Nicky Lowe [00:00:06]:
Hi. It’s Nicky Lowe, and welcome to the Wisdom for Working Mums podcast show. I’m your host. And for nearly 2 decades now, I’ve been an executive coach and leadership development consultant. And on this show, show, I share evidence based insights from my coaching, leadership, and psychological expertise and inspiring interviews that help women like you to combine your work, life, and motherhood in a more successful and sustainable way. Join me and my guest as we delve into leadership and lifestyle topics for women, empowering you to thrive one conversation at a time. I’m so happy that you’re here, and let’s go on with today’s episode. Welcome to this episode and this week in honor of Women’s Wellness Week, I’m taking you on a very personal journey, my experience with burnout. Whenever I mention to other women that I’ve experienced burnout, I often get questions like, what were your signs and symptoms? How did you recover? And these questions don’t just come from a place of curiosity. They often come from a place of worry. Many women are feeling those potential signs and symptoms, but don’t know it. And if they do, they’re kind of questioning it, and they want to learn more to help support themselves. And this is why today I’m not going to just share my story. I’m going to dissect it and offer you the personal and evidence based insights I’ve gained over the years. Because over the last decade, I’ve become fiercely curious about how it happened because it blindsided me.

Nicky Lowe [00:01:44]:
I didn’t see it coming. And I wanna make sure it never happens again. And the insights I’ve gained over this time have been invaluable, so I want to share them. And with Mental Health UK sharing their latest burnout report for 2024 very recently, The stats are pretty shocking. We’re seeing that 93% of women have reported having experienced high or extreme levels of pressure or stress in the last year. So I know so many people need to hear this right now. And if I can just help one person listen to this podcast, then I know I’ve made a difference. So in this episode, I’ll explore what I’ve learned about what I call the psychobiological, which are the individual factors that influence my burnout but I’ll also discuss and share the psychosocial factors, almost the systemic external factors that I now realise were part of the puzzle. And my hope is that by sharing my journey, you’ll be able to recognise early signs of burnout in yourself or perhaps in others around you, so that you feel empowered to take the necessary steps to protect yourself, your wellness, your well-being. So let’s dive in. My journey with burnout started over a decade ago and it really came to the forefront after the birth of my first child. And at that time in my life, I was running my own business. I’d left corporate life about 8 years before and had built up my business to be in quite a successful place. And I felt it was the perfect time in my life really to have a child. Personally, I was in the best place and professionally I was too.

Nicky Lowe [00:03:28]:
I’d built my business up to the point where I thought it could sustain me taking up to a year off for maternity. And I’d also been supporting other women on their return to work after having children through the leadership coach and I’ve been doing for some pretty kind of well known organisations. So I thought I was really well placed to kind of welcome a child into my life and thrive. And I look back now, and I don’t know if to laugh or cry at my naivety because that 1st year after having my son was pretty tough. But at the time, I just assumed that that was what motherhood was like. What I didn’t know at that point was that I was being sucked into a burnout funnel. I was being pushed further and further into burnout. I was feeling tired, but just was kind of questioning, weren’t all new moms tired? And I had just assumed that I wasn’t as resilient as other mums. So like my inner critic was kicking in going, you know, you just need to work harder and be stronger. So when my son was about 9 months old, I think the really obvious signs of burnout started to kick in. And I say obvious, they are obvious with hindsight, but at the time I just kept struggling on. And before I dive into what those signs were, I want us to take a step back and just talk about what burnout is. So the term burnout was first coined by Doctor. Herbert Freudenberger in 1975 and it’s since gone on to be classed according to the World Health Organisation, as chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and that it’s characterised by 3 dimensions. And I’ll come back to talk about this whole World Health Organisation kind of definition in a minute, but I think the three characteristics and the three dimensions are really important. So the feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.

Nicky Lowe [00:05:26]:
Then there’s the increased mental distance. So the World Health Organisation talks about mental distance from your job and these feelings of negative or cynicism related to your job and also reduce professional efficacy. So the sense that you can do your job and do your job well. And the World Health Organisation in 2019 said that burnout refers specifically to a phenomenon in the occupational space and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life. I fundamentally disagree with this. You know, the research says that we can get parental burnout, we can get it outside of our kind of professional context, but I’ll come back to that point later. For this, I think it’s really important to recognise that there are actually 12 stages to the burnout cycle and Doctor. Herbert Freudenberger shared those in one of his books. And I think it’s really important to think about the first stages of burnout. So you have kind of a better understanding of what the journey into burnout is because that awareness is, is so powerful for prevention. And actually the first stage of burnout is the compulsion to prove yourself. Feeling like you’ve got to prove your worth, a drive to succeed really kind of kicks in. And you feel this need to overdo and overwork and overextend. Now that’s stage 1, that compulsion to prove. Most high achievers I meet and work with have that compulsion. So already, if you’re a high achiever and have got type A tendencies, you’re probably further into the burnout funnel than you even know.

