Stephen worked hard and played hard — ignoring the warning signs that his mind and body were sending. Then one day, it all became too much…
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to switch-off.
Since leaving university, two-day weekends of relaxation, rest, and energising play have been few and far between. In 2019 in particular, I’d get up far too early on a Sunday morning, with a diary full of things to do, but short on fun. This would be the time in the week when my mind and body would try telling me loudly that I needed to stop – having built up a relentless habit of working at weekends.
My first job after graduating was six days per week. But even when I broke into the 9–5, Monday-to-Friday world, I still liked to train at the gym for long hours on Saturdays and Sundays. My girlfriend at the time couldn’t understand it, and rightly resented that I felt time spent with her was keeping me from doing other things.
I’ve lost several relationships now due to my inability to switch-off and relax. Being present during rest and play is equally as important as being engaged at work.
At weekends, I would always carry my backpack with me – heavy with my laptop, gym gear, journal, the latest self-help book I was reading, and those all-important smartphone chargers. My laptop even went with me to a friend’s wedding in Malta. I had a junior role working on a general election campaign in the UK – but somehow thought I was important and indispensable enough to check my emails regularly during the trip.
My ‘always-on’ working mentality was most clearly revealed through my ‘perfect Saturday’ routine. I’d begin the day with high intensity interval training (HIIT), boxing training, spinning (or some combination of these!). Then I’d take the release of happy endorphins, and the other neurotransmitters of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin into working on passion projects for a few hours.
By early evening it would be time for public speaking class — the highlight of most of my weeks — with some socialising afterwards. Some weeks I would have arranged a date — capitalising on my peak mood, and assuaging any feelings of loneliness or emptiness for a few more hours.
This routine ticked all the boxes for me, as it combined all of my loves and passions: public speaking (particularly improvised speeches); socialising with like-minded people with shared interests; intense, challenging, but enjoyable exercise; and above all, being productive – ‘getting stuff done’.
In hindsight I was throwing myself into ‘busyness’ for the sake of it – subconsciously distracting myself to avoid confronting the real issues within.
"I was throwing myself into ‘busyness’ for the sake of it — subconsciously distracting myself to avoid confronting the real issues within"
Despite a few years of absent mindedness and blank, forgetful moments when asked what I’d been up to, the moment I realised I’d burnt myself out was in December 2019.
The morning before, I’d woken to my usual 5am alarm and immediately felt a strong urge to get straight back into bed and sleep an hour or two longer. This was a very rare feeling for me.
The next morning, my body and mind were telling me to go the long way to work, to stop off at the playground and jump on the swings for a while, to linger over a proper breakfast at a hotel near me. In hindsight, they were trying to delay me from reaching the office.
Reaching my central London workplace a couple of hours later – full of breakfast and caffeine – I knew something was wrong as soon as I booted up my laptop and sat down to write a communications plan for a client. On a normal day, I could draft one of these standing on my head. But this morning I could barely type a sentence. I was looking at the laptop, the page of my journal, and around the office, when it dawned on me that I was overcome with stress, anxiety, and dullness in the brain.
I felt dead inside. I’d pushed myself too far, for too long. The well was dry, there was no water left to pour, my cup was empty.
This was my realisation that the way I was working wasn’t working for me.
I spent the next five days doing as little as possible – but regretfully accepted three media appearance requests. The ability to prioritise your own health and wellbeing is often the ability to simply say no.
One month before my burnout, I’d booked a one-way flight to Africa for January 2020. One of the questions I began asking in the days leading up to the flight was: how have I got to this point, where taking myself away to a vast, unfamiliar continent, with no return flight booked, was something I decided was a sensible, logical, and rational thing to do in my life?
Out in Zanzibar, I noticed what a better mood I was in when I’d slept well – sometimes with a gratuitous afternoon nap – and not spent hours staring at screens or commuting.
The signs I’d previously ignored included the relationships I’d walked away from, when I felt they were contradicting my ambitious goals and my flawed means of trying to achieve them.
I’d long glossed over my forgetfulness and absentmindedness. Anxiety and stress had slowly built-up to a point where I’d hardly realised they were regular fixtures in my life.
I’d overlooked my Sunday fatigue, and general listlessness throughout the week. My increasing isolation since becoming self-employed I’d chalked down as a necessary sacrifice.
My main lesson was that I couldn’t live or work at 100 miles-an-hour for long. Burning the candle at both ends was no longer sustainable. I have learnt to be much more strategic about what work I take on, and how I approach each day. I allow plenty of time for exercise, rest, and the odd inane TV show or film to allow my mind to switch off. I also make more time for friends, and talk to them about anything and everything – except work.
Scheduling fun activities that are enjoyable for their own sake, is a major part of recovery. A walk, reading a book, or playing a game, are simple antidotes to burnout-induced anxiety.
The coronavirus lockdowns are a challenge for us all, but have presented me with a chance to live at a slower pace – more consciously and deliberately. With time, I have come to see my burnout as a wonderful opportunity to choose a better way of living.
Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr says:
Many of us will resonate with Stephen’s story. We will certainly have felt the stress of having too many demands vying for our attention.
For Stephen, it was a full on burnout that instigated change. Fortunately, he achieved this by looking at life differently, managing his workload, and noticing how having fun is just as important to our mental health as having space.
Particularly during such a challenging time, it’s essential we recognise when work or family demands are causing undue stress. Remember, there’s always help out there, and a different to approach life.
To connect with a life coach to avoid burnout, visit lifecoach-directory.org.uk