Interview with Jen Carter, life coach.
Name: Jen Carter
Occupation: Life Coach and Canadian public service manager
Hi Jen thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions
I approached you for an interview because you are a fellow life coach but also because your twitter profile states that you have suffered a ‘burnout’.
I know from you telling me already that you have a high profile job in the Canadian Public Service and that [your boss had a lot of pressure and stress because of the demands of the branch at the time, especially following the restructuring and lack of human resources to do the work], you were battling your own worries due to the demands of your job, added to that fear of redundancy and you began losing sleep, and then you were not eating properly. Can you describe how all of this felt?
You know what’s funny? I knew I felt tired. I knew I felt frustrated. But I didn’t feel anything extreme at all. I kept thinking I was fine, I’d be fine, it was a stressful time but I’m tough and can handle it. I wasn’t eating but still exercising, I was only having 1 glass of Port before bed, I wasn’t sleeping at all but still functioning at work, doing my job, managing my people, still trusted by my boss. I was succeeding in protecting my staff from the crazy deadlines and the additional workload assigned to me. I see these articles out, a very popular topic being “How to know you’re burning out and what to do about it” – but in truth, you don’t know. You don’t think you’re changing. You think you’re hiding stuff well. If I cry, I cry at home, I complain at home, I swear to get rid of the anger and frustration – and I live with cats, so no one knows. I have panic attacks but not where people see, so it’s manageable. I have to do this because it is my job. I am loyal and I do what needs to be done. I have no kids, so no one worries if I’m out late at work. The cats see me cry on the floor, but I need to toughen up or else someone will figure out I’m weak. I have coping skills, I coach people in stress management, so of course I’ll be fine. This can’t last forever.
Then as I started having these needs to hide out, to avoid people, being unable to speak because of the incessant crying….I knew something was wrong but I truly thought it was temporary. My brain wasn’t working right. My new boss thought that I was having trouble dealing with stress, but this wasn’t stress. This was different. This was my brain wanting to die.
I guess that’s how it felt in the last 3 weeks before I was sent home by my staff member. My brain wanted to just die. And my body was too tired to fight.
You have described to me a time where it all became too much, you were extremely upset and you locked yourself in the boardroom, at work, you told me that during this time your boss actually slid work under the door, telling you to have it done by the end of the day! Tell me how it all came to a head?
After the first 18 hours, I took over the boardroom for a month. Literally. I’d come in, grab my computer and go into the boardroom and lock the door. Somehow it made sense in my head that if I hid, no one would see me angry or crying. I could hide in there until people went home so I no one would know. My boss burned out himself, and another person became my boss who truly didn’t understand the pressure I had been under all by myself for over a year. My staff are all great people – but they were not helpful, and ones I needed most had their own personal stuff going on and I supported them taking their own time. My fault. But have you ever had the support you need sitting there but not supporting? That’s how I felt. I couldn’t give up – they needed me and I needed to lead them. But I couldn’t even lead myself.
I can’t count the number of times I’d be told “Okay, once you’re done crying can you do this XX file?” My boss meant well – but really this was a bizarre situation. She gave hugs and chocolate out but never thought of filling in a leave form and handing it to me. Or taking the blackberry away at the end of the day so I wouldn’t answer emails at midnight, or at least could avoid the harassing emails on my file. This isn’t the culture. This isn’t taught in wellness and management courses. This is something you know from living the other side, I think.
One of my senior advisors would come into the boardroom and say to me in his heavy French accent “Breathe, Jenny-fair. Breathe. Stop being so hard on yourself.” Or “Eat something. You have to stop crying or you’ll run out of Kleenex™ again.” One day, after a meeting where I was told a lot of totally false things about how people see me by someone just trying to be nasty (usually this was an eye roll but by this stage of the game I was too far gone to shake things off), I went into my boardroom and, shaking and crying, emailed senior people to explain I was stepping down from being a trainer on engagement because I need a break. But I couldn’t see the computer screen for the tears. My senior guy came into the room again, blocked the door and said to me “Jenny-fair, you call your doctor right now or I will drag you there by all your hairs.”
I called my doctor. He got me in the next morning.I worked until midnight and went home. The next morning I went to my doctor and, crying and shaking, I asked for 2 weeks off certified sick leave. He said “Jen, I’ve known you for 16 years and I’ve seen you through much worse things than work abuse. This isn’t healthy. You’re starting with 5 weeks and we’ll see after that.” I explained my newly developed phobias and extreme nightmares, my new blood pressure issues, and he extended the leave. I went back to work – having gotten take out burger and fries for lunch – and informed my new boss I was going on leave. She supported it of course. And that was the beginning of the beginning, the start of my brain deciding to accept some life support. I was then off for a total of 18 months.