Nicky Lowe [00:07:06]:
The second stage is intensity, feeling like you’ve just got to work harder, feeling like you can’t switch off. And that intensity is often legitimised by telling yourself you’re conscientious and you’re dedicated and you’re committed. Again, at that stage, I would say most of the high achievers I work with have that degree of intensity. The third stage in the burnout funnel is subtle deprivations. And what that means is like a slow, almost disconnection from yourself and your subtle needs. So the pleasure of everyday life, like rest and just being present and just enjoying the little things are almost viewed as an interference and unnecessary intrusion to what you’ve got to get on and do. So the drive and focus start to almost eclipse the lighter moments in life. And again, if you’re a high achiever, I would argue that a lot of high achievers experience that subtle deprivation.

So if you can relate, you’re not alone because in hindsight, that’s where I was at way before my burner actually hit. And actually my more obvious signs of burnout began with me getting run down. I just kept getting colds. And then I’d get another one. And then I’d get another one. And each time they were getting more and more severe. And that was unusual for me. I wasn’t somebody that had regular colds, and I just assumed, oh, do you know what? I’m tired after becoming a mum, my immune system’s a bit run down.

Nicky Lowe [00:08:37]:
But it was when my son was about 10 months old and he came home from nursery with hand, foot, and mouth. And if you’ve not heard of it, it’s a common kind of infection that causes, like, a blister like rash on the the hands and feet and mouth in children, normally under the age of about 5. And I ended up catching it off him. And, actually, it’s quite rare for adults to get it. Usually, we’ve built up our immunity during childhood, and I got it pretty severely. And I literally couldn’t sleep for 48 hours with the pain. And I ended up taking some painkillers and having some wine to try and sleep. I was so desperate. And I look back and realise how irresponsible that was. But I think it just shows at the time how desperate I was. And at that point onwards, my health started to spiral. I got things like vertigo, you know, that feeling that you or like your environment around you is moving or spinning. And I got it so severe that I just had to go to bed every time I got it as I just couldn’t stand up and felt so nauseous. And obviously with the baby, that was far from ideal. I couldn’t just go to bed. And the doctors told me it was probably because I’d got crystals in my ears and that’s kind of known as a cause of vertigo. And they just gave me these exercises to do. And I remember laying on the bed and doing them and they called the home Eppley maneuver. And it’s like, basically you sit on the bed and you flick your head back and forth really fast and quite vigorously trying to dislodge these crystals. And not only did it not work, but it just made me feel worse. And then, like, I was just hit by this utter fatigue. And I’m not just talking tiredness. It’s, it’s a feeling that you just can’t describe. When I’m tired, tiredness normally hits me in my head.

Nicky Lowe [00:10:20]:
Like I just feel tired in my head and I feel fuzzy, But this was something at a different level. I remember playing on the floor with my son and literally not having the energy to get back off of the floor. And I knew it was more than tiredness. It was like every cell in my body didn’t have enough energy to function properly. And so I went to the doctors, I was like, do you know what? There’s something not right here. And they did some blood tests, but everything came back normal. And I was told I was just a new mum and all new mums are tired. So I went off thinking I was somehow failing to navigate being a new mum as well as other moms, but that fatigue persisted. It just kind of floored me. And at that point, my son was sleeping through the night and, like my second child didn’t, but he did at this point. So I was getting what I thought was good quality sleep, but I was so physically unwell, it just didn’t make sense. So I went back to the doctor’s and I had more blood tests done and again, they came back okay. So my mind went into overdrive. I knew something wasn’t right. And so I started to think maybe I’ve got a rare disease that couldn’t be detected. I even went back to my original consultant.

