July 7, 2022
6
Min read

“I was on leave with burnout for 8 months. Here’s what people and—companies—should know.”

Written By
Simon Dumont
With thanks To
Katie Phillips, Founder of KDP Coaching

Katie always wanted to prove herself through work above all else. This led to a habit of overworking—which led to rising stress levels. Her reaction was always the same: more work. 

“I thrived in stressful environments, so I became addicted to the adrenaline of stress. The first part of it is really healthy, you progress quite quickly. But then it becomes toxic.”

After a long time working in high-stress corporate jobs, she decided to trade in the suits and heels for a role at a more casual, startup-y company. It seemed like the fresh start she needed.

But the company was growing fast, so Katie ended up switching teams a lot. The shifting organisational structure meant that her manager also kept changing, resulting in a lack of support. Katie quickly found herself being pushed and pulled in every direction. 

While she tried to say ‘no’ to big projects that weren’t really her job, her urge to people-please was too deep. Katie started getting caught up in the same old vicious cycle.

“As soon as I made progress on one thing I'd get dragged into something else. So I couldn’t finish anything properly. And when you don't finish anything, you start to feel like shit.”

Then one day, a particularly huge, complex project got dropped on Katie. She was given a choice: take it on, or find another job. She ended up cancelling a holiday to get it over the line.

That was when she started to get sick.

Stage one: denial

First, it was acid reflux—so bad that she couldn’t lie down. Next, she developed a twitch in her eye. Doctor after doctor told her it was all due to stress, but she wouldn’t hear it.

Then, after months of worsening physical symptoms, Katie stopped sleeping entirely.

“I couldn't tell if I'd imagined conversations, or if they'd actually happened. I was just so disorientated. I knew I had to take some time off.”

<quote-author>Katie Phillips<quote-author><quote-company>Founder of KDP Coaching<quote-company>

When Katie had gone through stressful periods before, she’d always managed to bounce back fast. So she figured she’d regroup, and be back in a week or so. Things didn’t quite go according to plan.

Katie’s memories of her first days off are a bit of a blur. But she knows one thing:

Her company was understanding. HR gave Katie the five days off she requested, no questions asked. But as soon as Katie stopped working, the weight of what she was going through hit her. 

One week off turned into several. She bounced between doctor appointments, convinced that she could find some diagnosis other than stress. This was supposed to be a less stressful job—how could she get this ill from work pressure? 

“For the first few weeks, my only thought was: how can I get myself back as quickly as possible before anyone finds out that I'm fucking losing it?”

The fear of being found out

Slowly, Katie realised that “mental health just doesn’t work like that.” Beyond the physical symptoms, she’d also started having frequent panic attacks and been diagnosed with depression. At some point she started therapy, which helped—but came with its own problems.

“To do therapy through the company’s medical insurance, I had to see a specific doctor every week who checked I was still ill. But I was so paranoid that work was going to find out I was having a mental breakdown. My anxiety just got worse.

As weeks turned into months, Katie’s acceptance of her mental health issues grew. She’d feel better one week, then a supermarket panic attack would set her back a few days. Her goals became smaller and more attainable: leave the house. Go for a bike ride without crying. Sleep three hours. Sleep four hours.

“I'd be really pumped to get things back on track, then I’d fall back to where I was before. There was no linear timeline of improvement. It was really chaotic.”

But above all else, the main thing feeding her anxiety was this fear that she’d be ‘found out.’ Katie often thought about what her colleagues might be saying about her. Since she requested the initial week off, Katie hadn’t spoken to anyone at work about what was happening. 

And no one tried to reach out to her, either. Until one day—after five months—she woke up to a text from her manager.

Too little, too late

Looking back, Katie thinks this long radio silence was possibly meant to give her space and relief from work pressure. She also acknowledges her role in creating this stalemate. 

But still, she thinks the company should have been more proactive:

“I wasn't expecting to be sent a hamper. But some concern or interest would’ve made it much easier for me to tell them what was going on.”

The first message she received was a general check-in from her manager asking how she was doing. Katie gave a vague but grateful response. The next message floored her: ‘Are you depressed?’

“Being labeled by someone who didn't really know anything about my situation was quite painful. I felt huge stigma around my mental health at the time. That message didn’t help.”

Some brief, sporadic messaging followed across the next couple of months. A meeting was set up, then fell through. While HR were very empathetic, it was clear to Katie that the culture within her team that caused her burnout hadn’t changed. 