As a life coach was it more difficult to admit that you were experiencing your own problems? Was there a sense of embarrassment at all/were you affected by the stigma of mental health issues? Do you think that people expect more of you being a life coach?
I sure did expect more of myself – I know how to do mindfulness, heck I coach people on presence exercises, mindfulness….but when you need the help and no one around knows how to help, what a difference. I was so embarrassed when it was happening – but I couldn’t stop it. When the brain wants to die, it wants to die.
People did expect more. In fact, totally coincidental, I had registered for an advanced coaching course for September 2014, less than 5 weeks after I had the full breakdown. I thought it would be fine because it had nothing to do with work.
At the time, I was just starting to learn to sleep again. I was 6 weeks into intensive trauma therapy and my doctor was very much against me going on this training – but I had to try.
First day, I had a panic attack during introductions. For the 9 hours of the course (9 hours/day for 5 days, plus apprenticeship work for 6 months), I had almost hourly panic attacks. Everyday was the same. I had days I couldn’t feel my feet, or couldn’t breathe or couldn’t walk without needing to throw up.
One would think that, in a room of 20 other life coaches, I would have good support. But I was shocked. The trainers and two other students were very supportive, always trying to help, driving me home at the end of the day. But when it came down to doing coaching circles, no one would come near me. No one included me in lunch plans or after work plans. At one point we were discussing resourceful and un-resourceful states. The trainer, an amazing woman and coach, explained that anxiety is high energy and low resourcefulness state. It was interesting because one of the students decided to argue that anxiety is low energy.
I started to laugh and it was one of my only value added moments of the week – I said no, anxiety feels like every nerve ending in your body is vibrating, your eyes and other senses are hypersensitive, hypervigilant. I explained the feeling of arms and legs going numb from being anxious. I think it was a good eye-opener for the class.
On Day 4 I told the trainer I needed to withdraw and complete the course later because I could not continue knowing my brain was still in severe distress, and without the support of my colleague life coaches. A few of the colleagues connected via facebook later to offer positive support. But otherwise, I have never in my life felt so alone.
Stigma has been a problem on many fronts. At the beginning, I was seen as unable to handle stress, but then once I was off and starting with my therapist, I was diagnosed with PTSD, General Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. I was so embarrassed. PTSD? I’m a public servant. Makes no sense. I must get over this – my brain starting to show some life, but then gave up again because it was just so tired.
I had some family members who were immediate supporters. I had some family members who thought I was making it up, and should just toughen up and go back to work. These ones surprised me and disappointed me severely. My other senior advisor at work would email constantly telling me how mad he was that I just decided to take a vacation and leave everyone behind, how I ‘screwed him’…my doctor had me reject all emails from him for many months. Two people from work said they never believed in PTSD from work trauma, or in burnout until it happened to someone like me.
A year before the breakdown I had planned and paid for a trip to visit friends in Australia and New Zealand. I was unable to cancel the trip because the insurance company would not believe that MDD and GAD were not pre-existing. Luckily, with people I had only met once on another trip, I was safe and cared for and felt supported with my mood and energy swings, my weird sleeping habits…
In February 2015 I tried to return to work. The management had changed, so I thought it’d be fine. My therapist and family doctor were against this decision but I did it anyway. The second day on the job, I met with the departmental coach. I tried to explain PTSD, but she didn’t think that was serious. As I was rocking and crying (the return was an utter failure, 100% disaster), she said – I’ll never forget this – “When I feel sad I think of my brother who is a quadriplegic and I then remember I am lucky and feel better.” Well, through the tears and trembling, I was able to let her know clearly that is NOT a cool thing to say to someone who has DEPRESSION. I have travelled to former war zones, to flooded cities to help rebuild and meet people who have been through unimaginably awful times. This isn’t a selfish decision, this is something that JUST IS. She didn’t understand, so that was the last time I spoke to her. As a fellow coach, this horrified me, to think this is the service we offer people in the department.
My senior advisor who had sent me home was supportive of me leaving again. The new boss sat me down and told me I needed to be 100% or not at all. My other senior advisor told me that his health depended on me doing my job. I said, to quote myself “Well good luck then.” A week later I went home with departmental support for disability leave.
People kept surprising me. Friends I adored treated me like I was a lazy loser who just didn’t want to work. IN fact some thought it helpful to say things like, to quote “When do you think you will get bored and go back to work?” “How can you be tired, you were off all week.” “Must be nice to be able to sit around all day.” I was so hurt. But they wouldn’t listen when I’d explain the way my brain was working at the time, the effect on my entire being.
Still some family members ignored me because they thought I didn’t deserve to be on disability leave. You know what I wanted them to understand? I agreed wholeheartedly. I didn’t deserve to have PTSD, MDD and GAD brought on by a workplace. I didn’t. No one does. But this wasn’t a choice!!! Some people just refused to listen. It still hurts as I type this.
