Burnout is a bit of a loaded word these days – overused and some might say, overly dramatic. But I’m using it today because I believe that it’s much more common than most of us are willing to admit. And I’m using it because I can now see how close I’ve been to burning out for much of my adult life and I want to share my story to help you avoid doing the same.
I’ve been lucky enough to love pretty much every job I’ve ever had. I grew up in Xerox first as a salesperson and a people manager and then training to be a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and learning how to manage large programmes and international teams. It was quite normal to move roles every two years and I found that I liked the pace of change. In my thirties I discovered that being a self-employed contractor in the corporate world and then in investment banking really suited me and how I’m wired. Changing roles every eighteen months to two years kept things fresh and interesting and I never questioned what would’ve happened if I’d stayed longer in a role. Because I was happy and enjoying each new challenge, I didn’t really admit to myself how much the stress would build up each time and how one-dimensional I would become – giving more and more to the job and retreating from everything else that was important in my life. I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, see how stressed I was and how badly I was taking care of myself. After each contract I would take a break, reconnect with my life, go travelling, do some diving and come back refreshed and ready for the next challenge.
2017 was when everything changed for me. After years of wandering aimlessly through life, taking on more and more challenging roles to keep boredom at bay – my purpose suddenly became clear to me, like a bolt from the blue with absolutely no warning at all! I realised that helping business owners fall back in love with their businesses (or avoid falling out of love in the first place) and providing them with tools and support on how to build something that really works for them, is what I was born to do. I started my own business, got myself qualified as a coach and trained up in Talent Dynamics. I charged into this incredible new world of entrepreneurship in my usual head strong and uncompromising fashion.
In December 2017 I started to consider what might happen when I got to the two-year mark. I was on a Coaching Academy training day and Sarah Urquhart asked for a volunteer. I found myself up on stage, in front of more than a hundred people, explaining to her the frustration of not being able to get everything done that I wanted to because I had so many clients to serve and more ideas than I knew how to implement. I feared that my book would never get published and everything I wanted to share would remain on the shelf inside my head. I told her how concerned I was that I’d get to the end of 2018 and just walk away from it all. I desperately didn’t want that to happen because I was loving my work and wanted to help more people. I told her I was frightened something bad would happen to me. She pointed out that most trainee coaches would love to have the problem of too many clients, and I felt the eyes of all my fellow coaches burn into me. And then she asked me the killer question. “So, how many times would you like to go round it again, Lisa?”
Instead of declaring myself ready to change, done with the repeating two-year cycles, I found myself actually considering the question. It was a completely bizarre and surreal experience, almost out of body, being the focus on so many people’s attention – all watching me intently while in my head I was asking myself “How many more times shall we do this – maybe twice, three times more”’ I was completely shocked and walked off stage feeling really shaky with my mind in a complete blur. I really thought I was ready for things to change, until I was forced to confront the question head on.
Fast forward to late March and I was definitely close to burn out (but still not admitting it to myself). I was still working crazy hours and still absolutely loving what I was doing. I was running at a million miles an hour and finding it increasingly hard to convince myself that this was sustainable. I was in Dubai preparing for a workshop and my sister messaged me to suggest that I take a book and go sit by the sea. It took me a few moments to even understand what she meant. Sea? I was in a city. Book? I hadn’t looked at one of those for months. Take a break? Why would I want to do that?
I finally realised that I had to do something. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t even face making choices about what to eat – so every day it was crackers, cheese and cucumber for dinner. I told myself that that was what I felt like eating but I knew I was fooling myself. I was working late into the night and every single weekend and although I knew something had to change, I was struggling to figure out how. I didn’t want to stop or even slow down as I was enjoying myself too much. I just couldn’t see a way out that would work for me and that I would agree to stick to. But I knew I was making myself ill and my fear that something bad was going to happen was getting stronger.
And then it occurred to me that rather than depriving myself of things I didn’t want to stop doing, I could make a deal with myself. ‘If you make time for the things that will make you healthy, we can defer the conversation about whether or not you’re working too hard.’ I’ve no idea why that worked for me but it did. Rather than taking away, I was adding and in my head that made sense! Of course, if you make time for exercise, yoga, meditation, eating…. then clearly other things are going to have to move, but somehow it felt different to me.
I knew that doing some physical exercise would be a good idea but I also knew that I would never convince myself to go to a gym, so I searched online and found a personal trainer who would come to me. We met up early one morning and I threw myself into the routine with gusto, as if by sheer willpower I could become strong and healthy. My body went into shock straight afterwards (some of you may have seen the post I shared last July) and I knew I had to take a step back, do it ‘properly’ and build from the ground up.
I enrolled on a comprehensive health programme with Leanne Spencer, committed to monthly kinesiology sessions with Grant Taylor and signed up for twice-weekly personal training sessions with Gabriel Ancu. I started introducing different foods into my diet and looked into meditation and yoga for the first time in my life. I started tracking what I was doing, gathering data and paying more attention to what my body was telling me.
Since then I’ve had to rethink a lot of things I thought I knew:-
- That my diet was pretty healthy
- That ‘happy’ stress is not a problem
- That I usually slept well
- That I was reasonably fit and healthy (OK I didn’t really believe that one)
- That if I was enjoying myself I wouldn’t burn out
- That yoga and meditation weren’t for me
- That I couldn’t run
- That sugar was great – especially ice cream
- That I’m weak and feeble
- That I could never do any ‘job’ for more than two years
I’ve had to rebuild a lot, one step at a time. I often fall down – eating too much of something that makes my stomach ache. I skip yoga or meditation, telling myself I won’t notice, but I always do. I’m trying to be kind to myself – treating good health as a journey rather than a destination. Every day is a new start.
What’s really helped has been finding out what works for me and fits into my life, rather than trying to persuade myself to change who I am. Just like in business, finding the right people to work with has been crucial.
Gabriel adapts our personal training sessions to how I’m feeling and what I need, pushes me harder than I’m able to push myself and is the perfect combo of challenge and encouragement. He’s been really helpful on the food front too, although we don’t always agree!
Grant has been a great support to me through the last year, helping me figure out what my body’s telling me and gently challenging the things I tell myself. If you’ve never tried kinesiology before, I would highly recommend it, especially when combined with homeopathy.
Leanne’s programme has given me a structure and way of looking at my heath – not just fitness and diet but focussing on sleep, mental health, digestion and body composition. Our weekly calls have kept me honest and accountable.
I’ve discovered that I’m stronger than I thought – physically and emotionally. I feel healthier than I ever have in my life and I can even run at a decent pace – who knew that would ever happen?! But best of all, I’m more than two years into this amazing ‘job’ and I’m showing no signs of quitting. In fact, I’m only just getting started…. I don’t feel deprived and I still work long hours, but I’ve stuck to the deal I made with myself and now my health comes first. The thing I feared most – slowing down – has actually made my life better. My business is growing, my book has been published and I’m happier than ever.
It should come as no surprise that Resilience is the first letter of my REAL Model ®, the framework I use to work with clients. Through this process I’ve realised that in order to grow a sustainable business you have to start with yourself. How can you look after a team, customers, suppliers, investors, a business – if you can’t look after yourself? And I’m also understanding that just because we don’t use the words stress or burnout doesn’t mean they’re not happening.
Thank you for supporting, encouraging and mocking me (mostly lovingly) throughout this past year. I wish you all health and happiness as you build a business that works for you. If there’s anything I can do to support you please do get in touch.
Lisa Zevi – August 2019