Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. - Helen Keller
"My" TEDx How to Solve the Stress Epidemic
Bloody hell, being a speaker at TEDx Leamington Spa was quite a ride! This blog is about my personal journey from burnout to bouncing back, and being a woman on a mission to engage hearts and minds so together we can avoid the impending burnout epidemic.
Last year in the UK, the workplace stress epidemic resulted in 11.7 million working days being lost due to stress absence, costing companies billions of pounds. That’s the equivalent of 50,000 people having a whole year off work. For context, Wembley stadium holds 40,000 people. (More stats and causes here)
Seven years ago I was a member of “stress club” and I burned out. I suffered a physical and mental collapse due to workplace stress. I returned to work in corporate for a further 3 years.
Four years ago I started my own company and I have been delivering resilience training to companies (the more enlightened ones that realise well-being is socially responsible AND drives the bottom line).
One year ago, I realised that we are about to have a paradigm shift in the way we work and if stress club goes underground the threat of a burnout epidemic is very real.
Getting the attention of busy people!
I realised I needed to play on a bigger scale to make a real difference. I also knew I needed to reach the people who, like I did, believe that they don’t have time to rest and recover, or that they can’t stop because people are relying on them at home and at work; beliefs I had just before I had a cardiac arrest due to stress. I applied to do a short talk at TEDx Leamington Spa, a perfect platform for the people I needed to reach, and with the additional carrot that popular videos make it to TED.com (bigger audience).
Getting past people’s emotional numbing to create a wake up call
One of the things we often do when we are approaching overwhelm is to stay busy because then we can be emotionally numb and conveniently ignore the warning signs our bodies are screaming at us.
Contrary to popular misconception burnout is far from sitting around in pyjamas watching daytime TV for a few months.
I realised that although I can deliver resilience training intellectually all day long, what I really needed to do was to share what burnout is really like emotionally to get past busy people’s numbing and create a wake up call. To do that meant putting aside any need for PR management and glossing over how debilitating burnout is.
My journey to the stage: project vulnerability
The slight hitch was that I’ve been super independent since the age of three and showing emotional vulnerability was not something I did often, even with those closest to me. In the past year I have challenged myself to grow in this area and allow myself to be vulnerable with others. It has been a journey of acknowledging all the reasons I previously withheld my emotions and unpacking childhood memories that made me believe emotional control was a sign of strength.
Through my “project vulnerability” I have reconnected to parts of me that had been collecting dust and I have enjoyed thousands of mutual soul level connection with others. What a gift it has been to discover that being vulnerable is an expression of deep gentle strength and I am indebted to Brene Brown for her TED talks and books as part of my journey.
For me, TEDx Leamington Spa was the culmination of 4 months of preparation. Four months of reliving, retelling and refining my story of burnout and using all my resilience tools to ensure that in reliving it I didn’t return to it!
Anyone who knows me knows I have high standards and I prepare to deliver that, my recitations of my talk the day before TEDx were now so flawless that the emotion had been polished out of it.
My TEDx mentor challenged me to ditch the slides and to “be less calm”, to get back to the emotional edge that had been so appealing through the selection rounds. Thank you. In my pursuit of perfecting my speech I had lost sight of where the power was and what had first compelled me to apply to TEDx. I had retreated to my comfort zone – thank you for calling me out!
Standing on the big red dot at TEDx Leamington Spa
By the time I stepped on the stage at TEDx yesterday I was already a winner. I was far outside my vulnerability comfort zone and I had fought my demons to be there in that moment. As I delivered my talk and allowed myself to connect emotionally to my experience of burnout I paused... I explained how your brain is nature’s great pharmacy and triggers the release of stress hormones into your body, and as my biochemistry changed in the moment I paused… allowing the hormones to flow through, knowing that I had the tools to regain control
I urged people to leave stress club and join resilience club. I explained the stress ecosystem of banter, beliefs and body and why we must pay attention to our early warning signs and create daily habits that enable us to thrive.
I finished to a rapturous applause and a mini standing ovation on one side of the room. I paused to absorb the moment; I soaked the applause into my nervous system.
My delivery was not as smooth as I had hoped but it was real and raw and I am so proud of myself for leaning into vulnerability on stage to share a potentially life-saving message from the heart. Sustainable change needs to address hearts and minds.
For the rest of the day and long into the after-party people were coming up to tell me their stories of stress and burnout, to thank me for being so honest, to share what they are going to do differently as a result, to discuss ways I could bring the awareness for a need for resilience to their workplace… and they were using phrases I used in my talk.
I landed it. I made a difference. If even one person avoids burnout, my journey was worth it. I hope my story and simple model serves many people so they gain a better quality of life (and greater productivity).
The official TEDx videos from the event will be available early February 2017; they can edit out the pauses. Strangely the people I spoke to said that the pauses were the most powerful bit – a demonstration of resilience in action as I felt through the moment and stayed composed to continue. It’s funny how things turn out! Maybe I’ll ask the video editors to leave the pauses in!
Angela designed a series of focus groups to prompt discussion and gather feedback from a variety of stakeholders groups at different levels of the organisational hierarchy. The design step ensured that all the facilitators were aligned on the purpose and key questions to explore. The discussions were well attended and provided rich insight. This enabled us to gain approval for a robust and radical redesign to our global talent development programme
- Julie Hawkins, Early Career Development Consultant – Engineering Organisation
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