Managing Burnout When Working at a Tier 1 Management Consulting Firm like McKinsey, Bain & BCG
Friday’s were the worst day for me. You would think they were the best days. I was so exhausted from the previous four days that I would simply drag myself through the day. I usually ended up getting home by 6pm and falling asleep on my couch. I would then wake at 8pm, have a shower and eat dinner at home while watching a movie. I was far too tired to go out.
My Monday to Thursday schedule was punishing. It usually started at around 8am when I would get into the office and there would be other partners and engagement managers waiting to discuss different engagements and proposals. I had an open door policy. If my door was open, then people know it was okay to interrupt me. Thankfully I had a large office with plush couches to accommodate all the traffic. This continued non-stop throughout the day. I also needed to fit in client meetings and internal meetings. I usually finished my client meetings by 6pm, and if I had no dinner plans, I could get home. However, home was not an area to relax. Given my tight diary, I rarely did any work on my laptop during the day. I left this for the evening. When I did get home early, I would work on my laptop from 7pm to at least 10pm. Heaven forbid if I had a client dinner. Then I would only be getting home at around 10pm and I would then need to spend about 2 hours catching up with my work.
When I was a business analyst this was so much easier to do. I would look at the older partners and wonder why they were so tired or intent on going home so quickly. I had so much energy then that I could do anything. Back in my younger days, it was not uncommon for me to work through the night on analyses. I distinctly remember sitting in the office working on a storyboard for a defence company client and watching the early birds start streaming into the office at 6am. I did not realize I had spent the whole night in the office. I dashed off home, had a shower and was back in the office for the 8am morning meeting. This was common for me and I managed to do this well.
Doing this was a bad idea. I never really learnt how to manage my time to well. Of course, I got the work done on time and to the right standards, but I always seemed to need all the time that was available. I also never learnt to switch off. If I left the office and something was bothering me, I would simply work on it at home or until the problem was solved. Not switching off and not managing ones times become bigger and bigger problems as you progress through the ranks. The heavy hours, limited vacations, poor diet, limited exercise and poor work habits eventually took their tool.
This brings me to my Friday conundrum. At first, I thought it was just an issue of being the end of the week. It certainly seemed that way at first. Then I slowly noticed my 6pm naps where failing to have any effect. I then shifted to the idea of not working on Saturdays. At first, this worked. Shortly afterwards, it didn’t. My mind and body were exposed to the joys of waking later on Saturday, sipping cappuccino from Dean & Deluca and having quiet breakfasts in Little Italy. Soon, I needed to take Sunday’s off as well. It’s not that I did anything useful on these two days. I simply lounged around and ate food, went for walks in the park or surveyed the city.
Pretty soon, having free weekends was not enough. I just could not break the fog in my mind. The striking irony is that articles about burnout refer to tiredness and lethargy. They are all there, but these are things I could break out off. The part they do not mention is the loss of energy and the will to move on. It’s like you are driving up the Alps and your car switches from 2nd gear to 4th gear. No matter how much you hit the gas, everything moves faster but you seem to make no progress.
Getting through burnout as a management consultant is tough. It is a badge of honour to be able to put in the long hours and no one admits they are going through such energy sapping problems. I found that more breaks and a better work-life balance also do not help. I think there are two types of burnout. One is physical and the other is emotional. In the latter, you no longer believe in what you are doing. You slowly think that there must be more to life than this.
I think I suffered from the latter. If you suffer from the latter, it’s much more difficult to pivot your life. Getting through this is not easy. In essence, you are questioning your life, decisions and your reason for being. There is no guide, no course book or map to get you out of this. You need to find the meaning in work.
I found my meaning at home. I had a family which I never spent much time with. I was always travelling and on the road. As I started spending less time in the office, on week nights and weekends, I spent more with them. I started enjoying more days more and looking forward to getting up in the morning. It always amazes me that the best things in life are free and right in front of you. Over time, I did find something I enjoyed doing: spending time at home and spending more time with my family.
Now, I did find meaning to what I wanted to do. I successfully found a way to pivot. I set up an arrangement where I travelled less and that worked very well. I then decided I wanted to spend even more time at home and eventually set up this blog and Lillilooloo.com. The key thing is to decide if you have physical or emotional burnout. The former is easier to fix. The latter requires a change in direction and meaning.