Kathryn Musgrave was moving positively along her engineering pathway until she realised something wasn’t right. She had become mentally exhausted and wasn’t functioning in her usual manner. Kathryn talked to us about how she suffered burnout and the steps she took to return to positive mental health.
Describe your career before you realised your world was changing?
I had been very successful with plenty of promotion opportunities and exciting projects to keep me well-engaged in the engineering world. Many of those job opportunities didn’t come with the option of saying ”no”. I just kept striving for positive project outcomes while the number of hours I spent at the office kept on growing. I have always been a perfectionist in everything I do, so I threw myself into work and raising our children with little consideration of what may happen to my mental health.
What was your work/life balance like?
Not very good. I embraced technology to the extent that it allows you to work from anywhere, at any time. Although I made a conscious effort to be available for our young children, I rarely switched off from work. I am a researcher at heart and like to learn continuously, and that contributed to my downfall.
What were the clues that things were going downhill?
When I look back to the days before my breakdown, which is now ten years ago, the big clue was that I had stopped sleeping. My family was also telling me that I needed to switch off from work, and being on-the-go all the time was having a detrimental impact on how I was caring for our kids. My husband reminds me of the times when our kids would want to sit on my knee, and how it was always “not now, mummy’s working.” At that time, I didn’t see what was happening, but when I look back now, I can easily spot all the tell-tail signs that things were beginning to go wrong
When did you finally realise that you were burnt out?
The realisation came on my 40th birthday. My husband and I had organised a trip away for the weekend to celebrate my milestone birthday. The morning before we were due to leave, I realised that I was so tired that I couldn’t be bothered making an effort to travel. That led to the realisation that I was always beyond tired, and that was the beginning of what became a complete emotional breakdown. Once I had recognised that my exhaustion was out of control, everything just exploded. The sad thing is that wasn’t the point where my recovery began. Things became even worse.
Had you ever considered that your lifestyle was leading you to burnout?
I had always been the same as far as my work focus was concerned, and I didn’t recognise what I was doing to myself. My busy work/family life at that time wasn’t anything new as I had always worked in the same manner. When I was at primary and secondary school, I was generally a perfectionist, so the way I was working at the time of my breakdown was nothing new. The difference at school and university was that they involved short bursts of intense brain activity which I was able to cope with as long as I got a break during the holidays and at Christmas.
However, this period of intense work and home activity had been going on for months without a holiday, and this may have been the catalyst for my breakdown.
How difficult was it for you to seek counselling?
For me, it wasn’t difficult. As soon as I recognised that I was in trouble, I went straight to a counsellor. Counselling is vital at an early stage, as the support you receive will give you the best chance of a full recovery. I think counsellors are an undervalued resource, as people don’t tend to understand just how vital their support is and what they can do to help your state of mind.
How long was your recovery, and what did you learn from the journey?
It was a long process. As I said earlier, I am a researcher, so part of my recovery was learning about what caused the deterioration in my mental health and what the steps were to recovery. These learnings have helped me develop new ways of leading teams and the projects that I am working on now. I am very conscious of the impact that a breakdown can have on people’s lives, so I regularly check on the wellbeing of my teams and also the people who are in positions above me. I think the whole conversation about health and welfare is now far more embedded in workplace practice than it was when I suffered my breakdown. Ten years ago, burnout wasn’t something that was talked about much in the workplace, but now people are far more open to having that conversation.
What’s the difference between high-stress levels and burnout?
I think the difference is when workplace stress begins to have an impact on your physical wellbeing.
Stress can manifest itself in the way you are feeling physically, but burnout was almost like hitting a wall or falling off a cliff. It was like a very sudden and massive escalation of what I had always termed, the effects of stress.
What is your advice to a person who suddenly hits that wall?
When you feel like you’ve hit a wall, it’s crucial to reach out to others both professionally, in terms of seeking help, and chatting with your doctor.
It might not be for everyone, but some treatments that a doctor can prescribe may be of help. I think it is also essential that you learn as much as you can about how and why you are suffering from the symptoms of burnout.
It’s essential for the mental wellbeing of workers that teams look out for each other, and that the business has embraced the Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing at Work. This strategy is about looking out for everyone’s mental health.
I read a fascinating article recently, which focussed on recognising mental health issues and doing something about it. The message was that you can’t totally rely on others to identify when you are getting into a mental health problem area, but it can be an identification process that involves a collaboration with friends, family, workmates and importantly, yourself. It is also vital that you feel confident to reach out and talk about your concerns with others. While the time of my burnout put me in an awful situation, it has inherently made me a better person and a better leader.
How do you avoid burnout?
You must recognise the small signs that you are entering a mental health danger zone and do something about it before it’s too late. Little things can make a difference, like taking a break, putting your phone down and if you are like me and enjoy active relaxation, slow down and read a book. Make a conscious effort to do something other than work, and take ownership of your outcomes. If you are feeling anxious, maybe meditation or going for a walk will help get over anxiety. You should have developed a plan that you can put in place when work and/or family pressure begins to impact your mental wellbeing. The plan can also be useful in maintaining your long-term wellness. Going back to an earlier comment – don’t be afraid to reach out if things are getting on top of you. Recognise the symptoms and do something about it because if you leave it too long, it will only get worse.