Celia Gaze, 50, was on the verge of a breakdown in a high-powered NHS job. She was a “turnaround director” in charge of helping organisations save money, a project she was recruited for while on maternity leave. She was heading into a meeting one morning when she realised how unwell she was.
“I was driving to work, and my knuckles were going white with the tension on the steering wheel. I could feel the tightness in my heart and a tingling going down my arm, and I’m thinking, oh my goodness, I am not even 40, and I’m having a heart attack. I dreaded going into work. I was feeling sick,” she says.
“Turnaround director meant going in to help an organisation save money and actually turn it around. This was fundamental — I had to save around £42m ($55.7m) and I had been given months to do it.”
Gaze found herself crying all the time and struggled to sleep. “I felt as though my head was in some sort of fuzzy cloud — this was stress,” she says. “I remember someone suggesting that perhaps I should go and see a doctor. My initial response was silly when I look back. I didn’t want stress to be on my medical records and the thought of going to a doctor to admit that there was something wrong — why I couldn’t talk, why I couldn’t think.”
She was signed off work for two weeks by her doctor, but eventually decided not to go back. “I decided that my health and my baby were more important to me than my ambition that had made me accept this role, so I resigned,” she says. “I subsequently had a lot more counselling — I will admit that it was a massive blow to my ego that I couldn’t deliver this. But I knew it was time to draw a line.”
After several months of soul-searching, Gaze decided to throw herself into a new project — renovating her partner’s dilapidated farm to create a wedding and events venue, The Wellbeing Farm.
It’s never an easy decision to prioritise your mental health over your work. Leaving a career you’ve worked hard for, but is ultimately making you unwell, can be heart-breaking. And quitting a job is a huge decision, particularly when you have rent and bills to pay — and the economic situation looks bleak.
Despite this, it’s a choice an increasing number of people are making. According to a survey of 1,500 people by the non-profit Mind Share Partners, half of millennials and 75% of Gen Zers polled had left roles in the past for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily. According to the researchers, this is down to the fact that younger generations generally seem to have more awareness about mental health than their older counterparts.
But prioritising your mental wellbeing over your work doesn’t necessarily mean handing in your resignation. It can mean starting work at your allocated time, instead of waking up and checking your emails while still in bed. It also means taking your full lunch break and leaving at 6pm, without feeling ashamed about leaving on time. Looking after your wellbeing is about taking time off when you need it and drawing a clear line between your work and personal lives.
And it sounds counter-intuitive, but taking a step back from work is more likely to benefit your career than pushing through and burning out. One in 6.8 people experience mental health problems in the workplace, according to the Mental Health Foundation, including stress, anxiety and low mood. Burnout, as a result of unchecked chronic stress, is also a common problem among highly-driven workers.
Given that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem every year, we need to accept that it’s not always possible to regulate our issues so they occur outside office hours. Taking time off work to look after yourself, seek help and decide whether or not your job is right for you is important — and more likely to help you get back to work later on.
It’s also essential for employers to recognise the importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace. According to a survey of 44,000 workers by the charity Mind, only half of those who experience poor mental health feel able to talk to their employers about it. We should be able to have these difficult conversations at work without fear of judgement or reprisal — and employers need training to better support employees with mental health problems.
We also need a culture change so we recognise the importance of putting ourselves first, before it’s too late.