Today, on day two of Mental Health Awareness week, 2019, we are privileged to have our colleague and friend, Rebecca Allen, who is a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist and Mental Health Educator, share her personal story and insights with us.
In the first of two blogs, Rebecca demonstrates how the behaviours of an over achiever, workaholic can lead to significant work-related stress and result in a mental breakdown.
She also raises the important point that support for those in the management team is equally as important as support for the wider team.
Over to you Rebecca!
My name is Rebecca Allen and I am a 40 year old workaholic. Or, at least I was, until I broke myself, and to rebuild myself from rock bottom. This is my story, which could so easily be yours…
The Over Achieving, A-star Student, Workaholic
From an early age I was always a hard working over achiever. I grew up in a very loving home where Mum and Dad made huge sacrifices for things like my private education. My niave adolescent brain felt I ought to repay those sacrifices by being the best at everything I did, striving only for the A-star grades, beating myself up if I even dared bring home a B-grade. Yet, my loving parents just wanted me to be happy and I didn’t have siblings with whom to compete….
From an early age my own worst enemy was ME.
Fast forward to my late teens and I had not only got a Saturday job at my local high street superstore, I had registered for their Management Development Programme but I then became my region’s youngest member of the management team. Yet again I thought I was repaying my parents’ sacrifices by being at the top of my game, where just being happy (pah!) was just not good enough.
In charge of a busy store on a busy Saturday, a man walked up to me on the Jewellery counter and told me he would use the gun underneath his coat if I didn’t hand over the contents of the safe and six tills. Most sane people would give him what he wanted; knowing the jewellery and thousands of pounds of cash would be insured. Oh no, not this over-achieving hard working top of the class A-star youngest member of the region’s management team. Heck no, I’d just had my appraisal that morning, he was having nothing from MY safe and MY tills! So instead, on that busy Saturday, I made the management decision to evacuate the store of its customers and staff, so that I could be locked in to the store alone with this robber and his gun, so that I could sit down and logically and rationally explain to him why he couldn’t have MY money that day.
Hmmm, you can guess how that one panned out?
One diagnosis of PTSD and several investments in psychotherapy later, I can type this with a wry, knowing grin. Logic? Rationale? Pah, all goes out of the window when you’re a workaholic who wants to keep a good appraisal score.
“Top of My Game”
Fast forward to my early thirties, and after “The Robbery” I hid behind the scenes, and found myself working in HR. You know the drill here, I went in at entry level HR admin (but that was never going to be good enough for me) and ended my thirties at HR Director level. You get the feel for what sort of over-achieving hard working top of the class A-star grade youngest member of the region’s management team sort of HR professional I just had to be. Only, I was starting to understand Emotional Intelligence, and was starting to notice that it was ME who was in competition with ME.
I was becoming my worst enemy, and I was losing friendships and relationships daily, in sacrifice for being at the height of a successful career.
By then, I was working as an international HR Consultant in the music industry; the kind of job where you could afford the red-soled heels and the Porsche and “popped” to Paris just for lunch, falling over in SoHo at 5am with the latest chart-topping artist, and then heading to “proper grown-up” board meetings straight after breakfast.
Yes, I was that soul-less workaholic that measured my worth by the contents of my phone book and bank account, rather than the contents of my heart. I shudder as I type this, as I no longer recognise (or respect), who that woman was. She was broken, she was lonely, she was poorly, but of course the brave face was always switched on, the superhero pants were always on, despite my world being fuelled solely by caffeine, alcohol, adrenaline and airport meals on the run.
The Warning Signs of Work-Related Stress
As I reflect back on my career whilst typing this blog, I can see the signs of work related stress would have been written all over my body. Yet, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight, and clarity of mind these days, that I can really see how poorly I was. Bearing in mind, as Head of HR I “should” have been mindful of well-being, and mental health in the workplace, it hadn’t ever crossed my mind to realise the much needed cultural change, of which I was responsible, needed to start with me.
Looking back, here were my warning bells, which “should” have alerted my colleagues to the fact I needed support. I write this, not to blame those people back then, but to hold a mirror up to you, the reader, and see if you can spot these signs in your own workplace.
Presenteeism – As an HR professional, we often think that absenteeism is the issue. It’s not…it is presenteeism. Old me thought that after a long day in the office I could unwind with a few glasses of something fizzy, and then tackle the inbox on my sofa, often sending emails in the early hours. This was neither productive, as they were written with an addled brain, nor was it professional, because if the Head of HR can’t set a company standard about work/life balance then who can?
Unable to Ask for Help – As any member of management, we have to be there for our staff, with broad shoulders in their time of need. But what about us? I felt I had to be the strong one, the one who didn’t ask for help from others, simply the one who dealt it out in spades, but wouldn’t dream of asking for it back. What about when we have needs? Who do we talk to?
Uncharacteristic Behaviours – I was physically exhausted, burning the candle at both ends, and achieving the grand sum of zero most days. Where was my accountability? Why didn’t the Board notice? Remember, my “usual” modus operandi was that of an over-achiever, always getting the Board report in early, always being the first to volunteer for things. Yet I was becoming reclusive, insular, snappy and late. I had become a completely different person, yet nobody called me out on it, possibly because they were too busy to notice. That’s too many people, at the top of the tree, too busy to notice what is going on right underneath their noses. What kind of organizational leadership is that?!
