Let's talk burnout
My experience of burnout
In my early 20s, I had a minor stroke and suffered from crippling migraines, but medication controlled the attacks. Unfortunately, this meant that I would be unlikely to have children, so I threw myself into my legal career, working long hours and became quite successful and well respected.
In my early 30s, it was discovered that my migraines were caused by a hole in my heart that had been there since birth and within weeks I had surgery to have the hole closed. A few months later I came off all the medication and within a year I had my daughter.
This changed my life completely. I no longer wanted to work 50 hours plus a week. I loved my job, but also loved being a mum and I wanted to do both, but in equal measures.
This worked well for a couple of years, but in 2011, after 11 years of being with the organisation, the way we worked changed, due to a change in which in-house Lawyers were allowed to handle claims. We had always practised a variety of areas of law. My area of specialism was on holiday and travel. Up until that point we had only ever dealt with employment law cases up to the value of £5,000, which were straightforward cases.
From 2011 we were no longer able to deal with any cases apart from employment cases, but we would be dealing with all value and complexity of cases. We had training which lasted one day and then we were expected to know it all.
We were also getting a new line manager.
At this point, my hours of work were contracted at 28 hours per week. My scheduled day off was on a Wednesday. We weren’t allowed to take any work home with us and the computer systems were so old, they would often crash and be down for a whole day some days, which often meant playing catch up.
Like most organisations, we all had targets and objectives to reach. I’d always exceeded these over the previous 11 years and had an exemplary record.
However, I really struggled with grasping some of the complex employment law cases and my line manager would stand behind me, watching me. He would shout at me saying "that’s wrong, do it again". He was a very experienced employment law lawyer and if I didn’t understand something and ask for help, he would real it off so fast and expect me to remember it. If I didn’t, he would get very annoyed with me; it knocked my confidence and self-esteem. He would make comments about my seniority and that I should "get it first time" because I’d been there the longest. However, I’d never done this area of law to this magnitude before.
After having a Wednesday off, when I came into the office on a Thursday, I’d find that none of my work from a Tuesday or Wednesday had been allocated to anybody else, so I would come into around 80 emails, a similar amount of post and be expected to take on new cases to reach my targets. It got to a point when although I was supposed to finish work at 4pm on a Thursday and a Friday, I wasn’t finishing work until 11pm both nights. I stopped taking my breaks just to try and get everything done. I wasn’t eating anything, getting any daylight or exercise and I was so tired that I would read the same line on a document 50 times, but I wouldn’t be able to remember what it said.
I would come home from work and just cry. A job I had once loved, I now started to hate. I looked awful. I hardly got to see my daughter or my partner. I stopped going out with friends and even lost friends, because there’s only so many times you can make up an excuse that you’ve got a headache. Most of the time it was true, but other times I just couldn’t be bothered, because I was physically exhausted.
Before going into work every day I was being sick and had no idea where to even start. My line manager kept threatening me with a performance improvement plan if I didn’t reach my targets, so there was pressure on me to come in on my day off just to take on more cases. I felt there was no choice. In the meantime, he felt I wasn’t coping, so took away all the responsibilities I had gained over the now 12 years that I had been there, such as project managing, deputising, training junior members of staff and writing the law library letters. This further knocked my confidence.
Halfway through 2013, after working over 70 hours in one week I made a mistake at work and sent an email to the wrong person. One of my client’s would never answer his phone from our numbers because our calls came up as unknown, but if I sent him an email asking him to call me, he would call me straight back. That’s exactly what I had intended to do. I sent an email asking him to call me, but I missed one digit out of the email address, and I received a reply back from the wrong person, saying ‘If you’re blond, 25 and sexy, please call me back’. At first I thought it was funny, but then I realised I’d breached data protection, so I brought it to my line manager’s attention. I showed him the email and he told me not to worry.
The next day, a senior manager came to my desk, handed me a letter, told me to open it and read it, but not to touch anything or speak to anyone. The letter was to inform me that I was being suspended for suspected gross misconduct. I was literally frog-marched out of the building and was unable to make contact with anybody whilst suspended.
The organisation reported me to my professional body and arranged for external investigator’s to investigate me. My line manager had provided a written statement to say that due to the nature of the email received from the person I’d emailed in error, he believed I was in a relationship with him and I’d been sending him confidential information.
This was absurd. I knew they would not find anything, but I was so shocked that my line manager would think this of me.
I came in for a disciplinary hearing a week later and although they found no evidence of malpractice against me, the final decision was down to my line manager. His decision was to issue me with a final written warning because I had breached data protection. I did appeal this on the basis that the organisation should provide passwords or encryption protection on our emails, but my line manager’s response was "in this job you need to remember that we’re not human, we’re robots and therefore can’t make mistakes".
I never forgot this and this was when the panic attacks started.
My first panic attack
It was a Friday morning. I’d already worked 70 hours that week. I’d hardly had a wink of sleep the night before, worried that I’d come into work and find that an email had bounced back into my in-box because I’d sent it to the wrong address. I’d argued with my partner the night before, because he was fed up with me working late and could see I was shattered, but I told him I had no choice. He had made me my dinner again, but as usual, I couldn’t eat it, because let’s face it who wants to eat sphagetti bolognese at 11pm?
