Work burnout: ‘My entire body and mind shut down’ – 3 women on how they recovered – Evening Standard

Posted: March 2, 2020 at 4:45 pm


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Amber Coster was working as an executive for a tech start-up when burnout hit. I literally felt sick and tired, but I thought I was superhuman, the 30-year-old says, explaining how she ignored the warning signs as she focused on helping to take the company from a $100m valuation to a $3.7bn acquisition.

Eventually my entire body and mind shut down. One Wednesday, I got so out-of-breath walking up one flight of stairs. On the Thursday, I opened up a simple spreadsheet, but had absolutely no idea how to change the figures. By the Friday, I felt tense and went for a body massage my back muscles were so locked that the therapist told me my body was in extreme trauma, and I just burst into tears.

Initially, Coster told her boss shed take a couple of weeks off work. In fact her recovery took six months. My burnout escalated really quickly I felt like I was constantly being hit by all-consuming exhaustion, she remembers.

Id sit at the dinner table and get all my words mixed up; I couldnt walk for more than 10 minutes at a time and I couldnt concentrate on anything for long.

In the UK, 602,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2018/19, according to the Health and Safety Executive accounting for 54 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health in this period.

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Psychotherapist Hilda Burke, author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, describes burnout as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

She compares its ongoing nature to ignoring the red warning light on your car when youre running low on fuel. You can keep driving but your time is limited, she says.

When we override those red flags, we run the risk of that final crash, when your engine stops altogether.

For some people, burnout acts as a real wake-up call, she argues, noting that: Sometimes you need a breakdown to have a breakthrough.

It can often be high-achieving individuals who experience burnout, she says.

Its humbling to ask for support, thats hard, and sometimes its easier for people to risk the burnout. So they may need to lose their job or go on sick leave for a period, and that crash might be the start of a profound transformation in their lives.

While a healthy diet, exercise and creating time to get some headspace are all essential to mental wellbeing, ultimately change needs to come from within, says Burke. To push through everything your body is telling you and just keep going even when youre exhausted is such a high internal driver, she says.

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That persons core belief system needs to be unrooted before those foundations need to be put back in.

Sophie Medlin, a 33-year-old dietitian living in north London, went freelance after experiencing burnout. Things are much more straightforward for me now, she says.

At my worst, I couldnt concentrate. I was exhausted, but my sleep was disturbed, and Id wake up anxious at 4am and start working to try and keep on top of things, she says.

Medlin had been working in situations she found stressful for years: first in the NHS, which she describes as a constant marathon, and then in academia, where she found presenteeism was a problem. She explains that she felt there was an expectation that she would be constantly available, and checking her mail late into the evening and working at weekends.

But I couldnt be 100% functional all the time, she says. She found that work was having an impact on her mental and physical health. Cortisol [the stress hormone] massively increases your appetite but your body uses up nutrients rapidly during times of stress so I often felt poorly because my immune system was much less resilient as a result.

When she decided to leave her job, Medlin had counselling, and describes feeling a massive weight lift. She started to work as a consultant dietitian with businesses and private clients, and realised there was a different, more balanced way of working.

She is now based at wellbeing hub Nimaya, Londons first dedicated gym for the mind, as an in-house, specialist dietitian. Her experience of chronic stress and anxiety has changed her perspective on the damage it can do. So many people live in a state of chronic stress, but its so poisonous for people and it has long-term effects on our health, she says.

A negative experience of burnout also prompted Cate Murden to reconsider her career in advertising, and found Push Mind and Body, a corporate well-being company. She spent three months signed off with stress in her previous role. I was suffering from imposter syndrome in a new role, constantly slightly in fear and fight or flight mode, Murden says.

Id wake up at 3am and start firing out emails. It was crazy. Now she tries to ensure that nobody dreads going to work. Resilience is born out of physiology and mindset the most important thing is to talk to someone, and talking therapy with counsellor, or coach can start getting you out of that cycle, she says.

When Coster was struggling with burnout, researching chronic burnout and adrenal fatigue from her west London home, she also turned to familiar voices to find hope. Podcasts were her saviour relatable advocates such as Bryony Gordon, who shared her experience of anxiety and breakdown.

Gradually, Coster learnt to listen to her own body. At first she started gently swimming a couple of lengths, then walking for a few minutes, before she eventually began to run. The following year she ran her first London marathon, and once back at work she passionately introduced more awareness about mental health into the company.

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Returning to the office was a terrifying prospect, Coster admits. By practising kindness and patience and by focusing on small wins, it gradually became easier. I needed to prove that it was possible to find a healthier way to exist while also doing an excellent job.

She left her employer last June to start her own consultancy, Balpro, which helps businesses to balance aggressive revenue goals with employee wellbeing. But in the year before resigning she launched mental health initiatives across the company and also ran mental health workshops leaving with the knowledge that she had done something positive.

Reflecting on that journey, Coster says: Things need to change and I want to help transform the lives of other people now thats my silver lining.

Self-care is now an integral part of her daily routine. I run regularly to boost my energy levels and clear my headspace, and I have a really open dialogue with my friends were always checking in with each other.

Talking to others about your stress is crucial, agrees Medlin: Tell people that youre struggling and theyll be more open to supporting you. I do believe you have to stop to be able to have the headspace to imagine how things could work out differently. And thats quite liberating.

She is now much more conscious of her mental health and stress. Ive learnt to prioritise things that help me feel better in particular yoga has been important, having more time to invest in my support network of friends and family and just having headspace to reflect.

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Work burnout: 'My entire body and mind shut down' - 3 women on how they recovered - Evening Standard

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March 2nd, 2020 at 4:45 pm