How burnout changed my life and gave my career new purpose
- Posted on May 9, 2022
- Estimated reading time 5 minutes
It was 2012 and like many Avanade consultants, I was working long hours away on project when I received a phone call that changed my life, and the course of my career. I was due to take a few days off because we were moving house the next day, but my husband called to say there was a problem with our new house, there had been a leak from a water tank in the roof.
I started the 3-hour drive home, imagining the damage that 100 litres of water could do to a house, and, ever pragmatic, thinking of how we would manage the mopping up and repairs so we could move in. How wrong I was.
I can barely describe the state of the house, pictures don’t do it justice. It was sodden. Huge areas of ceilings had collapsed, wallpaper was peeling off the walls, the plaster was like mud, even the concrete floors had split due to the water. There was mould everywhere, and the air was so damp it was hard to breathe.
It wasn’t 100 litres of water we were dealing with it was 2.2million; a broken pipe gushing water and left unchecked for weeks had soaked almost every part of the house. And there was worse news, due to a loophole UK law, we were now liable, and the seller who had left the property unmaintained and uninsured was not.
The financial security I had worked so hard to give my family was gone in an instant. That night I remember sitting on the sofa in our old house, surrounded by boxes, my husband and I holding each other as if we were all we each had left. For all we knew at that point, we were.
Morning came, and a friendly surveyor was able to tell us that the damage to the house was merely tens of thousands of pounds and not hundreds as we had feared. But we were still homeless.
Employees don’t burnout, people do
The next Monday I went back to work, I felt I had to. We were in trouble, and I needed to keep earning. My colleagues knew what had happened and were sympathetic, but no one suggested I take time off to fix my living situation, or even time to talk to someone about what I was going through. We had a project to deliver.
We spent the next three months living in B&Bs or staying with friends, until our house had the bare necessities of services and was dried out enough to be “legally fit for human habitation”.
We continued to work on repairing our house, and as the main earner, I worked to pay for the repairs. I started to get anxious, my inner critic so loud and hateful it could only be described as a bully. Negative thoughts and worry were ever present. I became more irritable and short-tempered, more preoccupied and withdrawn, but I was on a different project and the team didn’t know that wasn’t the real me. I still made jokes; I was still seen as a high performer, but I had to work longer and harder for that performance, and inside I was crumbling. Guilt over not being able to protect my family, fear over something happening to my husband while I was working away, and constant feelings of failure started to dominate my life.
This continued for two years until one day I was working away and I saw a news story on TV of flooding in my home town of Oxford where the Thames had burst its banks. I saw interviews with the people who had lost their homes; I started crying and I couldn’t stop.
For days, I cried all the way to client site, buried my feelings deep inside, performed my job, and cried my way back to the hotel. No one knew, and I was too ashamed to tell anyone I couldn’t cope for fear of what they might think.
I will forever be grateful to the HR professional who saw an email from me that they thought was out of character and called me to check in. One question “are you ok?” and I couldn’t hide it anymore.
I was off work for the next 2 months, and part time for the next 4 months. It took 2 years, anti-depressants, a course of counselling from our EAP, and lots of support from family and friends before I was back to my normal self.
Finding new purpose
I said at the start of this story that this changed my life, but how did it change my career?
In my lowest moments while I was off work, one of the things that kept me going was the thought that I would use this experience to be better: a better friend, a better manager, a better person.
When I was feeling well enough, I shared my story, telling people about my battle with anxiety, and how it had impacted me. I supported others who were struggling and gave advice to other CAs on how to support advisees. I helped establish our Mental Health Allies in UKI, to raise awareness and provide support and signposting. Five years later, I took a sideways move from consulting into the Global HR Employee Experience team, and during the pandemic, started to drive some of our well-being activities. In October, I became Avanade’s first full time Well-being Lead, responsible for the well-being strategy for our organisation. I am in no doubt that my burnout changed the course of my career by giving me a new purpose.
A close colleague once asked me why I hadn’t confided in him and come to him for help, my answer was simple, because I was ashamed, and the most difficult people to tell were those I respected the most. But I’m not ashamed anymore. I did exactly what I said I would do, I learned from the experience, I grew as a person, and now I am focused on helping to build an Avanade where no one who is struggling feels alone, and where we can all thrive.
I love the job that I do, and the people I work with; it’s more than just a profession to me, it’s personal too.