I am more comfortable writing articles on technology and Finance Transformation, subjects that keep as far away from feelings and emotions as possible! However, I have decided to step outside my comfort zone and venture into the world of stress and mental health and hope that my story helps others find some positives in the current crisis.
The working life treadmill
We have all know about the working life treadmill. Years of working at a high and unrelenting tempo, increasing with seniority and remuneration. The bar being set ever higher each year, longer working hours, less family time.
The potential result? You cannot get off the treadmill and you suffer either stress or burnout. Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. However, stressed people can still imagine that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better.
Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
I have been there very recently. I am not exactly sure if it was stress or burnout or both – and it was not fun.
My treadmill story
Like many, I willingly jumped onto the treadmill in my mid-to-late twenties, full of ambition to be successful – whatever this means and more of this later. Looking back, I had been working under high levels of stress for a period of around ten years. That is the price you can pay when you have an ownership stake in an organisation. As you strive for success, more employees come on board and you have a responsibility for feeding this ‘family’ every month. You work the hours you need to – evenings, weekends, holidays. It is your baby and you form an emotional attachment to it, the company ‘family’ and your success.
The catalyst to the spiral downwards was an unfortunate accident which resulted in me having to take on additional responsibility. I coped, but it drained me to the extent that, come the end of 2018, I was mentally exhausted. I was also experiencing heart arrhythmia, something which I originally kept from my wife and family. Subsequent tests gave the all clear with stress the suggested likely cause. Stereotypically male, I continued working at the same pace at the start of 2019. I was struggling and finding it increasingly difficult to be fully engaged and I decided suddenly at the end of March 2019 that I needed time off – I was just not enjoying working life anymore and something needed to change.
During that short break I worked on understanding what was wrong. I read a book for the first time in years, The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters. I can highly recommend it and, with this and the help of my ever supportive wife and family, I was able to understand stress and how to deal with it. Whilst understanding of my condition, I was being pressured by others to return to work and did so far too soon but I felt a sense of duty to get back on the treadmill.
Two weeks later and it was all over. My involvement in a business in which I had invested so much of myself was ended – I was pushed off the treadmill!
My rehabilitation and missing the treadmill
I had mixed emotions; relief, anger, a sense of betrayal. I felt saddened that I was not able to thank and say goodbye to the staff who had become my friends over the years. However, there were positives. If you can recall the summer of 2019, it was fantastic. Great weather, great sport – all enjoyed from my hammock in the garden. I re-joined the golf club, I played more racketball. I had the best tan ever. I immersed myself in the garden and re-acquainting myself with friends who had been neglected in recent years.
It is at times like this that you need family and friends. I am fortunate that I have the most supportive wife and family that you could ask for. As a typical male, you also need blokes around you. They keep you sane and grounded and I do not think they realise how their banal banter on the golf course and Friday night racketball and beers aided my recovery.
I convinced myself that everything was fine as the months ticked away. However, doubts remained, as testified by my continuing heart arrhythmia. I was bizarrely missing the pressure of the treadmill until, that is, lockdown arrived.
For more on mental health, sign up for Starbucks’ Finance Director, Jonny Jacobs’ session “Mental Fitness in business” at the AF Virtual Summit this Thursday, 14 May at 2pm BST.
A fast-forward to lockdown
As we all know, the UK lockdown commenced in mid-March. For some reason this seemed to change my mindset. I mentioned being ‘successful’ earlier and money was a component of my definition. However, the lockdown restrictions put in place and seeing the suffering of others, and the countries response, has changed my definition. The crisis has focused my mind on slowing down and appreciating the important things in life; family, friends, health and community. Unfortunately, money still has a place in the equation but its importance is significantly reduced. I am not sure why, perhaps a combination of factors, but suddenly my health issue has disappeared. All of a sudden, the treadmill is a distant memory.
For some the treadmill has stalled
Many will be in the position where, through no fault of their own, they currently find themselves furloughed and in lockdown at home. For those of you in this situation, the treadmill has stalled. If this is you, or you may just be working from home, one of the positives of the lockdown has been that it is a great time for reflection, re-assessing and re-aligning your priorities. Perhaps there is no better time to re-define what ‘successful’ means to you, especially the importance of money.
Once you have done this you can decide whether you want to jump back on the treadmill or even change the speed you are running. I have made that decision in my life and I get the feeling it is the best decision I have made to date.
A word to employers
These are difficult times and I do not envy anyone who is an employer and is fighting to keep their business afloat. For many it will be necessary to reduce their workforce to achieve this, there is often no other choice. How you conduct this process will define both you and your organisation for the years to come. It will also have a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of the employee to whom you owe a duty of care. There is a saying about treating others the way you would want to be treated. I would go one step further; treat others the way you would like your son or daughter to be treated. This tends to evoke a more emotionally intelligent and caring response.
This article was written by Mark Cracknell, Head of Research at GenerationCFO.
18-24 May is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. Please visit the Mental Health Foundation website for a wealth of resources and information on mental health for employees and businesses.
If you are suffering from mental health issues, this link provides details on services and organisations that offer help and support directly.
You’re not alone; talk to someone you trust. Sharing a problem is often the first step to recovery.