Nicky Lowe [00:11:30]:
My son had been in high risk birth, so I was carefully monitored during that pregnancy and I’d had a consultant lead led birth and I’d ended up with an emergency C section. And so I started to worry that maybe they’d left some medical instrument in me and when they’d saved me back up and my health issues were a reaction to that. So I went back and saw my consultant, and again, I was told I was just a new mum, and all no mums were tired. And I felt completely dismissed. And I did what every high achieving mum probably does. And I just kept pushing on thinking, well, if I just try harder, I’ll start to feel better. Maybe if I just start to exercise more because everybody tells you if you want more energy, then you’ve got to move more. Right? And I returned to work when he was about 10 or 11 months old, hoping that connecting with my work identity would help me because as, you know, as much as I loved being a mum, being a mum 247 wasn’t filling my cup up like I thought it would. And it did help me to reconnect with my work. Like, I loved the challenge and the stimulation, but I was struggling still. And I remember the health visitors coming to do my son’s 12 month checkup at home, where they, you know, they did the review that they do things like language and learning and, and behaviour. And, and as part of that review, they also asked the mother some questions about their mood and emotions. I think basically trying to assess if you’re struggling with part postpartum depression. And As I was completing the questionnaire, I realised that I was feeling really low in my mood and emotions. And the nurses were indicating that I might have postpartum low mood, but I knew, I knew myself and my body well enough that the emotional impact was secondary. I knew that the primary issue was my physical health.

Nicky Lowe [00:13:13]:
And I knew that the exhaustion and fatigue were there. But the fact that no one could tell me why, that was what was causing me to feel so down. And it was almost like the more I tried to explain this, the more they took it that I was trying to avoid a missing, that I might be struggling mentally. And I kind of thought at this point, I need to empower myself and really become my own health advocate because I’m not getting the support and and the answers that I need. So I decided to reach out to a lady that would be recommended to me by an an old colleague. And effectively, she was a functional medicine practitioner. Now, if you’ve not come across that term before, a functional medicine practitioner is really an individualised root cause medicine approach to your health. So basically they look at you as an individual and all of the aspects that influence your health. So your genetics, your environment, your diet, your family history, literally everything. They really wanna kinda get forensically into who you are and, and, and what’s going on in your body and what’s going on in your environment and what’s going on in your family history. So, like, my first appointment was 60 minutes long, and my amazing functional medicine lady, Jo, wanted to know everything about me. You know, how many times a day I went to the toilet, what I ate, how I slept, my maternal and paternal family history, whether I’d ever worked with heavy metals or lead or mercury, basically everything about me. And at the end of the session, I felt like someone was truly listening to me for the first time. And Jo, my practitioner, suspected that I might have a problem with my adrenal function. And so she suggested we do some tests to, to test my levels, to see if that was the problem. And I must say at this point, I feel incredibly lucky that I am privileged enough to be able to pay for that private kind of consultation and the tests.

Nicky Lowe [00:15:06]:
And not everybody can do that, but this is why I feel the real need to share this stuff because had I have not been, and I’m going to get upset here, but had I have not been in such a fortunate position, I wouldn’t have the answers and I’d still probably been struggling today and probably have worse kind of implications because of this. So the test that I had to do was a saliva test. So you have to take it at several different times across a day, upon waking, get it several points across the day and then at the night. And with the results, what you’d see in a normal functional person ideally is that your Cortisol levels are highest in the morning. That’s what kind of peaks to get you out of bed and then they decrease as the day progresses. But what my results showed was that my cortisol was flat lining in the morning. Like there was nothing in the tank. And I remember Jo kind of describing it. It’s almost like you’re plugging your mobile phone into charge, but there’s a loose connection, so you’re not getting the charge. So I was sleeping, but that sleep wasn’t nourishing me for some reason. And the reason being was that my test showed that I was in adrenal fatigue. And if that’s not addressed, can lead to some pretty serious consequences. Like there’s something called Addison’s disease that it can progress to. And that is, you know, that is pretty life kind of impacting. And adrenal fatigue is not actually the term that’s used anymore. It’s now called H HPA axis dysfunction and the H stands for the hypothalamic, the P stands for your pituit and A stands for adrenal.

Nicky Lowe [00:16:38]:
So it’s the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. And basically it’s this communication between those 3 organs and it is crucial for your body stress management. It’s almost, it’s like your endocrine system and those organs create a feedback loop of hormones that kind of regulate your body’s stress reaction. And mine had got severely out of whack. On top of that, we discovered that my mitochondria weren’t working properly. If you’ve not heard of mitochondria, they’re basically the batteries in each of the cells in your body. And they play like a vital role in your health. They’re like the powerhouse that generate the energy that allow your cells to function. And my cells haven’t got their energy battery charged. So it now makes complete sense as to why I literally felt like I was fatigued in every cell in my body because I was. And I remember when I got my results, I cried. I literally sat and cried. Not because I was sad, but because I was relieved. I was relieved to get the answers because someone had listened to me and validated my experience. And although my body wasn’t working properly, I knew why and I could fix it. I’ve always been somebody that I can cope with anything, as long as I could feel empowered with the autonomy to do something about it.

