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How to avoid the route from workaholic to burnout

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

I realised mid-career that I had inadvertently specialised in finance communications for multinational corporates. And it was making me really miserable. My life looked great in so many ways. I lived near my sisters in a vibrant city by the sea, with a gorgeous regency garden apartment and my two dogs, with lots of friends and culture - perfect on the surface.

But I was also commuting to London on a round trip of nearly 4 hours, paying other people to enjoy my dogs and keep my home looking lovely, as I shuttled around, in an organised whirlwind. It all unravelled when I arrived very late to my sister's birthday meal in a vegetarian restaurant, intolerant and agitated, complaining about the lack of meat alternative. My other sister took me aside and clearly spelled it out:

"You waltz in late, ordering everyone around, abrupt and business-like, but it's her birthday treat! It's supposed to be fun, you're not at work now!"

Things needed to change

I was becoming one of those people that I felt totally alienated from - the stereotypical corporate suit, very efficient, they get the job done, but at what cost. Every day I had to put on my metaphorical work mask, steel myself for the corporate work culture, and just get through the day. The company had a great ethos, amazing offices with a gym, a canteen, regular ‘team bonding events’ and employee recognition awards. Many people loved working there. But it just wasn't me. And my alien imposter I'd built up to cope with just being at work was leaking into my personal life.

The golden handcuffs of a large pension, great work perks and lifestyle that I was flattered to be part of, had become the illusion of my great life, the trappings of success. The cost, of course, was my happiness.

My 'Ahah' moment

Realisation dawned that this was actually all down to me, and I’d simply let life happen to me, let myself become unhappy, instead of actively creating what I wanted, or needed in my life. My ability to adapt had become a barrier to having a life that was properly balanced and successful in other areas. Adaptability had allowed me to take advantage of different career ladders, but not necessarily factor in 'happiness'. This felt a bit counterintuitive as we are all pretty keen to be flexible now, particularly in this time of covid.

Coping with anything. But at what cost?

Like many people holding down a stressful, competitive job in London, I was very capable and flexible, and did 'what it took to get the job done'. I prided myself on being able to cope with everything. I was so flipping capable, I was delighted when told I was "a creative dynamo" by an HR manager. I'd actually seen her to discuss crippling overwork, and came out of the meeting flattered into accepting my fate.

Being burned out, and ignoring it

I relished burning that candle at both ends, and in the middle! There was nothing I couldn't do.

"I was waking up at 3am to do social media for work"

Unfortunately the flip side of being a stoic coper, was that I was able to cope with a bad situation long after other people might have realised that there was a cost to pay. Long after the frustrated crying at a train platform, a very late train home and gathering up all my resilience simply to get through to the next day. Le t alone a night worrying about what needed to be done first. "Prioritise" they said as they watched us buckle under the strain of their demanding and competing priorities. But . . as many workaholics know, you simply work more, and try harder. Worklife balance? That's for people who don't 'get things done'.

I was constantly tired, going round in circles, irritable and emotional rollercoaster, and the candle had become a soggy, exhausted mess. I was burnt out, and didn't even have enough energy to recognise it, let alone do anything about it. The signs were well and truly there, but I was ignoring them in my quest to prove how I could cope.

My subconscious however, was trying to tell me. I was dreaming of tiny little fires at work on desks that I was running to pat out with my hands. Or cupboards falling on top of me and work colleagues spilling out... pretty clear but I ignored them.

It took a spell in a cardiac ward to recognise I was burnt out

A reality check of an unspecified 'heart episode' and 3 days in the cardiac ward was my wake-up call. Was it stress-related? Maybe. No evidence of anything, except an instinct that 'The Body Keeps the Score' (Dr van der Kolk's amazing book outlining the linking of trauma in the mind, body and brain).

Relieved I'd been given a second-chance, I took some time out and stepped off my hamster wheel. I had enough self-awareness to know that I needed to do something radically different, or I'd revert to the financial safety of a dull corporate role again.

"I took a a leap of faith, with a safety net"

I packed up my life, and took up a 2 year voluntary role in the Philippines with VSO International. It was a huge leap of faith, but it had a safety net. The role came with a daily stipend, so all costs were covered, and it could legitimately be called a ‘career move’ working alongside a renowned consultancy firm. I wouldn't feel that I was starting at the bottom of a new career ladder - and more importantly, could tread water financially.

What I came to understand, was that my limiting belief or barrier was my fear of financial insecurity. A reasonable one, of course, but it took a lot of soul-searching and many years before I realised how this was holding me back. Reinventing my 'travelling abroad' as a 'career sabbatical' gave me the much-needed reframe to step through this barrier. Simple but very effective.

Back from my life-enhancing career sabbatical in the Philippines, I went to film school, mid-career, at 42. I owe this to a book on 'Documentary-making in the Philippines' that fell off a shelf in a library in Manila when I was researching advocacy in the disability sector for my voluntary role. As well as this serendipitous sign, I had a mentor coach for the first time, as part of the support for my work role overseas.

"My coach was my own little fan club"

This was a complete revelation. My coach totally believed in me, and helped me work out the logistics as a plan to succeed. until then, my experience of 'bosses' had been to effectively clip my wings, to get me to play the game, their way. My coach however, was totally my own fan club.

She supported me 110%, from the feeling of "this is crazy but it just feels right" to navigating my abilities and self-knowledge to find the why, what and how this could work. Having a coach allowed me to think outside of my own self-created box to make another career move, and do an MA in digital documentary. Once someone asks "why not?" and keeps on asking, you start asking yourself "why not". Very liberating.

So now, to cut a life story short, I find myself coaching.

And the short story why is here. My experience in the health sector and a background in social sciences showed me how integral social constructions, semiotics and cognitive behavioural approaches are to understanding our lives. My variety of life experiences across different cultures has given me insight into how our verbal language is only one part of what we say. One client said that I can "read between the lines of what's actually being said" . My career in communications had narratives, metaphors and stories at its heart, fundamental to how we see ourselves, and our lives playing out. How we create our own story.

In a rather grandiose way, coaching feels like it's my life's work. A synthesis of my experience and skills in science, art, communication and relating to someone as my real self, no masks left. So rather than me finding coaching, coaching sort of revealed me.


Ella is a trained, accredited Life Coach & licenced Firework Career Coach. She has a background in marketing, internal and change communications, with experience across large corporates to smaller charities. She uses a positive psychological approach to coaching & consultancy 07597157194

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