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The personal journey of a neurodiverse woman in PR and the lessons agencies must take on board

I was amongst the 80% of undiagnosed neurodiverse women until I was nearly 30 - no one spots it in us, maybe because they aren’t looking.

Diagnosis can be a revelation

Naturally, the idea that I could have ADHD spiralled me somewhat - what did that mean? My attention span is excellent, isn’t it? Look how far I have come? I couldn’t possibly have that problem that small boys with trainsets that they can’t stop ramming into the wall have. Dutifully. I went to see a specialist and suddenly, for the first time in three decades, the lights came on for me. All of these quirks that I had always thought of as my unique peculiarities were explained and I was given the missing puzzle pieces, I wasn’t weird, I was wired differently. Diagnosis was revelatory for me, partially because I had never even considered neurodivergence as a possible cause of any of my challenges (or indeed successes) and partially because I started to see myself and think about my brain differently.

Risk of burn out

I have been burnt out. It became critical through the pandemic when we were working every hour that God sends just to stay level. Seemingly, the only thing that separated working time from non-working time, was whether there was wine next to the laptop or not. It became extremely unhealthy, I was exhausted and depressed and struggling to manage all of the balls that were being thrown at me. On top of managing myself and my burnout, I was also deeply conscious that an entire team was dependent on me to raise their levels, keep them motivated and engaged. It was simply too much.

In classic type-A, ADHD style I disappeared into a hole of research trying to understand how to ‘snap the fuck out of it’, there was much talk of long walks and relaxing baths. if I had thought a bath would have solved it I would have willingly taken every Zoom call from the tub… but everything I read was reductive and unhelpful. No, I can’t just quit my job and take six months off in Africa. No, I don’t have a manager I can discuss my work or stress levels with and yes, I am already seeking professional help.

Self medication

On reflection, it became apparent that I had been burnt out for much of my career, always neatly balanced on the edge of ‘way too much’ and ‘just about manageable’ with various tactics for self-medication - midnight shopping throughout the pandemic became a health and safety hazard! So what was the real problem? Was it me and the way I approached working - I have never been anyone to do anything by halves - or was it the way that we were working? Comms is fast-paced, I love that about it, highly stressful with often high stakes and a huge amount of responsibility, but that is the nature of the beast and it wasn’t likely to change.

Working it through

My burnout, and a need for a road back to feeling human that didn’t involve a mid-life gap year, was ultimately what led us to restructuring the way we work to suit the diverse needs of our workforce. It was, in reality, a case of needing to change myself and the work as opposed to one thing being the panacea to what had developed over more than a decade. I needed to think about what success and failure looked like completely differently - because I was holding myself to standards that no one else would dare to impose and then falling short of them and blaming myself. But, equally, the way we were approaching the work as an organisation was twisted and unsustainable. This was short-sighted as, in the same way I am not best for my team broken, we are not best for our clients if we are burnt out.

Make the future better

There is psychological step change that has to happen in the corporate world, balls-to-the-wall is great and sometimes essential, but if we aren’t putting enough back in the tank then we will burn through people, clients, opportunities and ourselves faster than we can ever possibly recover.

It’s a marathon not a sprint - this is a lesson I am still learning. But everything built to last has good foundations and our obsession and focus on immediacy, profit and instant results blurs us from seeing the toll this takes and the value of a different approach. I don’t have it right yet, but I know for certain, no one is burning out on my watch whatever changes it takes and however many things we have to try.

Written by Samantha Losey, managing director of PR agency Unity

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