Nicky Lowe [00:17:55]:
It’s that sense of hope. It’s that sense of, feeling empowered. So over the coming months, we worked on my recovery and the first place we started was with rest. Something that has never come easy to me, but the shocking results, kind of the stark reminder that my practitioner had given me that if I didn’t address my health issues, I was facing some pretty serious consequences. So she helped me to see also the stress levels that I’d been in. And, so she really helped hold the mirror up to me about the psychological and and the psychological impact of motherhood. So, like, the physical time of being pregnant, like, developing a baby, feeding that baby and giving birth to that baby. And as I run my own business, I’d effectively had to earn enough money to keep, to fund my maternity leave. So during, during kind of my, the lead up to being pregnant and my pregnancy, I probably worked harder than I’ve ever done. I remember being heavily pregnant, delivering a global leadership program in Lowendon and being on the tube with my suitcase after like a 12 hour long workshop that I’d been delivering 3 days back to back, I’d been on my feet all day and I was on the train rushing to get back home. And if I look back, I didn’t have a particularly restful pregnancy, but like, I’d got nothing to compare it to. I was like, I’m not ill, I’m just carrying a baby. I’ve got a business to run. I’ll get on and do it. But if you add into that, I also had a very high risk pregnancy. At my 12 week scan, it came back that I was a 1 in 5 risk of a birth defect with my child.

Nicky Lowe [00:19:36]:
So, you know, that was incredibly stressful, you know, deciding what do I do about that. And I decided to have something called a CVS test where they effectively put a really large needle through your tummy into your placenta to test the baby’s cells. And it was, you know, a pretty traumatic experience looking back. And it came back clear for most well known birth problems, but I was very carefully managed in my pregnancy. It meant that I was scammed every few weeks and I was at the hospital really frequently. So trying to manage my business through my pregnancy was challenging, plus at every scam, my consultant was, you know, doing his job and he was looking for a potential problem and we’d hear, I think there’s a knot in the umbilical cord or at one point he thought my placenta had partitioned. And at one point, they were concerned about their baby’s leg bones being too short. And when we were kind of going, is there an issue? They were just like, I don’t think it’s dwarfism. And I was like, never occurred to me that I might be carrying kind of a baby that has dwarfism. And luckily, I’m not a worrier. Like, I I try not to worry about the things I can’t control, And I’ll come back to that point later. But, you know, I think there was stress that I was kind of just swallowing and, and pushing down. If you add on that I also had gestational diabetes caused by another underlying condition, it meant that my dreams of having kind of a natural birth were taken away from me. And I had to negotiate with my consultant every step of the way to let me have as natural a birth as possible. They didn’t want me to go full term. Normally they they induce at 37 weeks, but I really was adamant.

Nicky Lowe [00:21:10]:
I didn’t wanna be induced. I trusted my intuition and my gut instinct, but was trying to combine that with the expertise and experience of the consultant and the hospital. And I really, really wanted to go into labor naturally, not synthetically. And it meant I had to go into hospital every day in the final stages to be scanned, to ensure the health of my baby, you know, that I wasn’t compromising it. And luckily I did go into labor naturally, but I ended up with an emergency c section after, I think it was nearly 20 hours of labor. And that experience was incredibly traumatic. And I, I, you know, vividly remember being taken into the operating table and my body literally bouncing up and down off this bed. And I, you know, and my, it was, it was really scary. And I, I now know that that’s what when the adrenaline’s pumping through your body. That’s a really common experience. And I won’t go into the whole details of it all, but it was really intense and scary at times. You then are doing that in a few minutes later, you’re handed this newborn baby, that you’re now expected to be its main source of energy and nourishment and safety in a world where I felt so unbelievably unsafe. And that set off a cascade in my body. And I remember just an hour after giving birth, being wheeled back into the labor ward and the staff telling me that my husband could stay, like it was out of hours now and he had to go. And I couldn’t move. I’d had, obviously, surgery.

Nicky Lowe [00:22:32]:
And I was left to look after this new baby all alone. And when he cried and I tried to reach over to his crib to get him, I couldn’t get him without ripping my stitches. And I ended up doing that. I ended up getting this huge apple sized hematoma on my c section incision. And soon after we were discharged from hospital. And, you know, you’re sent home to look after this newborn. And I, yeah, just felt so unresource to do that. And a few weeks later, we were told that my son had a hole in his heart. It turns out that that was the birth defect. And, you know, don’t you hate the word defect? You know, I hate that word because he was a beautiful newborn baby. He was perfect, but, yeah, in, in medical terms, he’d got a birth defect. And we were referred onto a top children’s hospital in Birmingham, and we were told to prepare ourselves for open heart surgery on this precious little bundle. And then we experienced so many times in and out of hospital because he was failing to thrive. Again, a horrendous term. They’re not allowed to use that failing to thrive anymore, but I hear from other moms that it’s still used, unfortunately. And at one point, my son was blue lighted to hospital, and I remember being utter panic because he’d stopped breathing when we were giving him some of his heart medicine.