So two months after her manager got back in touch—and eight since she’d first gone on leave—she left the company.

Katie never revealed what she went through to her colleagues.

What Katie—and the company—should have done

If there’s one thing to learn from Katie’s story, it’s how damaging mental health stigma can be. Katie refused to acknowledge that she was dangerously burned out until it was too late. This made it easy for the company to do the same.

“When that project was dumped on me, I should have taken my leave, looked after my needs, and just said: it's not my problem—I need to recover. I wish I’d been stricter with boundaries.”

But at the same time, Katie feels like the company should have supported her more—long before the burnout became so severe.

“Before I took time off, it was obvious I was crying in work often. I wish someone had pulled me aside and said: are you OK? Even if I hated it at the time, it would’ve made a massive difference."

<quote-author>Katie Phillips<quote-author><quote-company>Founder of KDP Coaching<quote-company>

Katie’s advice for companies facing similar situations is simple:

“Let your staff know that you care for them. Most managers don't know how to talk about mental health—I completely empathise with this. But we need managers that can spot when someone needs support, then point you in the direction of someone who can give it."

Katie now works as a coach and consultant at KDP Coaching, helping people and businesses avoid burning out like she did.

Oliva therapist portrait photo

3 tips for avoiding burnout

by Oliva therapist

Rodrigo Silva

1

Prioritise communication over hierarchy

Companies need to pay close attention to the ‘relational power’ dynamics that exist within their organisation. This means proactively finding ways to give everyone an equal voice in the company—regardless of their position. You can’t listen if people feel like they can’t speak.
2

Set boundaries in 3 clear steps

If you feel overworked—that’s OK. You understand your own reality—your feeling is perfectly valid. Communicate how you feel clearly by saying: ‘what I think’ > ‘how that makes me feel’ > ‘what I would like to happen.’ You might need to repeat your message until you’re heard.
3

Check your control sphere

Focus on what you can control: communicating how you feel to your colleagues or manager, and how much effort you put into a task. You can’t control what others do or how they react to this—so it’s not your responsibility. Those that care for you will respond by listening and supporting you.
4

5

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March 30, 2022
6
Min read

“I was on leave with burnout for 8 months. Here’s what people and—companies—should know.”

Written By
Simon Dumont
With thanks To
Katie Phillips, Founder of KDP Coaching

Katie always wanted to prove herself through work above all else. This led to a habit of overworking—which led to rising stress levels. Her reaction was always the same: more work. 

“I thrived in stressful environments, so I became addicted to the adrenaline of stress. The first part of it is really healthy, you progress quite quickly. But then it becomes toxic.”

After a long time working in high-stress corporate jobs, she decided to trade in the suits and heels for a role at a more casual, startup-y company. It seemed like the fresh start she needed.

But the company was growing fast, so Katie ended up switching teams a lot. The shifting organisational structure meant that her manager also kept changing, resulting in a lack of support. Katie quickly found herself being pushed and pulled in every direction. 

While she tried to say ‘no’ to big projects that weren’t really her job, her urge to people-please was too deep. Katie started getting caught up in the same old vicious cycle.

“As soon as I made progress on one thing I'd get dragged into something else. So I couldn’t finish anything properly. And when you don't finish anything, you start to feel like shit.”

Then one day, a particularly huge, complex project got dropped on Katie. She was given a choice: take it on, or find another job. She ended up cancelling a holiday to get it over the line.

That was when she started to get sick.

Stage one: denial

First, it was acid reflux—so bad that she couldn’t lie down. Next, she developed a twitch in her eye. Doctor after doctor told her it was all due to stress, but she wouldn’t hear it.

Then, after months of worsening physical symptoms, Katie stopped sleeping entirely.

Quote author photograph
“I couldn't tell if I'd imagined conversations, or if they'd actually happened. I was just so disorientated. I knew I had to take some time off.”

<quote-author>Katie Phillips<quote-author><quote-company>Founder of KDP Coaching<quote-company>

When Katie had gone through stressful periods before, she’d always managed to bounce back fast. So she figured she’d regroup, and be back in a week or so. Things didn’t quite go according to plan.

Katie’s memories of her first days off are a bit of a blur. But she knows one thing:

Her company was understanding. HR gave Katie the five days off she requested, no questions asked. But as soon as Katie stopped working, the weight of what she was going through hit her. 

