As it came to my turn to speak, I could feel my mouth going dry and my throat starting to close up. My vision went blurry, I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. The room started to spin. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was having a panic attack in a run-of-the-mill meeting at work. I got up, left the meeting and didn’t return to work for four months.
Panic attacks are an extreme symptom of stress, but not uncommon nowadays. The concept of workplace stress in particular, has been around for a while, with a 2020 survey of British adults in employment finding a staggering 79% commonly experience work-related stress (20% higher than 2018's findings).
Burnout is on the rise
The term ‘burnout’ is relatively new though. In August 2015, just 210 people globally searched for “occupational burnout”. By August 2020 that figure had risen to 5,400 – an increase of 184%, a figure no doubt exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what is it exactly?
WHO defines it as ‘a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Categorised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance, or feelings of negativity or cynicism towards one’s job and reduced professional efficacy.’
Of course, it isn’t all about the workplace. Sure, given that we generally spend 7-8 hours a day at work, it can play a huge part, but throw in a couple of personal life issues as well and you have a sure-fire recipe for burnout.
How it crept up on me
Looking back, there were various ‘mini burnouts’ that I wish I’d taken more notice of. If I had, the ‘big one’ may not have happened. At work, I was super busy trying to prove myself in a promotion that I’d just landed. You’d think that having put myself forward for it - genuinely believing it would get me where I wanted in my career - that I’d be happy in it. But soon after I started, I began to feel incredibly stressed.
At first I thought it was the usual added pressure of a step up at work, but I soon realised that I may have made a mistake. I started to dislike who I was becoming. I would sit in meetings and think ‘I don’t belong here. But if I don’t belong here, then where the hell do I belong?’ For so long I’d been climbing the corporate ladder, believing that once I got to the ‘top’ I would be happy. But the closer I got, the more out of sync I felt. There were three ‘Laurens’. Work Lauren, Home Lauren and this other Lauren who was feeling all these 'off' feelings. Looking back, that internal struggle alone was probably enough to send me over the edge.
Regardless, I threw myself into it to try and prove myself. I tried to ignore the feelings by working myself into the ground. Unsurprisingly, I started having what I now know to be ‘mini burnouts’. I wasn’t sleeping well, was drinking more, was forgetting everything, was moody and snappy and worst of all, I started having migraines for first time since my teens. People started to notice, particularly at work. They’d catch me and I’d take my foot off the pedal for a while – stopping drinking for a week or so, doing more exercise, more yoga, some meditation. But then it would happen again. Looking back, I only took it semi seriously. I thought this was somehow normal. I was constantly managing being slightly burnt out, but I just thought, ‘this is my life’.
The final straw
Then two things happened in my personal life that sent everything spiralling. It felt like everything imploded. This, on top of the stresses I was feeling from work, made it feel like I was almost levitating out of my body. I had a complete emotional breakdown. As well as the symptoms above, I started Googling EVERYTHING (particularly in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep), becoming addicted to my phone. I stopped doing all the things I knew were good for me, which made me feel sluggish. I couldn’t remember the simplest things and my formerly amazing ability to plan and organise just fell off a cliff.
I became an irritable, moody, walking zombie who'd lost all confidence. At work, I became the worst version of myself possible. Kindly colleagues and friends would take me to one side and ask if I was OK. The phrase ‘self sabotage’ came up a lot. In meetings I was difficult and I felt like the world was against me. And to top it all off I’d started having panic attacks for the first time in my life. It felt like all my fight was gone.
Luckily, the amazing people around me told me to go to the GP, which I did. I was signed off for four weeks, which I thought was crazy. What on earth for? What was I going to do for four weeks? What about work? What about my team? She was having none of it though and explained that I was suffering from severe stress and anxiety, caused by burnout. Both my boss and the Occupational Health people were brilliant too and referred me to a therapist for 10 weeks of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
So, I took it all on the chin and took the four weeks off, but felt completely useless and lazy. At first I binge-watched Netflix and crap TV as that’s all my brain could cope with but after about the 5th day I turned the TV off and it stayed off during the day for the rest of the time. For the first time in my life I realised I didn’t want all the noise and was craving silence, which is something that used to be very alien to me.
Feeling better, but still not able to let go of work
I was still really worried about what people at work would think though - that I was skiving off, that I was making a mountain out of a molehill. So I went back after four weeks, determined to get life back to normal. But it was an absolute disaster. As soon as I walked into the building I started feeling the panic rising and within 15 minutes a migraine had come on. My colleague who had come down to meet me sent me straight home again. My therapist helped me realise that because I was still asking my colleagues how my team or campaigns were doing, I hadn’t fully detached and the feelings that had caused me to break down were still there. Occupational Health agreed and signed me off for another six weeks, on the basis that I fully disconnect from everyone at work. This concept was completely foreign to me as my work was my whole identity.