A Full Stress Bucket – I was fast becoming a huge over-reactor. The tiniest imperfections would set me off. I remember pushing a member of my team to tears because he had used the wrong font (gasp!) and running straight to the Chief Executive to complain that a co-Director was putting black cabs on expenses, when we had a Uber account set up (horror!). I know now, through my re-training as a Psychotherapist, that this is a sign of a full stress bucket, but nobody had the courage to say “you don’t seem yourself today” or “that’s not like you to respond like that, is everything OK?”, that would have easily tapped a hole in the bottom of that bucket and let some of the pressure flow out.
As I said, these points aren’t designed to dwell on the past, or blame anyone; it’s simply to see if any of that rings any bells in your own workplace.
Mental Breakdown and a Shock Diagnosis
They say that it’s always the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Despite being in the middle of a $50 million takeover bid with a competitor, affecting 300 employees worldwide, that wasn’t enough to break this over-achieving workaholic camel. Oh no, it was a harmless passing comment from a co-Director about me being 30 seconds late for a meeting that we were about to attend. Cue meltdown, panic attack in the Boardroom, full-on humiliating snot bubble cry-fest….yet it became Day One of my wonderful new life.
You see, later that day, when I had calmed down a little and had agreed with my loving family to seek help from my GP, in those ten minutes that GP quite honestly saved my life.
I walked out with a prescription for anti-depressants, a sick-note confirming a mental breakdown and the phone number of a private psychotherapist who was the region’s best at supporting with work-related stress. Once I had got over the shame of needing these three things (which I now see as wonderful life saving changes, but at the time saw a filthy sordid failing mess) I set about in my over-achieving workaholic way to get myself better, and take some time out of the busy work life. I had seen one of those Facebook memes that pointed out that if we die at work it will only take our employer a week to replace us. As the HR Director I knew this was true, and the stubborn part of me kicked in to finally put my needs first.
I embarked on my first week of sickness with a motivated gutsy determination to get better that has fuelled me ever since to make my mental health my priority. A few weeks later I went back to the GP, updating him with pride on my progress with my Psychotherapy sessions, finally admitting that I wasn’t quite ready to go back to that stressful work environment.
He agreed to renew my sick note for a further period of time, but on one condition. He pointed out that I hadn’t had the “female MOT”, that horrible test that has every female reader of this blog cringing with a knowing nod. Too many women put off having this test, blaming not having shaved their legs, or wearing the wrong type of pants, or quite literally because it is hell. I had put it off for six years because I was far too busy being an over-achiever workaholic and was far too busy and Important hob-nobbing with A-listers in SoHo to look after my personal wellbeing.
Anyway, one hellish test later and the results were back.
I. Had. Cancer.
Oh. That’ll stop a workaholic in her tracks then.
Long story short, the NHS were wonderful and I had a series of operations that gave me the clear bill of health. I was fortunate enough to get the all clear, which then gave me the absolute kick up the bum to sort my mental health out. They were some VERY dark days, but I knew if I could bounce back from a mental breakdown and Cancer then I could get through anything in life.
From Breakdown to Breakthrough
And now, for the happy ending, we fast forward to my early forties. As I sit and type this, I can feel my babies kicking in my swollen pregnant belly. (Yes, the workaholic might have chilled out, but I’m still the over-achiever that can’t just do what normal people do and make one baby at a time, no, I have to be the over-achiever that splits her own egg to make twins…I like to call that effective time management!!).
Today’s most stressful challenges are whether to sit in the garden after typing this, or pop to Tesco for the nutritious home-cooked ingredients that I will cook for my soulmate, the man who I have known since I was 7 years old, yet the universe only let him stand right in my path when I started to clear my brain of all the stress and mess and chaos. I just wasn’t ready for him any sooner, and now our family is about to double in size as we prepare our nest for our twin girls.
I might no longer have the Porsche, or the red-soled heels, but I have love, relationships, food in the fridge and a roof over my head. Who needs the rest when it comes at such a cost to life?
I have vowed to all four of us that I will never go back to that old life. She’s gone now, and she’s not ever welcome back.
Later this week Rebecca will share her top survival tips, that enabled her to climb back from rock bottom
About Rebecca Allen – Mental Health Educator
Rebecca was an HR Director for 20 years in the corporate sector, during which time she ran her own successful national consultancy business. She then faced several traumatic setbacks, including a diagnosis of cervical cancer, which accumulated and led to her having a mental breakdown in her late 30’s.
Since then, she has developed a passion for Mental Health Education, and works tirelessly to show other people, who may have been just like her, that they can get through the darkest of times. Her story is moving; hard-hitting at times, but hugely inspirational motivating audiences to move forward with their own mental health issues, or those of people around them, using our modern neuroscientific Solution Focussed approach.
IS YOUR ORGANISATION DOING ENOUGH
To Promote Positive Mental Health At Work?
Find out by taking our quick Mental Health At Work Quiz
This short quiz will take you through the six areas of ‘work design’ that highlight the primary sources of stress at work that, when not managed well, are associated with poor mental health and can lead to increased absenteeism and presenteeism, resulting in reduced creativity, productivity and results.