That all said, in August of 2015 I turned 40. I had planned, two years prior, to celebrate in my favourite city on earth (and I’ve been to many!), Nashville. Four of my neighbours, who had been with me and supported me more than anyone except my parents, and two of my aunts flew to Nashville to celebrate with me. At that point I decided we would all celebrate things looking up. I finally felt like I was healing. And sitting at Honky Tonk Central, looking around at the table of people who I adore and who apparently adore me in good and terrible times, I knew I was going to be okay.
When I returned to work in February 2016, I returned to the same position in the same branch. My doctors had all demanded I be moved but I was told there were no other similar jobs available. If I had a medical condition, I’d have been moved but since my issues weren’t medical – wait, WHAT?
Yes. The departmental values saw me as selfishly sad, unable to see how lucky I am, and without any medical issues. GAD, PTSD, MDD …..not medical? Wow.
Since returning, I have been lucky to have a new boss yet again, who is very calm and kind and believes that burnout is a real medical issue. He doesn’t freak out when I have a small panic attack or call in sick because I’m too depressed to get out of bed.
One of my staff however, still believes – and says this to me often – that I was weak and need to learn how to take “slapping”. He does care, I know it, but he doesn’t believe that burnout is a true condition that is PTSD/MDD/GAD. He doesn’t believe it changes brain chemistry or that I have true damage. I will never be able to convince him and that breaks my heart.
How did it feel to finally acknowledge your feelings and be open about your issues to others?
When I called my mom to say I was taking 5 weeks off with possibility of longer leave, she was relieved. My dad was relieved.
Telling people what was really going on was at first scary, because PTSD isn’t something I’d have put alongside a federal public servant. However, the more people I talked to, the more people I found had been through something of their own crises. Burnout, workplace abuse, depression, PTSD….I felt much more accepted and like I could accept my own diagnosis! I could accept it and I could see that this wasn’t the end. My brain was on life support but there was a lot of hope!!
This all resulted in 6 months leave for you and you were eventually diagnosed with PTSD for people who don’t know would you please tell us what this is? How has this affected your life?
Initially it resulted in 6 months of leave. When I went to my family doctor on July 31, 2014, he told me I’d take 5 weeks to start, but I had only at that point begun understanding the new phobias, learning to sleep. I ended up off of work for 18 months.
PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder. As I’ve learned, PTSD and burnout are very similar – while burnout isn’t an official diagnosis, PTSD is – and exhibits the same symptoms. Dr. Geri Puleo has done a lot of fascinating work on PTSD and Burnout being the same thing – she has a TED Talks well worth flagging here.
A book recommended by my psychiatrist (I had three great doctors – and still see the therapist every week, and my medical doctor of course) is the PTSD Workbook. It is so helpful in working through the PTSD feelings – the fear, the sadness, the disappointment in oneself – and learning how to counter the feelings the stigma attaches.
I still battle things like flashbacks – when a circumstance feels like something that happened in the workplace before I broke down the first time, I have blackouts. I’m on automation. I’m working with my therapist on this reaction to try to minimize how and for how long this happens. It’s scary. I did have to stop driving for a period of time because my memory was so poor and I’d have blackouts while driving or walking. I fainted in several public areas just because my brain was having a bad day. I still can’t turn on the ringer for my phone at home or work because it causes me to have a panic attack. I have times of extreme nightmares. I couldn’t read. For over a year, I couldn’t read. I forgot to do things like eat. Like add liquid to my smoothies. Like wash my hair. I lost friends and had to learn to lose other people, relatives and friends, because of their treatment of me. I am certain I lost years off my life from embarrassment, sadness, stress. I will be on medication and in therapy for many years to come.
As a single woman, makes for a great dating profile, eh? 40, PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, takes medication and sometimes needs to be alone. Life coach and public servant. Two cats successfully made into little humans. Favourite things: cats, country music, therapists and Blue Jays Baseball. Truly believes Jose Bautista and Bruce Willis are perfect. Did I mention cats?
However on the upside, I have learned so many good things. I know who my friends are and who those people are who I call family. I rediscovered the amazing people I have as parents. I had time at home to redecorate (on a disability budget…) and to spend time with my cats, enjoying my space, remembering how much I used to love cooking and dancing around to random music….I got back to daily visits to the gym for weightlifting and muscle work. I discovered I loved gardening!! I became more assertive in clearly identifying my boundaries at work, at home, my needs, my interests. I became more assertive in standing up to people who are rude or who say cruel things. I actually became more confident in being myself – wearing the leopard print when I want, telling people when I need to be alone, choosing a movie instead of deferring all preferences. Being okay ordering the same nachos every Friday night. Becoming much more attuned to the importance of mindfulness. Having learned new techniques for PTSD, Assertiveness and Depression/Anxiety management, I have definitely strengthened my repertoire of coaching tools and ideas as well.