One week off turned into several. She bounced between doctor appointments, convinced that she could find some diagnosis other than stress. This was supposed to be a less stressful job—how could she get this ill from work pressure? 

“For the first few weeks, my only thought was: how can I get myself back as quickly as possible before anyone finds out that I'm fucking losing it?”

The fear of being found out

Slowly, Katie realised that “mental health just doesn’t work like that.” Beyond the physical symptoms, she’d also started having frequent panic attacks and been diagnosed with depression. At some point she started therapy, which helped—but came with its own problems.

“To do therapy through the company’s medical insurance, I had to see a specific doctor every week who checked I was still ill. But I was so paranoid that work was going to find out I was having a mental breakdown. My anxiety just got worse.

As weeks turned into months, Katie’s acceptance of her mental health issues grew. She’d feel better one week, then a supermarket panic attack would set her back a few days. Her goals became smaller and more attainable: leave the house. Go for a bike ride without crying. Sleep three hours. Sleep four hours.

“I'd be really pumped to get things back on track, then I’d fall back to where I was before. There was no linear timeline of improvement. It was really chaotic.”

But above all else, the main thing feeding her anxiety was this fear that she’d be ‘found out.’ Katie often thought about what her colleagues might be saying about her. Since she requested the initial week off, Katie hadn’t spoken to anyone at work about what was happening. 

And no one tried to reach out to her, either. Until one day—after five months—she woke up to a text from her manager.

Too little, too late

Looking back, Katie thinks this long radio silence was possibly meant to give her space and relief from work pressure. She also acknowledges her role in creating this stalemate. 

But still, she thinks the company should have been more proactive:

“I wasn't expecting to be sent a hamper. But some concern or interest would’ve made it much easier for me to tell them what was going on.”

The first message she received was a general check-in from her manager asking how she was doing. Katie gave a vague but grateful response. The next message floored her: ‘Are you depressed?’

“Being labeled by someone who didn't really know anything about my situation was quite painful. I felt huge stigma around my mental health at the time. That message didn’t help.”

Some brief, sporadic messaging followed across the next couple of months. A meeting was set up, then fell through. While HR were very empathetic, it was clear to Katie that the culture within her team that caused her burnout hadn’t changed. 

So two months after her manager got back in touch—and eight since she’d first gone on leave—she left the company.

Katie never revealed what she went through to her colleagues.

What Katie—and the company—should have done

If there’s one thing to learn from Katie’s story, it’s how damaging mental health stigma can be. Katie refused to acknowledge that she was dangerously burned out until it was too late. This made it easy for the company to do the same.

“When that project was dumped on me, I should have taken my leave, looked after my needs, and just said: it's not my problem—I need to recover. I wish I’d been stricter with boundaries.”

But at the same time, Katie feels like the company should have supported her more—long before the burnout became so severe.

quote author photograph
“Before I took time off, it was obvious I was crying in work often. I wish someone had pulled me aside and said: are you OK? Even if I hated it at the time, it would’ve made a massive difference."

<quote-author>Katie Phillips<quote-author><quote-company>Founder of KDP Coaching<quote-company>

Katie’s advice for companies facing similar situations is simple:

“Let your staff know that you care for them. Most managers don't know how to talk about mental health—I completely empathise with this. But we need managers that can spot when someone needs support, then point you in the direction of someone who can give it."

Katie now works as a coach and consultant at KDP Coaching, helping people and businesses avoid burning out like she did.

Oliva therapist photograph

3 tips for avoiding burnout

by Oliva therapist

Rodrigo Silva

1
Prioritise communication over hierarchy

Companies need to pay close attention to the ‘relational power’ dynamics that exist within their organisation. This means proactively finding ways to give everyone an equal voice in the company—regardless of their position. You can’t listen if people feel like they can’t speak.

2
Set boundaries in 3 clear steps

If you feel overworked—that’s OK. You understand your own reality—your feeling is perfectly valid. Communicate how you feel clearly by saying: ‘what I think’ > ‘how that makes me feel’ > ‘what I would like to happen.’ You might need to repeat your message until you’re heard.

3
Check your control sphere

Focus on what you can control: communicating how you feel to your colleagues or manager, and how much effort you put into a task. You can’t control what others do or how they react to this—so it’s not your responsibility. Those that care for you will respond by listening and supporting you.

4

5

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