Modern-day work culture has seen an increase in epidemic stress levels. It is so prevalent in the workplace today that according to a Gallup study[i], two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job. And, in May 2019 the World Health Organisation listed burnout as a syndrome – a group of symptoms that occur together resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.[ii]
Burnout and workplace stress can significantly impact our health and can cause us to suffer from:
Insomnia. Exhaustion. Negativity. Cynicism. Poor Productivity. Living in autopilot mode. Sleepwalking through life. Always being “on”. Technology and screen addiction. Anxiety. Depression.
I didn’t recognise the signs that I was heading towards burnout until I found myself suffering from a panic attack. Pre-panic attack I projected an image of confidence and strength to colleagues, senior management, my staff and clients; however, I was like a duck – smooth and calm on the surface, yet always frantically kicking my feet below the surface. At the time, I worked for an American Fortune 100 company, and like many individuals in today’s society, I operated in a global environment accommodating multiple time zones, leading me to ‘always being on’ – meaning being contactable 24/7. Furthermore, constant re-structuring equated to increased working hours and unsustainable workloads, which saw me go from being an ambitious perfectionist and a high performer to becoming a highly stressed, burned out, overworked leader.
A typical day saw we wake up at 7 am, whereby I would immediately grab my Blackberry and plough through the emails that had come in overnight. I’d then head to the kitchen to make coffee and then a pot of coffee in hand, I’d skip breakfast, and head straight to my laptop in my home office. Most days I would finish work late, having also skipped lunch – my only nourishment being cookies, chocolate or any other sweet snack I could find, followed by more coffee. By the time I finished for the day, I would be so exhausted I’d usually just eat peanut butter on toast for dinner. I’d then crawl into bed and collapse into a deep sleep at midnight, only to wake up a couple of hours later, whereby I would stare at the ceiling, make mental to-do lists, before finally falling back asleep just a few hours before the alarm clock was due to go off.
Then one fateful day changed the course of my life forever.
I was at my 5-year old nephews birthday party, and I really did not want to be there. I wasn’t feeling myself. I was feeling overtired and dazed like I was suffering from jetlag, and I just could not muster the energy or enthusiasm to talk with the parents. It felt like a major effort just to try to think of something to say, and, on top of that, something inside of me didn’t feel right. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly didn’t feel right, but something was definitely off, and the ‘off’ feeling was making me feel extremely unnerved.
After a few hours of monotonous small talk, excited present opening, and tears and tantrums between the children, my husband and I decided to leave and drive home to Central London. I was so grateful we could finally escape. As I waved my farewells and walked across the parking lot towards our car, I suddenly became acutely aware that the ‘off’ feeling had turned into an overwhelming sense of foreboding.
I attempted to dismiss the tight knot that was forming in my stomach as mere fatigue from work; however, I secretly suspected this was not the case. I had felt exhausted for the better part of a year, yet the sense of foreboding was an entirely new sensation, and as such, I was not wholly convinced that the knot in my stomach was caused by tiredness.
This was something else…something unexplainable.
Roughly 20 minutes into the drive back to London the knot in my stomach transformed into an overpowering, mind-blowing sense of fear and a surge of adrenaline raced through my body. My heart started pounding frantically, my hands became wet and clammy, and my arms and legs began tingling and going numb. I felt like I was suffocating and drowning in astounding feelings of trepidation and anxiety.
Instinctively I tumbled my head forward between my knees, frantically trying to gasp for breath and I began hyperventilating. And, as I desperately tried to pull more air into my lungs, I became profoundly conscious of the fact that I was not getting enough air which was making me feel really lightheaded and weak. I was absolutely convinced I was going to pass out and die right then and there.
And at the same time that these terrifying sensations were ravaging my body and mind, I became conscious of the fact that time seemed to have slowed down and I felt like I was an outside observer watching the situation play out in slow motion. I gazed out the car window in a state of utter stupefaction, in a state of detachment, staring at all the cars like I was actually seeing them for the very first time.
I felt like I was straddling two worlds – one world was my present reality, and the other world was like I was sitting outside of my current reality looking in.
Somehow through all the fog and confusion, I knew that I was having a panic attack, but I am not sure how I knew, as I had never had one before.
The panic attack lasted 20 minutes, and it absolutely broke me.
I went from being a confident, friendly girl that was sleepwalking through life to waking up to living in a constant state of fear.
I was living in a constant state of fear because I kept having panic attacks, and, because I never knew when a panic attack was going to strike, I developed a fear of them. My heart felt like it was perpetually pounding in overdrive mode which made me felt certain that another panic attack would strike at any moment.
And because of this, I developed what I call What-if disease.
What if I have a panic attack at work in the middle of a meeting?
What if it happens in front of my staff, or one of my clients?
What if it happens on the London Underground?
What if it happens in the middle of the fruit and veg aisle at the grocery store?
What if it happens when I’m crossing the street, and I collapse?
What if? What if? What if? My mind would scream at me.
I developed a fear of fear itself, and I became afraid of being afraid. And because I was so fearful, I sunk into a deep depression.
Outwardly I was living a perfect life. Yet, the reality was that I would hide in the office bathroom cubicles willing panics attacks to go away, and I would cradle hot water bottles at home in an attempt to self-sooth the overwhelming chronic fear and anxiety that permeated my psyche.
I was lost in my own private world of hell for 18 months, and besides my husband and parents, I didn’t tell anyone what was going on.
I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I thought I was weak. I thought I would be fired.
I thought it was just me.
* * *
This excruciating dark night of the soul and existential crisis which I found myself in, led me to explore how to recover my mental health and it was during this exploration that I discovered that two-thirds of employee suffers from burnout. As I read that statistic, I realised that it wasn’t just me - it could have been happening to my leaders, my peers, my colleagues, my clients. Or moving closer to home – it could have been happening to my friends, family and acquaintances.
And it still could be.
It could be happening to you and your colleagues or your family and friends.
I am sharing my story because regrettably my story is not unique. Burnout is endemic in today’s society and we need to ask ourselves, what are we going to do to prevent burnout? What are we doing to ensure that Mental Health is not just a tick in the box exercise in the workplace? What are we doing to encourage meaningful changes and dialogue?
For my part, I’ll keep sharing my story.
And for the two-thirds of you who are suffering and who may be reading this, if I can leave you with any words of comfort.
Know this - YOU ARE NOT ALONE. It’s not just you.