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Managing burnout at work

a sleeping red panda

I had experienced autistic burnout on and off for years before my autism diagnosis. Especially at work. I just didn’t have a name for it back then.

I would often get to the point of needing to work from home, or not work at all, without understanding why. I couldn’t explain it to myself, let alone my managers. (I am lucky to have happened upon some very understanding managers throughout my career).

This article is about what that burnout looked like, why it can be difficult to spot and explain, and how I avoid it.


I now work from home full-time. Prior to that, I have lots of memories of arriving at the office and feeling like I wanted to burst into tears. Feeling sick. Wanting to run away. More than once a well-timed-and-very-sincere “how are you?” would tip me over the edge and have me crying in front of whoever had said it. Or needing to turn around and go straight back home. Without ever being able to explain what on earth had just happened.

In hindsight, the signs were there. A sense of dread going into the office. Complete exhaustion afterwards. The extreme feeling of relief whenever I had a day working from home. Headaches, illness, and being more tearful. Wanting to withdraw from anything involving human interaction. Finding it hard to work out how to problem solve or approach a new piece of work, or do anything involving a bit of creativity (things that - in the right environment - I excel at).

The last major burnout I can remember started a few months before my autism diagnosis. I was living alone mid-lockdown during the pandemic, and I had just started a new position at work that involved a lot of people-ing. Processing everything that needed processing about my new-found diagnosis, alongside managing everything else, turned out to be impossible. I found myself crying between every meeting that I hadn’t been able to find a reason to cancel. Unable to do anything with my day beyond the absolute essentials. I couldn’t settle to do anything quiet. My sleep was disturbed, but even when I did sleep well I still felt exhausted. I ended up signed off work for three months and, in the end, left that job for one that suited me better.


Burnout comes from repeatedly ignoring signs that you need to pause or stop. Whatever those may be, and whatever might be causing them. For me, feeling the need to mask is a big trigger. Which can (unhelpfully) also make the signs of impending burnout hard to spot.

Prior to my diagnosis, I had a near oscar-worthy mask… No matter how I was feeling on the inside, outside-Lauren would be smiling and lighthearted and confident. Great in a meeting, or a presentation, always on top of her work. To be honest, I had fooled myself pretty well too.

I once said to a friend that I was “a bit of a mess” (for some reason that I have since forgotten). He asked me what that meant. Was I not able to work, not eating, not exercising, not seeing people, not sleeping? I said “it doesn’t look any different”. And it was true… All of the external markers would still have told you that things were fine. But I did not feel fine. And I did not know how to show or communicate that, or how to temporarily adapt my life to match my then-zero energy levels. Things would just keep going until they physically couldn’t.

Masking made things like burnout feel very hard to explain. I seemed fine right up until the point when I was extremely not. When even I could not carry on hiding behind my carefully curated “normal” face.

Nowadays, I know what I need to feel comfortable. How to manage my energy levels. How to be myself. So, I mask a LOT less. I surround myself with friends who I know “get it”, and make it easy to be myself. I have a job where I can do the same. I feel very lucky.

If I stumble across a situation where I realise that mask has come back, I usually just stop putting myself in it, or at least reduce the time I need to spend there. It’s never worth the cost. I don’t always know exactly why in the moment, but if that mask comes back up it’s a sure sign that I’m not comfortable. I’ve spent far too many years ignoring that feeling, and I owe it to myself to listen a lot more carefully now.


This kind of awareness for me is the key to avoiding burnout. Knowing my early warning signs and when to take a step back. Prevention is better than cure, after all…

Signs that I know a burnout is on its way, and I need to do something about it are:

  • Withdrawing in meetings where I’d normally have a lot to say (this is new - and helpful - before my mask would have prevented me from “seeming” any different!)

  • Not feeling able to/not wanting to respond to emails or Teams messages

  • Getting annoyed about any new pieces of work being suggested or about minor changes to meetings

  • Feeling more tired, vaguely ill, or tearful

  • Meltdowns, especially straight after work

  • Being more bothered by sensory issues than usual

What I do to help myself at work:

  • Before we even get to the above signs, first line of defence: managing my energy levels day-to-day. That means taking breaks when I need them, listening to my energy levels and adapting any social requirements accordingly (moving/cancelling meetings, getting someone else to go instead, finding another way to contribute), not hesitating to speak to my manager if something feels tricky

  • Second line of defence: pause. If some of those early warning signs start appearing, I find that removing all expectations is useful. I’ll agree with my manager to put on an out of office, so as not to be available on Teams/email. I’ll carry on working on things that I feel able to - and that don’t require input from others - but there is no external expectation that I’m doing anything at all

  • Third line of defence: stop. If none of the above is working, and things feel like they are getting worse, I need to take some time off. It might be a day, it might be a week, it might be longer. I can only tell once I do it and start to feel my energy levels returning to normal. I’ve not quite got to this point since changing jobs post-diagnosis. But, when I’m that burnt out, it can be very hard to work out what I need, because my brain is basically not working anymore… So the only answer is to stop, remove everything, and reset. It can feel painful and there’s definitely some guilt attached. But, at the end of the day, I’m not functioning well in my job while in that state. So it is better for everyone that I find a way to rebalance!

Lauren x


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