9 February 2023
Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand PM, much admired for her fierce belief that a leader can be compassionate and strong, recently announced her decision to stepdown as ‘there is not enough left in the tank’.
I left my job in CNWL in 2019. It felt very sudden. I recall something just give, a visceral snapping inside of me.
I burnt out, broke, I was hurt, scared, my tank was also empty but ultimately, I grew stronger for it and I feel that it’s important to talk about our empty tanks, and how to fill them up again.
I kept going for a week or so; I was used to keeping going but I was completely on autopilot. There were really tough days, some were really tragically tough days. I was used to these days. I was a Head of Healthcare in a prison. I loved it, until I didn’t.
My ability to be a compassionate leader had come into constant conflict with the ability to meet the demands of what I playfully (mostly) referred to as the three beasts; the prison, the commissioners, and the Trust. It had become a lonely place and I felt a constant failure. As a leader, as a nurse, a peer, a mother a wife . . . this was more than my imposter syndrome.
I kept going. I think I might have kept going for a bit longer still had I not have had an appointment for a regular check up with my GP in the April, she looked up at me, smiled kindly and asked how I was. I cried. This was the first time I had felt someone had really asked me about me for a long time. I am not sure she was expecting such a reaction for a repeat prescription. After much more than my allotted 4 minutes, she kindly suggested that I needed some time away from work. I started with no, then realised that I was not ok.
I didn’t go back to work in the prison.
I moved into a period of emptiness, of being numb. I had no feelings, no thoughts, it was like walking around in a cloud, in cotton wool; I just had woolly thoughts, numb to the world around.
Well-meaning and truly trusted friends and colleagues came to tell me that the team was ok, they tried to tell me what was going on. I just didn’t care – I had never felt like that. I was scared. I didn’t think I could ever function sufficiently in order to work again, and certainly not as a nurse, I knew that I could never work in a prison again.
My husband was worried, kind, gentle, patient but didn’t really understand. My children, on the whole were oblivious, occasionally wondering why Mum was home so much. I just couldn’t pull myself out of this cloud of nothingness. I had very black thoughts and I knew I was not well.
A number of things happened over the following months.
A strong, kind and compassionate leader whom I had always admired reached out to me and kept reaching out to me. She made sure I got the care I needed. Her compassion was genuine. I accessed treatment; CNWL services and became a patient. I received treatment that resonated with my values, it made sense and helped me make sense of what happened.
I realised that, that breaking point, that snap that had felt so real, wasn’t as a result of the latest series of very traumatic events that had happened in the prison, it was a result of the build-up of many, many seemingly insignificant events that I hadn’t processed over the previous 8 years or so.
One of the kindest things the organisation did was support me to leave well. To leave the prison and then ultimately to leave the Trust. When that kind, compassionate leader told me that I didn’t have to go back to my job in the prison it was an immeasurable weight lifted from me, I almost felt better straight away.
I had a phased return in September and then started a secondment into a National role in October 2019, before securing a substantive job, still connected to prisons and IRCs but working strategically.
This allowed me to rebuild my confidence, applying my skills in a different way. It worked; I worked with Government departments, sat in round tables events with Ministers, led national webinars, wrote national policies and then tore my hair out trying to get them published. It was an amazing opportunity that I may not have considered had I have not suffered from burnout.
I have always been open about what happened to me. I feel now that it is a privilege rather than something shameful and that I have a duty to use it to help myself and others. I use it as a reminder to look after myself, to remind others to do the same, to go home closer to ‘on time’, to stop and breath, have lunch, all those important things to help prevent burnout. I ask others how full their tank is and what they might need to help top it up; it might just be noticing before it gets too empty.
After 3 years at NHS England I missed the hustle and bustle of operational healthcare and I returned to a Mental Health Team in CNWL last year. Being unwell, having experienced burnout has not affected my career and opportunities and I want others to realise that.
I try always to be authentic and true to myself, as a nurse, a leader and coach. We have to talk about it, burn out is real and it is here. If we don’t talk about it, if it remains secret, something we’re judgemental about, something we’re shameful about, we cannot do anything about it.
I like to think about my burnout like the Japanese view their broken crockery; kintsugi - they don’t discard it or try and hide it, they embrace the repair with gold and celebrate the precious scars into something beautiful. I am proud of what I have been through and those experiences make me, I hope, the compassionate leader I am today.
Go well Jacinda, I hope you have people around you who will look after you so that you are able to come back and do the things you love.
We’re stronger in the places we’ve been broken.
NHS staff: Talk to the Keeping Well Service if you need support
Keeping Well NWL are piloting a new work stress and burnout support group for staff, starting soon! Find out more information here.
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