up or letting the side down or condemning your career but is actually a sign of character, strength, and wisdom. Their words have resonated deeply in the field.
In my own case, reading Dean’s experiences helped me understand it’s normal for the carpet of bodies from the 2010 Haiti earthquake to haunt me from time to time, and perhaps I shouldn’t hide that. Ditto some other rough reporting memories over the years, particularly in Iraq and Somalia.
Understanding my own struggle
For me, though, it’s been the often crazy blur of daily bureau life - which no one reading this needs telling about - that has taken far more of a mental toll than any one headline, traumatic experience. The email overload. You’re only as good as your last story. Timings. Overnighters. Updates. WIPs. Planners. Back-to-back conference calls. All normal workflow for most of us, the stuff we do, but the cumulative effect can be brutal if you just barrel through it and don’t keep an eye on yourself as I didn’t for years.
So surprise, surprise, along came a painful bout of Repetitive Stress Injury, skin and sleeping problems, then a loss of appetite and - dare I say it without embarrassing myself - reduced libido. Though few beyond my four walls will have noticed it, because we provincial English are good at hiding these things, I got grumpy, anti-social, and obsessed with order and irrelevant details. My memory felt shot, sometimes I couldn’t remember what stories I’d done that day and struggled to greet acquaintances by name.
Having recommended the CIC hotline to lots of people over the years and seen its great benefits, I nevertheless had to overcome some personal baggage and take a deep breath before calling myself. It was one of the best calls I ever made. There was no shame about discussing these things, on the contrary, just friendly, practical, understanding advice. ‘Don’t worry, this is more common than you think, and there’s lots you can do about it’ was the message.
And boy there really is lots you can do, if you are disciplined and focused on it.
I’d already come up with quite a lot of palliatives myself - regular sport, enjoying non-work-related reading again, setting some time boundaries for email reading (unless there’s a news crisis on), more delegation and so on. But of outside suggestions, which I had long foolishly chafed at as too ethereal & New Age-y, it’s meditation I’ve surprisingly found most useful. It’s an amazing feeling to duck out of the maelstrom for 10 minutes all by yourself to settle the mind, sometimes in a quiet corner of the office between trunk updates or on a street corner with a riot going on down the block.
With consecutive stints in Latin America and Africa, I’ve been on quite a long run in the field, and it’s one I shall be eternally grateful to the company for. How else could I have dined with Fidel Castro, played football with Diego Maradona, ridden into battle with Somali rebels, watched Usain Bolt win his golds, and done all those other things I’ll one day wax lyrical about in one of those charming valedictory notes the old veterans always send. I guess I just forgot to take enough mental pauses, to reflect and vary the rhythm, and burnout caught up with me. Fortunately, it wasn’t too late to stop the slide.
Based in Caracas, Andy Cawthorne is bureau chief for the Andean Region, responsible for coverage of the almighty mess that is Venezuela, plus Colombia and some smaller countries in the region. Since starting to string for Reuters in 1992, he has also been based in Mexico, Panama, Peru, Cuba, England and Kenya, marrying a Venezuelan and bringing up two kids along the way.
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