Hi my name is Berni and this is my story but just before I begin you need to know:
- In 1981 I was knocked over, broke my left leg in several places, and was off work for a year.
- I was a nurse for a brief time and…
- I have a stubborn streak.
In late 2014 I was diagnosed with burnout due to extreme prolonged work related stress.
What exactly is burn out?
Several definitions exist but this one resonates most closely with my experience:
“Burnout is a term which is frequently used to describe the emotional and physical exhaustion experienced by people as a direct result of excessive study or work related stress…Burnout can cause significant physical emotional psychological and spiritual damage to people.”A fair summary but it misses out what it feels like.
To explain I need to say a little about my job role at the time…
I was part of senior management in a large central government organisation. I headed a key commercial area, responsible for 150 contracts across 45 suppliers and up to 150 staff. I sat on a couple of boards and interacted with many internal and external stakeholders. I worked long hours all over the country rarely spending more than a day a week in my home base Leeds. I often continued working at the weekend. Did I have to – to an extent – at senior level there was a long hours culture – but mostly I was driven because I was committed to the purpose behind what I was doing – contributing to helping some of the most vulnerable in society. It was frenetic but I loved my job enjoying the satisfaction, status and recognition that came from delivering it well. Like everyone I juggled my professional and personal life happily managing to keep everything going. I was at the top of my game.
There are some clues in this description as to why I was susceptible to burnout.
Then in quick succession two key board members for my area of work left the Department and it restructured. At the same time key contracts were criticised daily in the media. Activity intensified – it went from frenetic to supersonic. Together with the remainder of the senior team I worked even harder. We successfully managed through a whole range of crises and landed everything safely in the restructured organisation. By now I had spent 6 years in that arena and it was time to change. The new role was great it was structured and resourced correctly – demanding but not frantic. Then things I did not understand began to happen.
- I was exhausted but could not sleep.
- I lost concentration and had scary memory blanks (I always had a really good memory).
- Things that used to take 5 minutes to do took half a day.
- I felt like I went from the top of my game to the bottom overnight.
It hit me like a brick of failure. I lost my confidence, my self-esteem and my drive. I had no explanation for my line manager other than I did not understand either.
I was confused, scared, guilty and most of all ashamed. I told my doctor I thought I was going insane. I was very worried and worse many of my symptoms bore an unsettling resemblance to my dad’s recently diagnosed dementia.
It transpired I had several other symptoms my blood pressure was very high and clinically I was one notch away from being morbidly obese.
My doctor wanted to know quite a lot about my lifestyle and my work. She tactfully allowed me to try to continue working whilst monitoring me and helped me see I needed time off. She referred me to IAPT who wanted to know even more about my life. Answering their questions such as – do you open your post regularly – it began to dawn on me I had gradually and unconsciously stopped doing anything but work over the past 5 or so years. I spent most of that initial hour consultation in tears – I had not opened the post for 3 years!
I went on the waiting list for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), and then …nothing.
This was the darkest most difficult and isolated time. I did not understand how this had happened, nor what to do to recover nor where to turn next. I withdrew from people and situations because I could not explain. I had no energy to do anything. I was completely exhausted everything in my life collapsed. I was Burnt out Eric.
I do not remember most of these first four weeks.
When I broke my leg I knew and understood what had happened I could see the breaks on my x rays and everyone knows you need plaster/plates to mend the break and it takes time.
But this I did not understand. There is no comparable comfortable, familiar shared frame of reference in general society.
This makes it really difficult for those around to understand or to know what to do to help or how to cope themselves when faced with a partner/parent in this situation.
Like many others I am choosing to share my story to contribute to society’s knowledge and understanding.
Fortunately my employer was a mindful employer and some of the good practices kicked in. Four weeks later I was able to access 6 free counselling sessions which began my road of tiny baby steps to understanding, coping and recovering. The following month IAPT sent me on their stress control course – counselling support helped me access my stubborn streak and got me out of the house to re-engage and attend the classes.
I learned so much about stress, anxiety, depression and panic attacks and at last began to understand what had happened to me. The learning included information about the stress cycle and extreme prolonged stress, how stress can affect your body and brain (finally physical symptoms for the ex-nurse in me) your feelings, your thoughts and your actions. It provided information and tools to help describing a complex area in simple plain English with supporting booklets. To my amazement I ticked nearly every box in the table for symptoms of stress including things such as breathlessness which I would not have associated with stress.
Finally something concrete and practical to discuss with my line manager in our weekly calls.
This was fantastic – the well me – who trained for my profession whilst working full time juggling a 3 year old and living in London 3 days a week – loves learning. However the burnt out exhausted me could not work out which of the tools from the course to apply when and I remained on the CBT waiting list.
Meanwhile my line manager was challenged by HR to consider formal action because I had been sick for 8 weeks. Fortunately I had been able to provide enough information for him to advise this was a case to be handled along the mental health guidance lines.
In the next few weeks I continued to:
Take baby steps towards recovery, as I had been taught,
Attend regular GP appointments
Harness my stubborn streak to ring IAPT about where I was on the waiting list every fortnight.
As my blood pressure reduced I prepared to return to work which in line with policy my manager had been discussing with me. I was referred to OHS to explore when I could return to work and what might be needed on my return. I was still on the therapy waiting list.
I was nervous, I had regained only a little confidence and self -esteem. Talking about personal achievement or the role that caused the extreme prolonged stress caused anxiety and manifest as physical pain and I was still very emotional. But I was stuck I was doing all I had learned and felt I would not move forward alone, I was also aware working can help build confidence and self -esteem and I was bored. It was a gamble but my GP agreed and advised regarding the phased return.
