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Burnout to breakthrough: peak fitness, mental wellbeing and a brand new job

We like to stay in touch with all the amazing people we meet during leadership training programmes.

What we often see is that those who get great results with changing their approach to healthy living are those who engage deeply with what they want to improve, and they think carefully about what to change and when to make the changes.

We were in touch with Mark recently. We met when he attended a leadership programme at London Business School a couple of years ago. And since then? Well, best that he explains.

Here's Mark's story...

I completed the London Business School, Senior Executive Programme (SEP) in February and April of 2019; I was part of the ‘SEP97’ cohort.

I loved it.

The learning, the time out from normal life to focus on something else, the people I met and the new perspective and change in thinking that the course brought.

And I really enjoyed the health and wellness part delivered by you and your team.

I came away from the experience understanding that professional success was dependent on personal wellness. I properly understood that if I wanted to consistently perform in my work I would need to look after myself outside of work.

Your message had got through.

The only problem was I didn’t actually put it into action.

Once the course finished l went back to my job and life returned to normal. I remained inactive and I continued my unhealthy drinking. I now realise that during SEP I was on the cusp of professional burnout.

I had been oscillating for a while between performing well and periods of higher stress that resulted in reduced cognitive function; my ability to process information and make decisions would be impaired and I’d have trouble recalling information.

But these periods were brief so I kept going. I was aiming for a job change, a senior leadership role, and preparing for it took me to London Business School in the first place (the role wasn’t guaranteed but looming organisational change was going to produce opportunity).

In September 2019, early on a Monday morning, I was in an impromptu meeting with my boss about a difficult supplier. And I lost my shit.

Apologising for my uncharacteristically angry behaviour and poor manners, I left the meeting. But I didn’t feel right and as the morning went on it got worse. By lunchtime I’d exited the building and I took the rest of the week off. Again, at the time I didn’t understand what was happening, but that morning I’d had a panic attack. It was the crisis point in my burnout journey.

And so I came to discover that there is a thing called ‘burnout’ and I seemed to be a pretty typical example.

My history and circumstance matched the literature describing causes and my symptoms were a good fit for the usual expression of someone suffering from it. And so I set about solving the problem. I read a lot, I sought professional advice, I talked to people and I tried to improve my mental and physical wellbeing so I could recover and I started to make progress.

Then there was the drinking. People around me didn’t sense a problem or anything especially unusual but I knew it was too much. I was trying to manage it but I was still drinking a lot. Although the medical professionals I talked to were surprised how good my health and weight were, given my high consumption, the advice they gave and the research pointed to poor health outcomes in the long term.

But I also knew, deep down, that it was already impacting my mental health and that this was a contributor to my burnout.

Managing my drinking consumed a lot of mental energy, I found the application of control exhausting. “Today’s an alcohol free day so stay away. I’ve had a drink but don’t drink too much. How many have I had? How long will the evening last and how many drinks is that? Have I passed over the limit into hangover territory? Just one more will be okay. Have I had too many to drive?” It was a constant battle of wills.

And so I stopped. It took an absolute bender and the next day’s consequence to kick it off, but I made the decision to stop drinking.

And what a relief!

I no longer had to think about it all the time and manage myself, I just had to say no. Admittedly it wasn’t easy and it took quite a few months for this to become normal and feel comfortable, but eventually I became a happy non-drinker.

Without alcohol I feel way better by every measure and now there is room for my physical wellbeing too. I’ve got the energy and motivation to exercise and I’m making time for it (plus the absence of hangovers make early morning workouts more doable!)

I’m fitter than I’ve been for years, I’ve lost weight and my mental wellbeing is benefiting, just like you said it would.

I’ve been alcohol free for over 18 months now and the burnout is sorted.

My professional performance has improved considerably and I’m happier.

Yes, my work has benefited but my family has too.

And I got the job. I’m in the executive team of what has become a very large business over the last two years. I’m leading a group who will deliver a multi-billion dollar property development portfolio; the single largest residential development programme in New Zealand’s history.

I have to keep working on the wellness and it’s had its moments. Covid was a bummer and that threw me. The new job is what I wanted but it hasn’t been easy and at times it’s been really flipping hard.

But with physical and mental wellness now part of what I do, a deliberate effort, I’ve become more resilient and able to take the knocks. I’m also more productive, I think clearer, I’m a better leader and as a bonus, I’m happier too.

Mark, 15 August, 2021

Footnote: Cycling has always been my sport so I completed a four day 360km road race earlier this year to get back into it. That was a shock and really hurt! It’s currently winter in NZ so most rides are virtual, on the trainer.

Thanks to SEP, weekly pilates has also become part of my wellbeing routine and I now take active wear when I travel, I never used to do that! Instead of drinks in the hotel bar I go for a walk or use the gym.

I turn 50 next year and I’ve committed to taking a month off and riding the length of New Zealand before I turn 51. A bike, a credit card and 3000km. That should provide some extra motivation to keep fit!



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