I remember my mum once saying to me "Nobody wants to come home to a miserable face", but that’s exactly what I was all the time and that’s exactly the expression I had on my face when I walked through the door after work. No wonder my partner was fed up, or actually, worried about me. However, all I could see at the time, was that he was picking a fight with me.
In order to get a bit of exercise every day, I would park my car a couple of miles away from the office and jog in, but it got to the point where I just didn’t have the energy, but I would still walk it. However, that morning I remember having a horrible burning sensation in my feet, as if I had walked through a bunch of stingy nettles. It felt like ages until it passed. I also had a blinding headache.
I got into the office and dreaded opening my emails. I knew I had to and thankfully there were no bounce backs, but there were so many that I needed to action. I also had numerous deadlines to get through during the day and literally had every single one of my case files piled up on the floor next to my desk. I remember sitting there trying to read through a document and I must have read the same line 50 times, but nothing was going in. I could feel my eyes welling up, then my feet started to burn again. I could hear noises in the office around me, but they sounded as if I was deep under a swimming pool and hearing them from the bottom. My vision became blurry and I could feel my heart starting to pound and my hands become clammy. I literally felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I thought I was going to be sick. Just behind my desk was a fire exit, which led out to a stairwell. Somehow I managed to get myself up and go out through the door and sit on the step. I have no idea how long I was there for. I just remember trembling for what felt like ages. I didn’t have a clue what was happening to me, but after a while the feeling started to pass and my breathing normalised.
I went back to my desk and tried my best to carry on with my work. I felt completely drained of energy and all I wanted to do was go to sleep, but I knew I had to get the work done.
This was the first of many attacks. I didn’t tell anybody at first. The worst one happened when I spent the night at my sister-in-law’s in Salcombe in May 2013. We had actually had a really nice evening out and for once I had felt relaxed and not stressed, but the following morning the pain started in my feet, but this time, my fingers seized up in both hands and clawed into my hands. The pain was so intense and felt as if they were being crushed. I also found it difficult to breathe properly and my heart felt as if it was going to jump out of my chest. An ambulance was called and I was rushed to Derriford hospital in Plymouth, which was over an hour away. A heart attack and stroke were ruled out, but by the time I arrived, I had absolutely no feeling in my fingers on both hands. This lasted for hours and was quite scary.
I saw a neurologist and he was of the opinion that extreme stress had caused these physical problems and unless I made some drastic changes to my lifestyle things could get a lot worse. He was of the view that I had suffered a breakdown.
I took three weeks off work and during this time I could hardly get out of bed. It would literally take me 10 minutes just to walk up the stairs. I’m usually someone who is physically very fit, so for me, this was very unusual.
During my time off I had contact from my line manager several times to ask me when I would be returning. I absolutely dreaded going back and every time I thought about it, I would just have another panic attack. I, therefore, requested a transfer to another department.
Thankfully this was granted, but only for a few months to cover maternity leave and I would have to return to my role.
Quite quickly my confidence and self-esteem started to return because in my 1-2-1s with the line manager in the new team, he praised me for my performance. However, unbeknown to me, my line manager from my main role was doing everything he could to destroy me. He was auditing everything and was determined to find something to bring against me. He found some evidence of what he considered poor case handling and threatened me with more disciplinary action, but most of it was unfounded. I brought a grievance against him for bullying and harassment and it was decided that with some career counselling between the two of us we could work together again, but it was making me so unwell, I made the difficult decision after nearly 14 years in the job to leave.
It felt like a hard decision at the time, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have made, because the weight was lifted off my shoulders. I found my love for exercise again and trained to be a spin instructor, which I still do now and absolutely love it. This helped me with my confidence and mental health, because exercise boosts your mood and through teaching spin I met a lot of people who had also experienced similar situations to me, so I also made a whole new friendship circle. Being able to sit at the front of the studio and instruct gave me my energy and self-esteem back and people seemed to think I was pretty good. At last, I felt valued and I still have the same people coming to my classes today, so I must be doing something right.
I also got another job closer to home with hours which suited me being able to take my daughter to school and pick her up. I didn’t have to stay late, so I got to spend lots of time with my daughter. At the end of 2014, my partner and I got married. We now spend lots of quality time together.
I always prioritise time for myself every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes. In the mornings I do some meditation and some stretches and I always drink a glass of water before my morning coffee. I also write my thoughts down in a journal, which really helps. I’ve realised that putting myself first isn’t selfish, because it makes me happier, healthier and more energised and that rubs off on everyone else around me. I’m then able to spend more quality time with them.
After my breakdown, I started to practice and study mindfulness. I have gone on to obtain qualifications in this, along with neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), life coaching and various other mental health and nutrition qualifications.
If I look back at my life at the start of the last decade, to many people I was probably living the dream, because I was in a well-paid job, had a nice house and a nice car. I was able to work and be a mum, had a great partner and great friends. However, I was at the unhappiest I have ever been in my life. Roll on 10 years and I run my own business, I earn half of what I earned 10 years ago, live in a smaller house, but I now love what I do, look forward to getting up every day, knowing that I’m going to be helping to change people’s lives; whether that’s teaching one of my fitness classes, giving nutritional advice, or life coaching. I can still put food on the table, have holiday’s, buy the odd treat, but most importantly I’m ‘me’ again and I have my life back. You can’t put a price on that!
What I’ve learned is that anyone can change. There’s no such thing as ‘I can’t’. If something isn’t working; change it, but you may need some support to get you there. Remember, you are not alone.
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