Nicky Lowe [00:23:49]:
And there were so many sleepless nights in the hospital listening to the constant buzz and bleeps and the machines monitoring him. Then there was breastfeeding. And if you know anything about trying to breastfeed a baby with a hole in the heart, it’s actually a new level of exhaustion because they’re using as much energy to feed as you’re actually giving them. And adding this was my first child, I had a little experience being around babies. I didn’t have my own run around because she’d passed 8 years earlier. And you add in me being a high functioning, hyper independent woman that’s not used to asking for help and doesn’t resource herself with that much help. Nothing could have prepared me for that baptism of fire into motherhood. So no wonder I ended up with adrenal fatigue. And when you’re in the thick of it, you don’t realise what you’re carrying, like what you’re enduring. It’s like the case of the boiling frog. It’s not the nicest analogy, but I think it’s such a powerful one. And if you’ve not heard it, it’s basically the analogy says if you take a frog and put it into boiling water, it would just jump out and save itself. But if you put a frog into cold water and slowly bring it to the boil, it won’t notice and we’ll end up being bought to death. I told you it wasn’t the nicest analogy, but the principle is powerful for when stress builds in our life because it can become our negative normal. We adapt to it and we don’t realise the chronic stress we’re under. And that’s what had happened to me.

Nicky Lowe [00:25:14]:
And I think that most high achievers, we have a high tolerance for stress in our lives. We mentally might be able to cope and be strong enough to take it, but it takes a toll on our bodies. So the first thing I needed to do in my recovery was prioritise my nervous system. So I started to do all the things that came really unnatural to me. I had to give myself permission to prioritise my self care. Up until this point in my motherhood journey, I’d only allowed myself to care for my baby. If I wasn’t with my baby and I wasn’t working, that was it. There was no time for me. And I remember taking my baby to stay with a friend, and she said to me, look, I’ll look after him. I’ll give him cuddles while you go and take a long soak in the bath. And I went upstairs, and I ran the bath in our house, and I literally couldn’t get into it. My nervous system was on so much high alert, I just couldn’t relax. So rest and down regulating my nervous system became a priority, And I ended up discovering the work of Karen Brodie. He’s amazing. I had her on their podcast a while ago to talk about her book, Darren Dressed. And it’s genuinely one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Nicky Lowe [00:26:26]:
And that sounds like I I laugh at myself almost in my head saying that, like rest being difficult, but to surrender to my situation and to let go of using my willpower to push me through, It was really difficult. So one of the decisions I made at that point was to step away from my work. I thought that to recover I can’t do motherhood and work. Trying to do them both had clearly tipped me into burnout. So I took the difficult decision to hang up my work hat for the foreseeable future to give me some space. And, again, I realised how privileged I am to be able to do that. I was in a situation where we could afford me to do that. But about a week after making that decision, I started to realise something. And it took me another few weeks before I could make full sense of what it was. And about a month after stepping away from my work, it hit me. Stepping away from my work wasn’t the answer. I loved my work as much as I loved being a mother. It brought me joy and it contributed to my well-being. The intellectual challenge stimulation, the growth and learning were really good for me. And there was this, like, moment. It wasn’t about choosing between motherhood and my work, but it was about finding a way that I could combine the 2 without sacrificing my well-being.

Nicky Lowe [00:27:52]:
And that really was the birthplace to wisdom for working mums. And it’s been the journey that I’ve been on ever since. And I’ve learned so much about myself and my situation. You know, particularly about my own body, from my gut health to my methylation issues. You know, I never knew what was going on inside my body. I now have so much data and insights about how my body works and what it takes to have a healthy body on a cellular level. And that led me to getting my DNA test done to learn more about my genetic hormone and nervous system health. And what I’ve learned in that process is that I actually have a gene variation. It’s called the comp gene, and it means that my hormones hang around for longer. And when you look at my profile, you can see why I was predisposed to get my adrenal system so dysregulated. If you’re interested in more about that subject, I’ve recently written a blog on it and you can go over to illuminate hyphen group dot co dot ukforward/blog. And you’ll see there’s one called decode your DNA. And I go down into a lot more detail on that. So what I’ve realised is that my superpower is firing at, firing at my adrenal system, and it’s not something that I’m particularly proud of. It means I can get shit done and I’m always ready for action, but it can trick me into thinking I’m a high performer. I’m not.

