Recovering from burnout: James Saville’s reflections

Reading time: 6 minutes
Recognising and talking about your own mental health is more important than ever. This year’s Mental Health Awareness week offers an opportunity to take some time to check in with yourself and how you’re feeling. Talking about mental health isn’t simply reduced to mental health issues, it’s also about looking after your mental wellbeing and practising good habits too.

Everyone can suffer from bad mental health days and for many, these feelings normally pass. However, sometimes they can grow and you can become mentally unwell.

This is what James Saville, HR Director experienced in 2008. He was suffering from such severe anxiety and depression that he experienced a huge burnout and was signed off work. Here he shares what his own mental health experiences were like, and how he’s learnt to recognise and safeguard his mental wellbeing.

“I’ve always had bouts of anxiety and depression but was finally diagnosed when I imploded and had to take six months off work,” explains James. “The diagnosis was a huge relief, though I wouldn’t wish the bottoming-out on anyone. It helped me make sense of things that had happened before then and helped me work on new ways of dealing with it all.”

Experiencing burnout can be different for everyone, but the common feeling is one of being completely overwhelmed and passive. For James, he was unable to even leave the house: “[It was] pretty horrible. I couldn’t think, make connections, even speak coherently. I was living in a never-ending panic attack, which was exhausting.

“When I finally stopped work I slept for what felt like days and then had the whole thing of not being able to get out of bed, go outside, see people. It was a slow journey back with a lot of little steps. I remember the day I managed to walk to the stream in the village where we lived – about 400 yards – being a real red-letter day.”

a wet footprint on a rock in at the top of a hill that looks down towards a lock

Busy or burnt out

So how can you distinguish between normal busy-ness and feeling burnt out? It’s all to do with that feeling of powerlessness. James clarifies: “I remember having a conversation with my young son who was complaining about being starving when he was peckish. I was just back from a trip to Africa when I worked for the Department for International Development so had a reasonable idea what starving looked like… It’s a bit like that.

“Everyone has bad days, pressure, busy spells. Everyone is different but it is when that turns into paralysis, an inability to frame a way through and in my case the inability to enter a building or similar.”

The first time someone stopped me in the corridor and said my openness had made them reconsider their silence, speak to their manager for the first time and agree a new way of operating between the two of them made me very happy.

This is how James adapts this analogy to his own feelings: “There is a big step between peckish and starving and it is the same for me with being busy to being off work for six months! I have spells every year when life is harder and sometimes I have to put effort into the basics but fortunately I can manage things so I stay at the lower end of the spectrum most of the time.”

The important thing for James is not using his mental health as an excuse: “I have to avoid wallowing in self-pity. Sometimes I just don’t do things as well as I should, that’s human – it doesn’t mean my depression was the reason, it was just that I did something badly.”

Speaking out

Having battled with these mental health issues, James is eager to talk openly about what he went through. He explains why: “Because it helps me and hopefully it helps others. The first time someone stopped me in the corridor and said my openness had made them reconsider their silence, speak to their manager for the first time and agree a new way of operating between the two of them made me very happy.

“I think it is important we break down the stigma associated with poor mental health and if I can help by talking about my issues why wouldn’t I?”

We can’t replace the NHS and I’d like us to use our influence to put more pressure on governments and the NHS to support mental health properly.

He is also keen to share what he learnt about himself during this time, in the hopes that others will feel able to reach out for help too. His relief at admitting he was unwell also allowed him to recognise that it didn’t cast him in a negative light: “It didn’t make me a bad person or a failure; it didn’t mean I couldn’t do my job. Hopefully I’ve shown that you can have this condition and still do big jobs.

“Asking for help is a strength not a weakness and being honest helps,” he continues.

Culture change

The stigma around mental health is slowly reducing, each time someone comes forward to speak about their experiences, or reach out for help. But what changes could be made here at the University? For James it’s simply about being kind to others: “I’m really worried about how people think it is OK to speak to others.

“I’d like more people to think before they speak or email and remember the recipient is a human being. Not easy in the modern world of social media where it seems to be the norm to assume ill intent and guilt.

“Most people come to work to do a good job and have complex lives. Cutting each other some slack would be a good start.

“Obviously there is always more we can try to do. I’d like us to continue to put effort into dealing with the root causes as best we can rather than the effects. We can’t replace the NHS and I’d like us to use our influence to put more pressure on governments and the NHS to support mental health properly.”

Ask for help

The first step to getting better is to recognise that you might need help. This can often be a huge obstacle in itself but reaching out to friends, family and colleagues is so important: “If people aren’t aware then they can’t help and have to judge what they see and that is fine – it doesn’t make them bad people,” says James.

James has some words of advice for any member of staff unsure how to broach the topic: “Speak to someone about it. Don’t expect others to solve your problems for you but they may be able to help. Seek professional help and be honest with yourself – where are you really on the peckish to starving continuum? Do something about it and work out what you need to change about how you live your life as well as seeking the right support and changes from others.”

“To managers I’d say step forward not back and treat others as you would want to be treated,” he concludes. “This goes for a lot of things to be honest. If you aren’t sure how to handle something, then ask.”

Talking about your mental health can be difficult, but when you do, it’s vital you have access to the advice and guidance that you need to support your mental health and wellbeing at work. The University provides mental health and wellbeing services that relate to work and help you access specialist external services, including your GP, in times of crisis and when you are struggling.

The Wellbeing Hub aims to bring together all available University services into one location. Visit the Wellbeing Hub.

You can hear James talk more about his experiences on the Chaplaincy Podcast Let’s Talk. Find out more on the Let’s Talk website.

Photography: Sam Sills