My 8 steps to recovery (& can also be used to prevent burnout)
1. Talk to people about what you’re going through
I found it really helpful talking to my friends and family about it all. Other key people to speak to are your boss and your doctor – if they can sign you off work, even if just a couple of weeks it can help. You need to just stop and be still for a period of time, uninterrupted. Clear your diary and commitments and no matter how tempting it is, do not engage with people at work. You need to completely detach.
2. Create a self-care ‘toolbox’ of things that make you feel good
For me it was yoga, meditation, baths, getting out in nature, reading a book in my favourite coffee shop, even trying more ‘out there’ things like sound baths and reiki. Just do anything that nourishes your soul. It also helps to create some form of schedule to try and get some form of structure back. I started to plan my weeks around these things, but very gently because (as weird as it sounds now), the thought of even trying to get to a yoga class 10 minutes down the road felt like climbing Mount Everest. I got some A3 paper, divided it into days and planned one thing a day and if it ever felt like it was getting too much, I didn’t do it. I finally realised that I needed to be gentle with myself and take it easy.
3. Write stuff down and get inspired
Self-reflection, journalling, getting all the whirring thoughts out of your head and onto a page – whatever you like to call it - really helps. As does practising gratitude – this helped me reframe my thoughts from being a victim to appreciating the small things. I started writing down positive affirmations every morning (even saying them out loud in the shower much to my husband's bemusement) and in the evening would write down ‘3 great things that happened today’. It was all hugely cathartic. I also became a self-help book junkie, with titles like ‘You are A Bad Ass’, ‘Big Magic’ and ‘Super Attractor’ regularly arriving on my doorstep.
4. Eat plenty of healthy, nourishing food
Delivery boxes like Mindful Chef are amazing and if you drink, give yourself a break from it for at least a month (this was a gamechanger for me). All of a sudden, I started sleeping better and got my interest in exercise back again. Just try to be as wholesome a human as you can.
5. Get some gentle exercise every day
Walking, Yoga, Pilates and other non-sweaty exercise is good in the beginning as it’s still not too vigorous, but it still does something good for your brain. Then as you get mentally and physically stronger, build up into more strenuous exercise such as running, HiiT or a spin class. I joined Classpass, which allows you to try out different exercise classes in different studios. I started to get addicted to feeling good.
6. Do a social media detox and turn off your phone notifications
I personally realised that endless scrolling through Instagram and Facebook saw me comparing myself to other people which would make my anxiety levels rise, so I deleted all social media apps (which, given that my job is Head of Social Media was a pretty big deal). I also realised the constant WhatsApp and email notifications weren’t helping either – I felt constantly anxious not having replied to people straight away - so I turned off the 'blue tick' on WhatsApp, plus the notifications on that and all other apps. It's been such a life-changing exercise that I still haven’t turned them back on to this day.
7. Prioritise sleep by going to bed early and getting up early
Do this even while you’re off work. Not only do you feel better, but it gives you some structure. I became a massive advocate of the 'Miracle Morning' routine and still do it to this day.
8. Get professional help.
As well as a therapist while you're 'in' the fog, once it starts to lift and you feel able to think about the future again, it could be worth hiring a coach like I did. I wanted help to get my confidence and mindset back, so I could get back to work as soon as possible. Together, we worked out who the hell I was outside of ‘Barclays Lauren’ and what I wanted out of life. The effects were unreal. Within six short weeks I felt my ‘mojo’ returning. My fight came back and I not only felt strong enough to put goals in place, but also to start working towards them – something that would have been impossible a few months earlier. In fact, coaching had such a profound effect on me that I decided to start studying it for myself. This seemingly simple act of deciding to learn something new helped get my brain used to working again and gave me back some all-important structure. The fact that I had to practice all the coaching exercises I was learning on myself also meant that I carried on the self-reflection that had become so important in my recovery.
9. Go easy on yourself
It can be a real knock to your confidence to admit that things have gone wrong and that you’ve been signed off work. But the longer you hold onto those feelings, the harder it is to recover. Just surrender to the process (and it is a process) and practise some self love.
A Turning Point
Fast forward a year and I’m in probably the best place I’ve ever been – calm, content, stress-free and expecting a baby in a few months time. Looking back, the anxious, sleep-deprived Lauren I was then is almost unrecognisable to me now.
I now know what’s important to me and have come out the other side with a new sense of perspective and a new set of boundaries. And whilst this was probably one of the most difficult things that has ever happened to me, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
All the work you do to get out of the hole you find yourself in can be priceless. Once you come out the other side, you realise that you’ve learned more about yourself than you ever thought possible.
Does your current career have you on the edge of burnout? Maybe you're running a business and feeling completely frazzled. Either way, drop me a line to see how I can help.
Business Coach & Side Hustle Queen
Hi, I'm Lauren. I burnt out from the corporate world, hit rock bottom and used the experience to manifest my dream life. I now help passionate and ambitious women start and grow businesses. I'm living proof that you can - and deserve to - have it all.