Nicky Lowe [00:29:08]:
I’m just a high functioner because I’m driven. I’m conscientious. I’m open to new experiences. So I say yes more than I should. I have perfectionist tendencies. I have high self efficacy. So I think I can do it all and do it all myself. And if I look back, I nearly burnt out 20 years ago, so 10 years previous to this burnout experience, when I had a really high flying corporate job. And that’s a whole new story for a different episode, but effectively I was in alignment burnout. And misalignment burnout really happens when we have, we’re in environments and we get involved in activities that go against our innermost values and beliefs. And it leads to almost a disconnect between our true selves and our professional identity. So I’d built this great standard of living in my career, but a really poor quality of life. I was so focused on the external things like the job title, the money or the package, but inside I was slowly becoming someone I didn’t know and I didn’t like. And I just kept thinking if I work harder then it would just feel easier and it didn’t. And I ended up booking a holiday to the Maldives as I knew I was going to get ill if I didn’t take some time to rest, thinking that like a 2 week holiday would solve the issue. Obviously, it wasn’t going to.

Nicky Lowe [00:30:27]:
I actually needed to create a life I didn’t need to escape from. But at the time I had no idea how to. I was a corporate prisoner. And one week into that 2 week holiday, I got called to say that my mum had died really suddenly, really unexpectedly. And that’s when I left my corporate life and retrained as an exec coach. But I I really believe that if I hadn’t left at that point, I would have burnt out back then. So I’ve come to realise that I’m predisposed to burnout. I have these type a tendencies. Like, if you’ve not come across the concept of type a, type a’s tend to be ambitious, very time conscious. They often have a sense of urgency about them. They’re driven by high achievement and often experience stress when delays or obstacles get in their way. They tend to be quite assertive, impatient and prone to perfectionism. And type A’s tend to be multitaskers and thrive in like fast paced environments. And I’ve come to realise that those are great characteristics, but if I don’t manage them, they can trip me up. They can fire up my stress and steal the joy and well-being in my life. And I don’t know if you can relate to that.

Nicky Lowe [00:31:38]:
What I’ve always come to realize is that there are external situations that create the stress. So, you know, motherhood for me was a stress producer. And stress on its own isn’t bad, it’s when it’s not processed effectively or we don’t feel we’ve got the resources to meet the demands of the stress, but they’re also stress extenders. And these are, if kind of the stress producers create the initial stress response, Stress extenders maintain it or make it worse. And I realised that I was falling into the 4 P’s that most women fall into that are common stress extenders. I was falling into the need to please, the need to perfect, the need to perform, and the need to prove. So that need to please, you know, to be the nice girl, the good girl, you know, not make a fuss, you know, always be pleasant and say yes, not upset people. You know, the need to perfect, the need to avoid not being good enough. And I was really feeling that both in my work and motherhood, you know, the need to perform, the need keep up the high standards that I was so used to holding myself accountable to, and that need to prove. It’s kind of hustling for my sense of worth in a society that holds us to such high standards. So when I was looking at regulating my nervous system or recovering from my burnout, there were things that I needed to do. And there were absolutely physical things that I needed to do, like what I would call physical practices. So these are like the rituals or the habits or the activities or the support. So, you know, one of the things I had to retrain myself is movement would be helpful for stress, but actually learning that working in, not working out was important. So with my adrenal system being so depleted, if I went and did HIIT exercise, I hadn’t got the fuel in the tank to do that. I was just going to further deplete myself.

Nicky Lowe [00:33:43]:
Movement was useful, but it had to be something that filled my tank up. So kind of yoga or meditation or walking. And that was a different mindset I needed to get into. I wasn’t used to working in, you know, I ate really clean to try and like nourish my body as much as The resting that I talked about, you know, giving myself permission to have time for me and asking for help to do that from, like, my mother-in-law and people around me, having things like regular reflexology and acupuncture, so that I built in these practices. But I realised that I couldn’t just focus on these, like those practices on their own would just be a sticking plaster. They might help in the short term, but they don’t address the underlying problem. So I also had to focus on what I would call the principles. And principles are almost like an inward change. 
They’re about like self awareness, about how we manage ourselves, how we live more intentionally and how we use our personal power. And I had to be honest with myself about where I had the tendency to push myself into burnout, you know, where my strengths became overused and became a weakness. So trying not to be too strong, you know, the principle of not trying to be Superwoman, to not being hyper independent and getting comfortable with asking for the help that I needed. It meant redefining what success was, you know, about actually having a regulated nervous system was really important. You know, there’s no point achieving success if you’re burning yourself out in the process. It was about putting boundaries in place. It was about living my values. You know, ever since I lost my mom, I’d said that well-being was important, but I wasn’t living that truly as a value.

