If you had met me back at the start of 2012, you would have seen a woman who “had it all”. Career, fiancé, big house, nice car and lots of friends. I was a work hard / play hard kind of person.
My career was on an upward trajectory, I was in a high profile Commercial role and a member of the Senior Team aged 33. I worked in Food Manufacturing and thrived in an environment where no day was ever the same. Phone calls at 6am from the factory were the norm, as were late night phone calls from procurement telling me a shipment had been delayed. I spent my days fire fighting and my evenings catching up on the work I hadn’t managed to get done in the day. If you work in Food, this will be no surprise to you as it really is the accepted “norm” and part of the love/hate relationship we have with the industry.
Outside of work, I had a shiny brand new house (and mortgage to boot) and as the “bread winner”, the pressure to keep earning my big salary was immense. So, I worked harder and longer hours, to “prove my worth” at work. There were definite signs of Imposter Syndrome. I had moved job functions a few years before and always had a nagging doubt that I wasn’t quite doing the job well enough, despite all the feedback and evidence to the contrary.
I was planning a wedding and I was pushing my body to the limits in the gym 5 times a week, as I slimmed down to fit into my “Dream” wedding dress. I found the adrenaline rush of exercise helped me block out all the stuff that filled my head from my long working days.
And don’t forget the partying – It was the norm for my diary to be filled six nights a week with either work or social events. I travelled worked away a lot, so often justified a bottle of wine mid week to take the edge off being away from home. Weekends were filled with entertaining and being the perfect hostess in my shiny big house.
I was also the ‘go to’ person for advice at work and outside of work – need a friendly ear? Need your CV updating or interview practice? Need relationship advice? Need anything at all? I was your girl! Again, I didn’t see this as a problem because I loved helping others and seeing them succeed. So, I continued putting everyone’s needs ahead of my own on a daily basis.
I honestly felt I was ticking all the boxes of “winning at life”. Downtime just wasn’t a thing I needed. It was for other people, not for me. I started getting excruciating “ice pick” headaches, but I just took pain killers and carried on, taking my laptop to bed because I truly believed ‘they couldn’t cope without me’!
In January 2012, I was working super hard having just transferred a load of products from one production site to another and travelling the 200 miles between sites regularly. I found myself feeling a little run down and as often happens in that situation, I caught a cold. The sort of cold that stops you in your tracks and floors you. For 3 days I had no choice but to lie on the sofa and rest. But then Monday morning came around and I felt a bit better, so I pushed through and was on the road up to Newcastle by 5:30am.
That week is a blur. Well its less than a blur, its erased from my memory, in the way our brain does that to protect us from traumatic memories.
The following Saturday I woke up and literally could not get up. I don’t mean I couldn’t mentally motivate myself. I mean I physically couldn’t lift my limbs. The only thing I can liken it to was flu (x 1000). I had to crawl to the loo. The act of getting to the loo and getting back into bed meant I had to go back to sleep for an hour to recover from the “exertion” (the bathroom was en-suite, no stairs, no nothing – what the hell was going on?!).
My body had finally won the battle (but not the war!) to make me listen. I finally stopped (because I didn’t have a choice!) and I didn’t “push through” on Monday morning. I couldn’t, my body, that had been screaming at me in the form of ice pick headaches, had finally taken control of this crisis… and floored me.
Over the course of the next two to three weeks I was pretty much bedbound, but I saw a few different GPs and received different advice from all of them – one told me to rest (good advice, which I half listened to) and one (who frankly treated me like I was just trying to get a sick note – me? The girl who couldn’t wait to get back to work?!) told me to push myself and go to the gym because I was going to stay tired until I did something physical – obviously this is the advice I lapped up as I was desperate to get back in the gym (note: this was bad advice). I went to the gym and it floored me – back to bed I went!
Eventually I just about recovered enough to return to work – but boy, did I struggle! I didn’t feel on top of my game at all. I would just about make it through the day but then I would get home and collapse into a heap. Every now and then I would not be able to get out of bed at the weekend. I was finding myself resting all the time when I wasn’t at work, just to give me enough energy to get through the days/ weeks. This no longer felt like winning at life.
So, I soldiered on for the next 18 months but I kept being floored by the fatigue. It sounds melodramatic but I honestly thought I was dying. To have so many physical symptoms had to have been caused by something “more serious” than stress, right? And anyway, a lot of the so called stress in my life was fun stuff!
The job was still stressful. The Food industry is relentless and there’s no time to be ill. The food needs to make it onto the shelves! My boss was understanding and allowed me to work from home (pretty unheard of in 2012) most of that Summer. I was doing the bare minimum and when I had a customer meeting – I painted on my thick makeup, travelled to London with headphones in (to drown out the noise sensitivity) and lay down in the back of a taxi to and from the meeting. I got through every meeting without anyone noticing I was ill (even though inside I felt awful and had to concentrate a hundred times more than I had ever had to before) but then I was back in bed for a day or two. All this time my body felt like it would break at any time.
That summer at home helped a bit, enough to get me back into a routine from the Autumn. That routine was to sleep all weekend and get in bed at 6pm every night. It was a routine, but it wasn’t a life. I didn’t host Christmas for the first time in 5 years. I felt like a failure. Entertaining was a massive part of who I was back then and I just couldn’t do it.
It took another year of pushing through, yo-yoing from work to my bed before I finally admitted (with the help of a new, more supportive line manager) that I needed to take a step away from work for a while. I felt utterly defeated and full of shame as I handed over the Retailer accounts I had built virtually from scratch to my replacement.
I took 3 months away from work altogether and it was only then that I realised quite how poorly I was – the symptoms of burnout were rife in my body and it took me years to recover. I made the tough decision to not return to my role on the Senior Team and take step down and sideways into Category Management as I recognised that I needed to take the daily stress of fire fighting out of the equation.
It took a lot longer than 3 months to recover, but I did. I returned to senior leadership roles in the Food industry, with newfound boundaries and resilience.
I now openly share my journey with others as both a cautionary tale and a message of hope for those who are in highly stressful situations. It is possible to have a successful career in Food without burning out. And in a future blog post, I will share more about how I have done that and why we need to talk about this stuff more in the Food industry.
If this post resonates with you and you want to reach out for help, there are some helpful resources here:
I also coach 1:1 and run talks and workshops about “Resilience” in workplaces, to help teams in the Food industry understand the signs of stress and how to build their resilience. If you want to chat to me about how I could help you or your team email me: firstname.lastname@example.org