On my first day back my manager travelled to Leeds and organised HR to be with us for my welcome back interview he also advised in line with policy we would look at a stress risk assessment.
It was intend to be supportive but in my vulnerable reduced resilience state it was terrifying. Irrational as it was I was concerned I would get sacked.
Worried I rang IAPT, a close colleague who had been through a similar experience and HR to get support. All were really helpful and I managed to pull together a script to follow on the day.
Just after my return to work my CBT sessions commenced (I had been waiting almost 7 months) and that really made the difference for me.
How my personalised CBT helps is another story but in summary following through on the learning about extreme prolonged stress and the vicious stress cycle I learned:
- How that impacts the brain with the emotional brain dominating the rational brain, and…
- How we default to old childhood rules at such times –some of which are unhelpful as adults.
The ex-nurse in me was ecstatic more information I could relate to my understanding of physical illness! And the brain had been my favourite area!
I learned why it was so difficult to progress – put simply because my body was stuck in the vicious stress cycle, the message paths and patterns in my brain most developed were those related to stress and my brain now considered that normal. But my body was unable to sustain that constant heightened fright, flight, freeze state and the chemicals it generated – meant only for short time bursts. In this prolonged heightened artificial state the body becomes ground down and the brain actually alters – phew an explanation for the dementia like symptoms.
I learned techniques to retrain my brain to prevent it from defaulting to the stress path that had become the norm, techniques to rebuild my confidence and self-esteem, and techniques to manage the anxiety and depression resulting from burn out. I have a personalised tool kit to do that which keeps me on track every day and will always be to hand to deal with the knottier issues of reprogramming my brain.
CBT combined with amazing support from my work colleagues slowly began to make a difference.
It is not easy. It is a journey of two steps forward and one back.
I had to deal with educating everyone whilst having just been educated myself. I was expected to deliver my key work objectives to high standards and regain the ability to manage the breadth of work required at my level as quickly as possible. All this at the same time as retraining my brain and rebuilding confidence and self- esteem. I had some difficult, desperate, dark challenging times, but my stubborn streak kicked in again I sought out alternative support to my line manager both at senior and peer buddy level and my therapist referred me to Mind’s Workplace Leeds organisation to give additional support. I progressed although to me it felt I wobbled my way forward and in the following 15 months did not have any further days off sick.
I am really grateful my employer was a mindful employer. It meant there were policies in place to at least begin support for my specific experiences. I am extremely lucky that as a senior manager I was listened to and my line manager and HR were supportive.
However the procedures and policies often misaligned with the reality of my situation and I had to work to aid understanding. I also had to work to adapt tools. Very difficult at a time when you have the least resilience and most vulnerability. For example being caught in the extreme prolonged stress cycle meant I was beyond the stage of being able to identify stress myself. By now my brain considered stress normal. Yet the stress risk assessment assumes I fully understood what caused my issue and whilst some things are obvious, such as working long hours, others are not. Now I understand my warning signs it is only by trial and error I can identify issues.
We are just at the threshold of making these polices come alive for individuals. I believe there is a huge opportunity gap for society, employers and employees to become educated and understand about stages of stress, its symptoms and potential impacts; to take action before being caught in an extreme prolonged cycle.
This is a simple preventative step to make.
Even as an empathetic manager of mental health issues, thanked for my sensitive handling I was horrified. Having gone through this I cannot emphasise strongly enough the difference between what I intellectually understood by someone telling me what they were going through – really low, unable to take action etc – and what it actually feels like to be in such a position of utter helplessness with no apparent social reference point to help you comprehend.
The opportunity even to feel the sliver I did is something I will never forget. I ask myself how do people cope, how do they move forward, if they do not have the advantages I have:
- My stubborn streak and the ability that provided for me, to educate my management whilst at my most vulnerable.
- My nursing training
- My management and management psychology training
- A love of and desire to understand people (including myself) and how our brain works.
- Years of experience managing people in all walks of life often under duress or in complicated scenarios
- The coherence in Leeds regarding providing support for mental health issues including that provided by Leeds IAPT and associated organisations Touchstone, Workplace Leeds and Mind.
- The respect and associated listening that came from having been a successful senior manager in my organisation
In 1981 I broke my leg in several places was off work for a year and had to relearn how to walk – there was much understanding and little questioning.
In 2014 I burnt out was off for 4 and half months and am still reprogramming my brain there was little understanding and much questioning.
We have a way to go as a society and the Leeds Mindful Employer initiative is a fantastic start which I whole heartedly support.
My story continues. As my organisation restructured – again – the opportunity to take an exit package arose. After much consideration I applied and was successful. After 36 years I stepped into my third career change.
I have been headhunted by a local recruitment firm regarding my commercial background, and asked by two separate companies to become a coach. My therapists think I am a natural and suggest I train in therapy. All know my story. I feel incredibly lucky that the worst experience is offering some of the best opportunities.
I now know I will always need to proactively manage my mental health in the same almost unconscious manner we manage our physical health, noticing triggers and symptoms and addressing them.
I am shocked by how easily my whole life plummeted from one extreme to the other. I wish I had known more about the symptoms of mental health issues, the actions that can be taken and most of all the very severe consequences that can occur if stress is not addressed. I am committed to playing my part in ensuring, as a society, we understand mental health in the same way we understand physical health and I continue to speak out sharing my story to help raise awareness.