Nicky Lowe [00:35:32]:
You know, I I’d ever since my mum had died, I this is what blindsided me with my my burnout. I thought I was being healthy and I was eating well. I was exercising. I was getting good sleep, but there was so much I was missing about actually what true well-being is. And I realised that actually I needed to change what motivated me. And I think many people can relate to this. And I remember studying the work of doctor Paul Gilbert. He’s the he’s the guy that developed compassion based therapy. And when I went and studied with him, he he basically made me aware that there are 3 motivational systems that fuel us as human beings, and they’re kind of hardwired biologically for our survival. We’ve got our drive system, which is really driven by the hormone of dopamine, and it’s there to motivate us to go and get resources. So food, water, shelter, all of those things that in the caveman days would have protected our survival. We get that dopamine hit. And now it’s the, you know, the ping of a message. Have we responded to it? Have we got through our to do list that gives us that dopamine hit? So a lot of us are trying to, kind of, get that dopamine. And if we don’t, we’re then triggered into the second motivational system, which is the threat system, which is all about fight and flight. It’s there for our survival mechanism to protect us and is driven by, like, adrenaline and cortisone and epinephrine and all of those things that drive really our fight and flight. And for most of us, we’re spending our days bouncing between those, you know, get stuff done, get stuff done, and then go, oh my god. We’re running out of time, or I’ve not achieved as much as I want. And most of our lives is, between that, particularly as working mums. And what I realised was that I was not honouring that 3rd motivational system, which is known as the soothing system, which is all about those feel good hormones like oxytocin and, you know, the endorphins. And our soothing system is hardwired into us. If you imagine an animal that gets wounded in the wild, they are motivated to sit there and lick that wound because if they don’t, they’ll get an infection and die. But somehow in our modern world, we’ve lost connection to honouring our seeding system. So I had to unhook from the helpful cultural conditioning, you know, that hustle culture, and redefine my definition of success as thriving.

Nicky Lowe [00:37:59]:
And if you’ve read Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive, you’ll kind of be aware of what she talks about. She talks about well-being being the third pillar of success and that, actually, it’s about wisdom and wonder and well-being. And if we can connect to those, that’s the 3rd pillar of success. But looking at all those, those were what I would call the psychobiological things that I did. Taking control of my life and making empowered choices, you know, starting to advocate for myself, assert my needs, my boundaries and my values. And it took me 2 years to fully physically recover. And I remember distinctly going out of the house with my now probably 3 year old Sonny would be, and it hit me. I realised I’d recovered because there was an absence of a feeling that I hadn’t even realised had been there. So as I went out the house, I had energy in my tank on that day. And what I hadn’t realised up to that point is that every time I’d left the house to do anything, to go to the supermarket, to take my son to soft play, to go to work, whatever it was, I was using my willpower to get out the door and I would have this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. And on this particular day, it struck me because that feeling wasn’t there. I was aware that I’d got better because of the absence of that sick feeling in my stomach. So that’s where really I started with my recovery. But I began to see that that wasn’t the full picture, and it wasn’t all the pieces of the puzzle. And what I’ve learned on really this quest to understand, like, why did I burn out and how did I ever stop it happening again? But there were bigger things at play too. And I remember interviewing the brilliant Eve Rodsky.

Nicky Lowe [00:40:02]:
I’ve had her on my podcast twice and she’s phenomenal. I really recommend listening to those episodes with her. And she said that private issues that happen in our homes are normally part of a big, public issue around society. So our personal challenges are often part of a larger societal problem. And I’d never made that connection. As somebody that’s got high efficacy and and high personal power, if something’s wrong, I often think it’s my problem to fix. And, you know, that can be empowering because I’m like, oh, yeah. It gives me the power to do something about it.But what it often means is I it more to myself than to other things that were at play. And that is what I’d missed in this well-being equation around burnout. And it was through becoming like fiercely curious about what I now know are the psychosocial aspects of well-being. It wasn’t that I was personally wasn’t resilient enough or that I wasn’t a good enough mum or a businesswoman to cope. Often when our careers and motherhood collide, it’s the perfect storm for burnout. If you think that burnout is a consequence of relentless rising demands and complexity and change and uncertainty, then nothing adds to that toxic cocktail more than motherhood on top of an already demanding career. And I realised that I was getting caught up in what I now call the pain of 2 paradoxes. And I wrote a blog on this if you wanna dive into it in more detail. It’s where we get caught up between the ideal worker paradigm and the ideal mother paradigm. It’s where we feel like we’ve got to be the ideal worker, that we’re dedicated, kind of waking hours to work without distraction. And we also need to be the ideal mother where we dedicate every waking hour to our children. And I’d become squeezed between those 2 and it was suffocating me. If I wasn’t working, then I should be with my child. And if I wasn’t with my child, then the only permission I would give myself was to work. And I felt guilty if I took any time for myself. And there’s a brilliant woman called the Mama of Eternity.

