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Bethan: battling burnout

I’m an associate director in Business Consulting but am currently on full-time secondment to the Inclusion and Diversity team. Within this role, I support the business to implement our I&D strategy and make progress towards our targets to 2025.

Bethan is standing on the beach, wearing a grey t-shirt and black shorts. She is holding her white dog in her arms, relaxed and smiling at the camera.
A collage of three photos summarising Bethan's sabbatical. A panoramic beach shot, a pile of reading books and a photo of Bethan, her two children and her dog in a field.

Recognising the familiar feeling of burnout

I experienced burnout a few years ago after falling into a cycle of overworking and putting pressure on myself to be everything to everyone, at home and at work. I ignored the physical symptoms for six months before my body forced me to stop. Looking back, I’m grateful for the experience as it made me understand my own mental health for the first time and what I need to be at my best. I knew I didn’t want to get to that point again.

At the start of this year, I noticed that I was getting out of balance again. I think it was a culmination of the pandemic, home schooling, a change in work commitments and a family relocation from Norwich to Wales!

I was very low on energy, overwhelmed and unable to focus on work the way I wanted to. I’d slipped into bad habits with my health, and wasn’t prioritising exercise, nutrition or sleep.

I knew something had to change, so I started by reducing my work hours, but this didn’t have the impact I’d hoped. I realised I needed to take a complete break to reset - I even thought I might have to hand in my notice to do so.

Speaking up and making a change

I was near the end of my Gender secondment within I&D, which gave me a natural crossroads to think about what came next. I shared my thoughts with a few people managers across I&D and Business Consulting about taking a break at this point and was encouraged to consider a sabbatical based on personal needs. I was initially nervous about what impact this might have on my career, about appearing ‘uncommitted’ and that there wouldn’t be opportunities for me on my return.

I was fortunate to speak with some senior colleagues who shared their own experiences. This helped to reassure me that the time off I needed wouldn’t halt my career aspirations.

From my earlier experience, I know the importance of thinking about what works for me and being bold in asking for it. A sabbatical was the clear next step to provide the reset I needed. You can take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave under the sabbatical policy and I decided that if I was going to go for it, I would take the full time off to give me the best chance of coming back refreshed.

Once I’d made the decision and started telling people, everyone was incredibly supportive. I shared six weeks of the sabbatical with the school summer holiday, so while it wasn’t entirely restful, it was brilliant to not have to juggle work and childcare during that period.

Switching off and focusing on health

I deliberately didn’t turn on my laptop or work mobile to ensure I could rest and reset. I completed a handover before I finished, made sure everything was on Teams so it could be accessed in my absence, and put  my ‘out of office’ on, so there was no need for contact with work until the week before I came back.

During the first couple of weeks, I was tired. I often reminded myself that was why I was taking the break. I fought against the urge to be productive and instead forced myself to rest, read, watch TV and enjoy long dog walks while my kids were at school.

I secured a place in the London Marathon this year through the public ballot, which I’d entered for five years in a row and had talked about doing for 20! It wasn’t my main reason for taking time off but doing so meant that I could plan my training without worrying about fitting it in around work.

The training was great for my physical and mental health and it gave me a clear purpose and goal for that period. I completed the marathon on 2 October and returned to work on 4 October!

A photo of Bethan, taking part way through her marathon run, shows Bethan running past the camera with her hands in the air and a big smile on her face
A close-up photo shows Bethan with her blonde hair tied back from her face, on a training run down a country road. Bethan is smiling at the camera.

Returning and starting fresh

Having a break was, without doubt, the best thing I could have done for myself at that time. I reflect on how I felt before my break – apprehensive, nervous, uncertain. Now I’m confident, rested and upbeat. The positive impact it has had on me, my family, and now my work, has been well worth it.

To function at my best, I've realised I need to have clearer boundaries around when I’m working and when I’m parenting, as well as ensuring I have time to focus on my own health and wellbeing. It’s not always easy, but I know it’s important and am trying hard to maintain them.

Lessons and learnings

It took me suffering a massive panic attack to finally acknowledge that I was burnt out a few years ago. I’d urge everyone to not let it get that far before they take a step back and give themselves a break, whether that’s using normal or bought holiday, your wellbeing day, or a longer period like a sabbatical if you need it and the timing feels right.

Now I have a better understanding of my mental health, I can recognise the signs.

My advice to others suffering from stress, burnout or anxiety is to recognise how valuable it is to have open conversations about mental health and wellness. It enables us all to have a greater awareness of what we need to do to stay healthy and get the support we need.

Here’s a final quote to reflect on which resonates with me: “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start.”

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