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More than half a million of us are suffering from work-related stress, but what happens when it breaks the boundaries?

There was the routine visit to the dentist where he pointed out that I grind my teeth badly. And then there was the time that I burst into tears while unpacking the dishwasher. I knew that I was stressed. But it turns out that there’s a fine line between living a stressful life and slowly burning out.  Recently, the World Health Organisation recognised ‘burn out’ syndrome as a legitimate medical concern, adding it to the list of International Classification of diseases for 2020.  Burn out isn’t just everyday stress, nor is it depression or anxiety. Burn out is all consuming; it’s sacrificing tiny, seemingly insignificant pieces of yourself: your sleep, your time until it feels as if you’re drowning.

Two years ago I was the Beauty Director at one of the biggest weekly magazines in the UK. I loved and lived my job. A promotion coincided with returning from maternity leave; motherhood would not become the full stop on the end of my CV. Four days a week I’d flit between meetings with beauty brand CEO’s, conceptualizing the weekly beauty pages, shooting, writing and travelling internationally for work before downing tools (and donning trainers) at 4.59pm to <run> for the train and collect my two year old son from nursery, falling through the door at 6.01pm, his face crumbling as they vacuumed up around him. My Fridays, intended to spend time with him, were spent completing work I couldn’t squeeze into four days, and my evenings were spent building an idea –  This is Mothership – a fashion and beauty platform for mothers, into the early hours. “Cumulative work stress is a big contributor towards burn out but the first signs often emerge at home,” psychotherapist, Jessica Henley tells me. It’s true. I may have looked like I was acing it on the job front but at home we ate cereal for dinner at least once a week because I’d forgotten to do the online shop, I skipped pages of my sons bedtime story in order to return to my emails quicker and my to-do list was out of control. It felt like I’d been blindfolded after ten espressos and put in a tumble dryer.  I was exhausted yet wired, bad tempered, anxious and always in a rush.  My thoughts were scattered around my head like a deck of playing cards and I couldn’t sleep. Despite my bone dead exhaustion, I would wake at 2am thinking about work dilemmas and email myself notes in case I’d forget by the morning. But it wasn’t until I had my adrenals tested for a feature that I was working that I realised something was very wrong.

Holistic GP and hormone specialist, Dr Sohere Roked tested my hormone levels via four saliva swabs taken at intervals during a regular working day. She called me after hours with the results; it sounded serious, “Your cortisol levels are abnormally high all day, spiking when you wake up and around 4pm. If your cortisol and adrenaline levels remain this high, you will burn out within two years.”  These spikes of adrenaline are good in a sample sale but bad when they don’t subside. Roked sees many women in her clinic suffering from what’s being described as adrenal fatigue or “city syndrome”: a stress induced state when your adrenal glands (the two walnut sized ones sitting atop your kidneys) are on constant high alert.  When called upon to exert the fight or flight response over and over, these adrenal glands simply accommodate by switching to “low battery mode” until they have a chance to fully recover.  This is when you ‘burn out’. As well as the usual symptoms (moodiness, exhaustion, over-caffeinating) there are less obvious ones: headaches, muscle pain, indigestion, unable to conceive (something that I was trying – and failing – to do) and allergy flare-ups.

Something had to go. I had worked painfully hard to climb to the top of my industry but this was a wake-up call. My husband and I discussed finances. If I resigned it would mean we’d both be self-employed; was that risky? It would also mean giving up a hefty maternity pay if I fell pregnant again.  We went backwards and forwards over the course of a month. I made the mental decision to resign eight weeks before I physically did it. A week after I handed in my notice, I found out that I was pregnant.

So here I was: no job, a fledgling business and a baby on the way.  But I felt exhilarated. I re-discovered everything that I loved about writing. I vowed to only write for Editors that I liked and tell stories that I wanted to tell. I had space and time to grow <This is Mothership>, which two years on has now become my primary source of income. I had a baby boy. I won awards for my writing.

As we emerge from a summer of slowness and enter a frenetic new school year, my advice to anyone feeling this sense of ‘overwhelm’ is that rather than leaning in, it’s often more beneficial to lean out. Re-framing ‘how’ and ‘why’ I work was the key to my recovery from burn out. I don’t work past 9pm; in fact I turn my phone onto airplane mode. As an ex-Editor told me, emailing outside of work hours looks less like someone being diligent and more that they can’t handle their workload.  My laptop stays in my study and no longer joins my husband and I on the sofa in the evenings.  And when my son starts school this September, I’ll be in the playground waiting for him, every day.

I originally wrote this feature for Space NK ‘Inside Space’ magazine, September 2019, where it was first published.

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