I worked in marketing, as the global communications director for a large advertising agency. I oversaw internal and external PR for offices on four continents and for some of the most iconic and influential brands in the world. My typical work week was 60 hours or more (which is unfortunately pretty common in our industry), but I loved my job and what I did, and I also liked the people I worked with.
But PR is a demanding, “always on” role that is associated with high levels of stress and can very easily lead to burnout. The day I experienced extreme burnout started like any other day. I had to introduce a new manager to the office and, like all good communicators, I had thought through the entire event down to the smallest detail.
As always in PR, nothing went according to plan
This new leader was 30 minutes late for their own team meeting; the approved presentation that I had already prepared was simply rewritten by others behind closed doors; and the meeting for all employees started 45 minutes late and lasted more than an hour.
Everyone was annoyed.
Something happened inside of me. I immediately asked myself: would everyone blame me for the meeting not going according to plan? Was there still a plan at all? Was anyone interested besides me at all? A sharp pain crept quickly into my head and behind my eyes.
I now know that I unconsciously cause migraines to relieve my stress, remove myself from threatening situations, or punish myself for not doing my absolute best. At that point, however, I didn’t know yet. Thirty minutes after the meeting, I told my boss I had to go, packed my bag, and drove home.
While driving through LA traffic, my pain was at level 10
I’ve had kidney stones, burst ovarian cysts, and pinched nerves in my neck in my life. But I can only say about a handful of times that I would have been at a pain level of 10. The migraines were so bad that I felt sick. I stopped twice and threw up on the side of the road. When I got back into the car, I panicked: “This pain feels different. Am I dying? “
So I did what any single 35 year old woman would: I called my mom. When she answered my tongue felt numb and swollen and my hands could no longer feel the steering wheel. “Do I even have legs?”
Between hysterical sobs, I told my mother that I felt unable to speak and that everything was starting to go deaf. She told me to pull over. “I think you have a stroke. You have to go to the hospital immediately. “
At that point, I couldn’t speak any more. The panic and the pain had prevailed. And now that my mother had implanted the thought in me, I was convinced I had a stroke. I hung up, somehow got off the freeway, and pulled into the Saint John’s emergency room parking lot. I was still hysterical, gasping for air and crying in pain. I also had perspiration through my clothes and vomit on my sweater.
I collapsed on the waiting room floor
Within a few minutes I was strapped onto a stretcher and taken to the back. As soon as we got to the examination area, they checked my arms and legs for puncture marks. They beamed into my eyes with a flashlight. They took my blood and a very dear nurse rubbed my head for a few minutes and told me to calm down before she left me alone.
I lay still for a few minutes. Then I went into shock. I had stopped crying, but now I was freezing and shaking uncontrollably. The nurse came back to check on me, wrapped me in several warming blankets, and told me the blood tests would be back soon.
A doctor appeared at my stretcher and said to me, “Well, you are not on drugs. What’s the matter with you? ”By this point I had calmed down enough that I started talking. I told him about my migraines. He gave me an injection and I finally fell asleep.
I woke up with my father by my side. My mother called him and told him to meet me at the hospital. I was so grateful that I wasn’t alone when I came to. We talked for a few minutes and I fell asleep again, hoping the medication would work.
I emerged from hell three hours later
I felt like I had been run over by a truck and I was foggy. I lived about a mile away so my father followed me and helped me get into the house. It was 5 p.m. when I got home. And you can probably already guess what I did afterwards. Go to bed? No. Eat something? Nothing.
I turned on my phone – and saw 35 missed texts, a dozen missed calls, and nearly 150 emails, many of which had to be dealt with immediately. And then I did exactly what I shouldn’t have done.
I threw myself back to work, back into the stressful chaos that had just sparked one of the worst experiences of my life. I went back to work the very next day to prove to everyone – including myself – that I was fine. Better than good. I was reliable. I’ve been great at my job. And I was always there for them when they needed me.
The next day I returned to work as if nothing had happened
I worked twelve hours that day. I got home around 8:30 p.m., had a glass of wine, checked my email a few more times, and went to sleep to spend the next day just like that.
In the following months I went to all kinds of doctors, from neurologists to ENT specialists to allergists, to find an explanation for the incident with the migraine. I didn’t want to accept that stress can cause something so serious. Nobody could find anything. But everyone strongly recommended that I work less.
Since then I’ve worked on myself for several years and I like to tell anyone who wants to hear that burnout really does exist. Stress is not just a word. It is an individual, physical manifestation of the mental or emotional distress that results from demanding circumstances. And if the last year has taught us anything, it is that we are constantly surrounded by demanding circumstances in work and life.
I have experimented with dozens of forms of treatment in the physical, mental and spiritual areas and trained myself further. I’ve tried exercise, craniosacral therapy, mediation, life coaching, and almost every spiritual experience LA has to offer.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to burnout and stress
For me, therapy and executive coaching were the most effective. In addition, I just had to learn when to take a break – and then actually take it. Without a guilty conscience because I might miss something or let others down. A nighttime smartphone ban (no phone in the bedroom) and a fitness program also helped me to control my stress level.
Today I am aware of my migraine triggers and can see the stress coming. This enables me to act before burnout occurs. I know that long hours and high levels of stress lead to my migraines, and I also physically recognize when I am sleeping restlessly and develop mild cluster migraines that become more frequent and painful. I take a break when I can no longer work through burnout and stress.
At the beginning of March 2020, just before the world collapsed because of Covid-19, I gave up my agency life forever. I founded my own communications consultancy, The Good Advice Company, in which I advise brands and agencies on strategic communication, marketing and thought leadership.
I know it’s a privilege to just quit your job and start your own business. I’ve even done this twice, once in 2008 and then again in 2020. Entrepreneurship definitely has its own versions of stress (managing a new business, finance, and legal issues come to mind) but it has got me too allows a more flexible schedule. I can work with customers and partners who respect my limits. That gives me a new focus on my work.
I know that after more than a year of being at work around the clock, many are at their limit. And I have to admit that at my lowest point I would have preferred the doctors to have found a physical problem in me. Instead, I eventually discovered that my episodes were self-inflicted manifestations of intense stress and burnout.
I had to hear the truth to change something
If I did this to myself, I also had the ability to undo it. And you can do that too. Self-awareness is the starting point for any change.
Setting limits around your health and not apologizing for speaking to your manager before you reach your limit – all of these will help you. I really believe the world has become more empathic during the pandemic. And I hope this empathy continues as we slowly return to our physical workplaces.
We shouldn’t have to prove we’re good at our job by working long hours or pushing ourselves to the limit. We shouldn’t have to push ourselves to the limit in order for our work to be valued and to see that we are good at what we do. There is no job in the world that is worth risking your mental and physical health.
This article was translated from English by Steffen Bosse. You can find the original here.