Sink or swim – the spiral of burnout

Sink or swim – the spiral of burnout

I recently shared an article on Twitter from the BBC website: Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

There were other headlines that day too: “Warning over youth career aspiration-reality disconnect”. “Young people ‘most vulnerable’ at work”. “My boss let me go over my condition”.

The common themes? Stress. Anxiety. Burnout. All too common experiences for the 21st century worker.

While it’s good that we’re starting to give mental health issues a voice, these articles show there’s still stigma attached to speaking out, particularly in the corporate world.

Spiral of burnout

It took me back to my own experiences and the advice I was given when languishing around the early to mid stages of Dr Ramlakhan’s “spiral of burnout” and dared to raise it with my boss. After sharing concerns about work piling up, resources in the team being stretched and work starting to consume me, I was simply told it was time to “sink or swim”.

What useless advice! I’ve learnt to laugh about it now but part of me feels angry that this was the expectation. I was good at my job and had the guts to speak up but was basically told to suck it up like everyone else. Be miserable and see if you can make it to retirement.

I treaded water for many years afterwards before this mentality got the better of me. And while leaving the legal profession has opened up new and exciting doors for me, I’d be lying if I said those years haven’t taken their toll on my physical and mental health.


After a long period of reflection while taking the time to prioritise life before work, I’ve realised a couple of things surprised me when I announced I was leaving. The first was the number of people eager to tell me I was making a big mistake. That I was destined for great things (Harry Potter great things, not Lord Voldemort great things). Empty promises about future nirvana. I try not to pay too much attention to them.

But the second, and perhaps bigger surprise, was the number of professionals who started to open up to me. Telling me they were struggling too but felt they had no other option but to continue. I do pay attention to these people. Those highly-qualified, intelligent, hard-working people suffering in silence. Morale is at rock-bottom in offices across the country. If left unchecked, I can see it becoming a huge problem for society.

This second group is my motivation to live life more adventurously. And hopefully encourage them to think about doing the same along the way.

What can I do?

Picking myself up after experiencing burnout, I turned to the outdoors. I wanted to relive happy memories of long summer holidays outside as a kid, but had to be more realistic about what I could achieve as a “grown-up”. Much as I’d have liked to start a ‘new life in the wild’, it wasn’t a realistic goal for me, nor for the people closest to me.

So I started slowly. Cycling part of my commute. Going for walks at lunchtime to discover new parts of the city. Eating better food. Slowing things down.

I became addicted to the concept of everyday adventures and finding ways to build excitement into my daily routine. I stopped making the ‘work’ bit the central part of my life and just saw that as something I did in between the fun stuff – going for a bike ride, or seeing where that canal path goes, or running up the stairs to the 10th floor instead of jumping in the lift.

Shifting my focus helped the everyday adventure effect to snowball. I started blocking out time in my diary to head up to the Lake District regularly. Time I didn’t think existed back when all my energy was used up floundering in the spiral of burnout.

The hills are where I belong

Those first few trips to the hills were incredibly emotional and I remember walking along with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes as I realised, this is where I belong.

My confidence started to return. The outdoors gave me space to think again and sort things out in my head. Put things in perspective. Modern life and the expectations it creates can make it hard to prioritise leisure time. But with a bit of effort and some planning, we realise our responsibilities aren’t always as daunting as we think. And the best thing is, it all starts by doing something as simple as going for a walk.

I’m not saying getting outside is the answer to all life’s troubles. But with more evidence emerging of the positive effects spending time in nature can have on your mental and physical wellbeing, those first few steps might just be the life buoy which stops you sinking further into the spiral of burnout.

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