It was just another morning at work. I was in my office writing a report and trying to persuade myself I didn’t need a cigarette. But the craving won, and I snuck up to the attic, my private smoking hideout. I felt pretty light headed when I came back down but ignored it, and went to see the production manager.
I walked into his office, opened my mouth, and nothing came out. I could see him speaking, getting up from his desk, his face anxious, but I couldn’t hear him, everything was fading. When I woke my brother was kneeling over me, someone had put a sweater under my head and a coat over me, and before long an ambulance arrived.
A busy doctor in A and E ordered tests, and I was there most of the day. Eventually he returned, scanned the results and said “there’s nothing physically wrong with you, you’re just exhausted. Go home and stay there for three months, you’ve had enough.”
Three months? I could barely take it in — how could I possibly be off work for three months, that couldn’t happen… He didn’t argue with me, just wrote a sick note, tucked it into my handbag, and left. I was stunned.
I was fifty one and had grown up in a family business in the Lake District, slate quarrying. I joined the company, gradually taking on responsibility for marketing, for HR and for the retail outlet. There were around fifty employees, my brother was the MD and we had a good management team.
What was so hard that I had driven myself to burn out? I spent the first few weeks in shock, appalled that I’d let everyone down. But the doctor was right, I was physically and mentally exhausted and there was nothing I could do for anyone.
I don’t remember much of those months, they seemed grey and relentless. I wanted so much to sleep but it evaded me, and thoughts whirled in endless circles. Eventually I returned, anxious and concerned. All was well of course, and there had been no major problems. A few of the guys were a tad patronising, poor-little-woman smiles, wouldn’t happen to one of us of course. But overall people were kind, and in response I felt guilty and inadequate, determined to work hard and re-pay them. I’d learned nothing.
I remained at work for another nine years, and the only change I made was to quit smoking. I was a committed workaholic and whenever my husband questioned the need to stay quite so late at the office I reminded him impatiently that I was responsible for the livelihood of others. I really couldn’t see it any other way.
There will be many reasons why people reach burn out. For me, growing up in a family business meant that work was a constant in our conversations from childhood onwards. Quarrying was an erratic business, pressure of either too much work or not enough. During recession years we almost went under for months, battling to pay the staff each week. That level of stress seemed entirely normal to me but of course it must have taken its toll.
But it was after I had left work that I understood it went deeper. It wasn’t just at work, it was my whole approach to life. I felt bound to do for others whatever they needed or wanted and allowed very little time for myself. There was nothing virtuous about this, and it sometimes made me spiky and bad tempered because I was so often, by my own choice, over stretched. I never paid any attention to myself so of course I didn’t see burn out coming.
I think that however a person comes by the habit of not caring for themselves, and always putting the needs of others first, the very hardest task is to recognise it. We remain convinced that there’s no choice, and it can become a moral high ground. Once the belief is instilled very little can shake it.
There is such social and cultural judgement around the idea of being selfish that most of us shrink back from it, even if secretly we would love a few hours to ourself to just do our own thing. No, I can’t do that, I haven’t got time, I have to go here, do that, be this for someone else.
And that’s acceptable, it’s worthy to be seen to be doing, we can’t be judged by ourselves or anyone else. And yes, there can be much joy in doing for others, but often the monotonous regularity and sheer hard work of all we assume has to be our responsibility can grind us down. And in time we loose sight of ourselves.
Work life balance is one goal. But first, think about where you have positioned yourself in the story of your life? Are you the leading light, one of the stars, a supporting role, or an extra? Do you ever think about whether you’re happy and fulfilled? Is there joy in your life? Nothing matters more, and not just for yourself.
If we take care of ourselves, and work at creating an enriching life, then we’re not just a great example for our children, we’re also much nicer people to be around, happier, kinder and gentler. And if you have kids, who doesn’t want to see and feel that in their parents? Changing what you do and/or how you do it takes courage, and it doesn’t always meet with approval all round. But if it brings you satisfaction and joy, that’s what you’ll be sharing with those around you, so it’s win win.
Originally published at medium.com