Nicky Lowe [00:42:12]:
And she says that mother’s a step between an economy that tells them that work comes first and a society that tells them kids come first and the result as an entire generation of burnt out women. And I couldn’t agree more. Add in that we live in a time of when this is a culture of the most intensive parenting. There’s really interesting research that’s been done from 1950s to kind of present day across different countries. And we have the most intensive type of parenting, so the expectations and responsibilities are higher than they’ve ever been. Add in that we’ve been given more equality in the workplace as women, which is great, but we also have to prove ourselves, even more to get a place at the table. And we’re also holding most of the domestic load because for many of us, we haven’t got the equity in our home. I think the latest research says that 52% of women who are responsible for most of their family’s house work and childcare at senior level, but only 13% of men are. So 52% of women hold the most of the domestic load, but only 13% of men at senior levels. So we’re doing the double shift, add in pregnancy and maternity discrimination, the authority gap, where we have to try so much harder to be seen and respected, the social expectations, having the perfect house, the perfect body, hybrid working, which can be really helpful for us, but it means we’ve got more work life bleed where our work comes into our homes and the lines are blurred more than ever. And we’ve got that always on culture. The fact that we’re more connected digitally, but we’re more socially isolated. And that we live in a culture that’s based on consumerism about building wealth, but not well-being. That we live more in our heads than in our bodies, let alone our souls. No matter how resilient and dedicated we are, we’re not immune to those psychosocial trends. They become the water we swim in.

Nicky Lowe [00:44:15]:
And just because they’re normal does not mean they’re natural for our bodies to thrive. And I hear that that can be overwhelming to listen to me just throw that all down your ears. But I want you to know that despite all of this, we’re not victims. We can passionately advocate for ourselves and our well-being. In fact, it’s vital that we are. And just as most illnesses can’t be cured by putting a Band Aid sticky plaster on them, The same is true for burnout. It requires a more systemic intervention. And I know this because I’ve experienced near burnout on 2 separate occasions in 2 very different work settings. And ultimately the common denominator was me. And recovering from burnout was an inside out job. Taking myself out of an environment just meant that I repeated the same pattern. I just showed up in another demanding environment hoping that things would be different, but they weren’t. I had to be different. And whilst my experience of burnout wasn’t my fault, it was my responsibility to learn how to make sure I didn’t do it again. And it wasn’t until that I was able to re imagine my work from the inside out, you know, challenging my limiting assumptions and belief what a successful career was, what our career driven women did, about redefining how I measured my success, unhooking from those unhelpful cultural conditions, you know, that working faster, longer and harder is better, It was the only way I was gonna combine my work with all my other roles as mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, you know, non exec director, godmother, and the list goes on. It was only then that I could start to live my life fully without the fear of burnout.

Nicky Lowe [00:46:07]:
So I hope that sharing this has been useful to think about, actually, what is burnout? What influences it? So we can prevent it from impacting us and those that we care about. So as I wrap up today’s episode, I want to leave you with a message of hope and empowerment. Burnout is a profound challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. And actually by listening and recognising the signs in our bodies, making intentional choices, we can reclaim our well-being and live more fulfilling lives. And remember you’re not alone on this journey, but we have to take steps to more intentional kind of self care and mindful living that takes us out of that surviving mode into thriving. Because we can’t define our success by the hours we work or the titles we hold. It has to be also about the joy we find and like the peace that we feel and the fulfilment. So take a deep breath. Give yourself the grace to rest, knowing that true high performance comes from effort and recovery. And know that in the resting, you’re not just investing in your health, but you’re also setting a powerful example for your children that they can do the same. So thank you for joining me today and listening to my story. If it resonates with you or helps you recognise the signs of burnouts, then sharing this has made a difference. And if you think it would be useful for other people to hear them, please, please do share with your colleagues, your friends, or your family. And I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got any or you’d like to share any feedback on this, I’d love to hear from you. But until next time, take care and remember true success includes your well-being. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Wisdom for Working Mums, please share it on social media and with your friends and family.

Nicky Lowe [00:48:12]:
I’d love to connect with you too. So if you head over to wisdom for working, you’ll find a link on how to do this. And if you love the show and really want to support it, please go to Itunes, write a review, and subscribe. You’ll be helping another working mom find this resource too. Thanks so much for listening.

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