7 lessons from being on the brink of burnout

This week I had a significant anniversary: 10 years since I transformed my life, and health, saving me from chronic fatigue and burnout.

I am sentimental anyway, but this milestone is leading me to reminisce...

...not just about how far I’ve come - but also, what led me there in the first place.

I hope these lessons can be useful for others.

1. The risk factors for burnout start young: high-achieving, perfectionist, “good girl” behaviour

By my first year of sixth form at a highly academic school, I was in the choir and the wind ensemble; was co-directing the school play; was the Secretary to our Young Enterprise company; doing bronze Duke of Edinburgh; editing the school newsletter; and predicted all As at A Level.

I’m exhausted just writing about it. This is a terrible pattern to set from a young age - and can be avoided.

Solution: encourage risk-taking; reward failure; and avoid over-scheduling (whether driven by the parent, the school or the child).

2. Watch out for physical health patterns too

Like many others that ended up with chronic fatigue, I first suffered from “post-viral syndrome” (a condition with very similar symptoms), following glandular fever at age 17 - right in the middle of my over-achieving.

This was the first time my body shut down as a way of saving me from myself - a physical short-circuit, if you like.

If I’d learned my lesson then, I would have saved myself another 15 years of illness.

Solution: focus on good physical health - all the usual stuff like enough sleep, enough exercise, and enough healthy food. If there are any “fatigue”-like symptoms, look for any links with mental health.

3. Look after your own wellbeing

I never did this: the only way I ever stopped was through my body shutting down.

This meant I suffered worse at school and in work, where the pressure built over a longer period of time. This triggered my body to go into a “boom and bust” cycle to recover.

Oxford University terms were only eight weeks long, which meant I had a regular recovery period in a shorter timeframe.

(I also think my slightly reprehensible University phase of smoking cannabis helped - I remember wondering at one point whether I would ever be able to relax as effectively without it, and the answer for a long time was a clear “no”.)

It would have been helpful if I had learned how to look after myself better at an earlier age - self-care is an annoying phrase, but it is necessary.

Solution: learn the things you can do to help you relax - make sure you take the long baths, or go to the yoga classes. Set a good example to those around you, and encourage them to do this too.

4. Ask for help

I had my first ever panic attack in a meeting, about three weeks after I’d started work on the UK Civil Service’s Faststream accelerated promotion scheme.

A terrible hangover, combined with an overly strong coffee, and then being asked to attend my first senior-level meeting at the last minute…

...the stress of wanting to make a good impression in that context resulted in a panic attack.

I had my second one the next morning, when my tube got stuck in a tunnel and I thought I was going to be late for work.

After that, the pattern was set: I had panic attacks every time I got on the tube, and most days at work.

But I didn’t tell anyone apart from my parents and boyfriend for months. And I didn’t seek professional help for years.

Solution: normalise conversations about mental health. Ask people about theirs. Treat anxiety as if it were the common cold. And if you are suffering, ask for help. It really will help.

5. Don’t ignore abnormal behaviour or health, or excessive stress.

It is not something you have to live with. It can change.

I used to call my regular periods of burnout “my illness”.

I remember once a friend of mine suggested that perhaps my overwork and enormous stress levels might be contributing to it - and I dismissed her completely.

It became something that was expected of me - by myself, my family and my boss at work.

But being bed-ridden for a weekend with flu-like symptoms every six weeks, and for a couple of months every few years, IS NOT NORMAL. And it was only when my parents and I really confronted this that we started to try to change things.

Solution: watch out for patterns of behaviour or thought that are are not life-enhancing: whether that’s regular bouts of illness, or terrible self-talk. The chances are that something can be done about them.

And avoid ever becoming defined by your health (“I am an ill person”) - it may become self-fulfilling.

6. Take action

Talking helps. But I don’t believe (from my personal experience) that it can completely solve the problem.

I was in twice-weekly therapy for three years, and it definitely helped.

But for me, therapy is about understanding why you’ve got to where you are - not necessarily how to go forward to somewhere different. I was still experiencing my regular periods of fatigue, even after all the therapy.

Eventually my parents and I embarked on a year-long process of trial and error to find something, anything, that would make a difference. </