Faith Howe, director at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, shares her personal experience of coping with mental burnout

Last year was a landmark year for me, the most awful of my career. And now with hindsight, the very best of my career.

As someone used to feeling always upbeat and ready for anything, I have never had much concern or even regard for of my own mental health. My experience caught me completely off-guard, and I learnt invaluable lessons about my own vulnerability, as well as that of others, which I have no doubt will make me a better leader, and could save my career – not to mention sanity – in years to come.

Life in the fast lane
Having always thrived on fast-paced, hard work I never had much time for switching-off, leaving my desk on time, making proper use of holiday or all the other self-care clichés.

My energy has rarely waned, and as much as I enjoy time with friends and family – with or without the interruption of work – I have always looked forward to all that was waiting for me on Monday morning.

But last year that changed. I took on a challenge that was bigger than me, a leap into the unknown to a role in a different field – a far stretch from my experience to date. It was afforded to me thanks to my previous track record of successfully turning my hand to new challenges – but this one, as it turned out, was a stretch too far.

A loss of perspective
My situation, compounded by unforeseen changes out of my control, became overwhelming, and the impact on me was considerable. In a vicious cycle of working harder and harder to try and climb out of a difficult place, I forgot to lead and empower those around me to solve the problems together. I forgot to keep my head out of the weeds and find a clear path forward, and I lost perspective over what I can, or cannot control.

Perhaps most detrimental of all I stopped engaging with my life outside of work. I read bedtime stories to my little girl by rote, saying the words, but not hearing them whilst I thought about targets and KPIs. I lived, ate, even slept (or lay awake) with one eye on my phone – with no regard for talking to my husband, or considering the people who matter the most to me. I stopped finding time to see my friends, and rarely to exercise.

Unsurprisingly, my performance and my wellbeing suffered.

The kindness of others
Thankfully, however, those around me – my leaders, peers and friends – could see what, at the time, I could not. They persisted in helping me, and eventually I listened. After fabulous mindfulness coaching – something that I would have never previously countenanced, a proper two-week holiday with real time out, and mentoring from those much wiser than me, I was on the path back to my normal self.

Rely on your ‘Strengths’
In ‘Strengths-based talent development’, the approach that we embody in our business, there’s a theory of unsupported stretch. This is where situations take you to the ‘panic zone’ where you don’t have established expertise, and where you can’t call on your innate ‘Strengths’ – or sources of energy – to carry you through. Having been the champion and instigator of the Strengths-based approach here at FHF, I turned into the case study for how important – critical – playing forward your Strengths can be. For me it became about much more than optimising engagement. Understanding what truly energises me allowed me to re-establish my mental wellbeing and has provided the foundation for future healthy development. It has been through re-discovering my Strengths after taking a metaphorical deep breath that I know I now have the tools to face-off future challenges in a completely different way.

A learning experience
I feel very lucky to have experienced my 2018 and emerged better for it. My marriage survived, my daughter flourishes, but perhaps most surprisingly wonderful of all, I remain a highly valued member of the team that caught me, and carried me through. In-the-midst of a personal or professional crisis this doesn’t always feel possible, and maybe I am one of a lucky few – but I don’t think so. There is strong light at the end of that terrifying tunnel.

More than ever I am committed to continuing to build the special work culture that will make my reality, the reality for anybody suffering.

Written by Faith Howe, director and partner, head of talent development at PR firm FleishmanHillard Fishburn