Burnout Blog - Andrew Greenway / by Richard Bentley

Andrew is a former senior civil servant, now working as an independent consultant. His civil service roles included deputy director of data and horizon scanning at the Government Office for Science, and product manager at the Government Digital Service. He tweets as @ad_greenway.

Garfield once said ‘it’s amazing the things people would rather have than money.’ I think it’s amazing the things we would rather have than our health. 

I burned out twice in my twenties. In both cases I was working long hours in stressful jobs. In both cases, I was confined to my bed for some months. In both cases, it came as a surprise. It shouldn’t have. 

As someone with a bookish, try-hard personality, my instinct for handling things I’m not comfortable with is to tame them with knowledge. If I read everything about a topic and privately settle it in my mind, I’ll be fine. Otherwise I’m a terrible beginner. Driving lessons - unfamiliarity! no word puzzles! visible failure! - were a weekly torture.  

In new jobs and situations, these instincts become dangerous. Whipped up further by positive feedback, my mind’s instinct is to ignore my body. After all, you’re working hard and you’re winning. There’s always more to learn. Working a little bit harder seems to pay off. You do a little more. Good things continue to happen. A minor set-back; maybe you didn’t quite put in 100% in that day? Best try harder. No one stops you - and why would they, you’re keeping this show on the road aren’t you? Can’t slow down now. No time to be ill. Tunnel vision descends. Your productivity becomes connected with your time, which becomes connected with success, which makes you happy. You begin to think things beyond your control could will reeled in by doing just a bit more work.

In reality, you’re feeding a slot machine that’s playing you. Put a few more hours in and the jackpot will pay out, you think. The reels spin on, winking their indifference. Burnout is too acceptable. When people go beyond their limits, there’s sympathy, but in some quarters, also respect. ‘She pushed herself to the limit,’ some say, it’s amazing how she does that.’ Pushing ourselves to our limits is not questioned as being a good thing, for young or old. Sometimes it is. As a lifestyle, it is not. 

It took me far too long to recognise the connection between my physical and mental health. I fell over physically because I wasn’t paying attention to what my mind was doing. Seven months were spent out of work as a result. All those extra hours I did? A lot less than seven months’ worth. 

Fool me once mind, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. So my body and my mind came to a deal. It would look after me if I made a conscious effort to look after it. I did. I work four days a week. I leave work on time. I book time off in advance. And I’ve belatedly realised that productivity isn’t the same as time. 

I don’t remember ever talking about mental health in school, much less how physical health related to it. Mental health was treated with a sense of terror, something otherworldly, like extreme poverty or gang violence.The power of ThinkWell workshops to bring mental health to life, to explain what it is and how to seek help, would have given a younger me clues about to what to look out for later on - to know that mental health is not sudden terror, but quiet descent and ascent. We all have mental health. We are all human.

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