I know that you are taking on the role of helping your work colleagues manage their boundaries and their work so not to reach a level of burnout like you did, why is this important to you?
This is important because I don’t feel anyone else is doing this kind of work. I wish someone had taught my manager how to react to someone who is showing symptoms of a mental health crisis. There is a big draw for mental health first aid, which is fantastic. However as ongoing coping, and in order to, as I put it, not “Be a Jen”, I think I and others have ideas and help to offer each other. Why not set up a safe place for anyone at any level to come and ask for support and help? Like Pre-Burnout Anonymous meetings in a way. What happens in PBA, stays in PBA. I have people keen to participate and thanking me for coming up with the idea – when really, all I’m doing is trying to help the Jens of the department not reach the level of burnout I did. And maybe to be able to find that elusive work-life balance that took me a full nervous breakdown to discover.
Where does your support come from? How important is it for people to receive support for their problems?
My support first came from my two colleagues, Martin and Stephanie, who saw it all from the beginning and finally made me leave to get help. My parents were and still are a massive force when it comes to supporting me in recovery. Believe me, I know how lucky I am to have been born to them. My neighbourhood – in a city known to be disaffected and socially cold, I have a funny little hood where about 10 of us hang out together and treat each other as family. My family doctor was and is a huge support. He supported me and worked with my therapist to ensure proper treatment of PTSD – he didn’t do what I have heard in horror stories, medication or nothing at all. I am so fortunate to have found my therapist who gave me hope and continued to push me to survive – and then really learn to live.
The kindness in otherwise strangers, including online communities like SickNotWeak have been amazing to me. I’m not a computer person, but I figured I’d give it a shot and really pleased with the people around, the support and kindness.
I would say to anyone, find a good doctor – therapist, coach, medical doctor, whatever works – try a few before deciding none are good fits. Ask friends for help finding good support. Find your community, even if it is mostly cats and long distance calls to parents.
People are often afraid to acknowledge problems at work, for fear of losing their job, through not being able to meet the demands, was this how you felt? Do you wish, in hindsight that you had been able to talk to your boss before it got to the stage that it did?
I truly didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t feel like I couldn’t do the work – I’d say martyr principle but it wasn’t even that. I’m a loyal employee. I’m a public servant and I take that seriously. I channel my mothering instinct into my staff, which isn’t healthy but it was my way, the way I was and the way I am. I didn’t even question the work requirements. My thought was that the crazy times would end and I’d make sure the work was done. Another director was struggling, and I could do the work so I did. I helped. That’s my values – help where you can, stay calm, do your job loyally and effectively. Unfortunately those exact values were the reason I started on the trek to burnout.
When the 2012 job cuts were happening I was terrified to look like I wasn’t the most keen employee, or that I was scared. So I volunteered for extra work, for giving training, for anything that would make it clear that I am devoted and hard working. That was the beginning of the problem. I wish I’d have been able to know what was going on to be able to talk to my boss. I wish I’d have found another job so that I could leave that situation – like my boss did before the new one came on board. I wish I knew how to set out boundaries, and that boundaries were okay – without fearing for my job. Absolutely.
You say that, in your opinion and from your personal experience, the public service do not take mental health issues seriously enough, what would you like to see done?
I would like to see an initiative where wellness means more than team building and information sharing. Where mental health initiatives mean more than having info sessions about the current policies, more than advertising guidelines. Where people who are public servants who have mental illnesses are encouraged to share their experiences, to explain what their world is like, what tools work for them. Where people are allowed to have a sick day for mental health without feeling the need to say it is a mental health day. Where disability leave for mental health is not called crazy or stress leave – it isn’t stress leave, it isn’t crazy leave, it is disability leave. Where accommodations for mental health aren’t seen as an excuse to not hire someone – or for finding them a “less stressful” job without actually understanding the nature or the impacts of the mental illness. Where managers are directed to find ways to accommodate mental health diversity and not ask people to move jobs for “their own health” (this has happened). Where senior management doesn’t need financial incentives to affect change for mental health in the workplace.
The Prime Minister has said clearly that mental health is a priority – but management may not be hearing this yet. And it is being treated like it is just tweaking what already exists – teambuilding, emailing one day a year about Mental Health Week. Bringing in psychologists who can speak to people – ALL LEVELS, not just management – about ways to manage stress. Bringing in HR people to talk to all levels about options for accommodation, treatment, sick and disability leave. Help people not be afraid to say “I need a break.” And do it sincerely and with actual impact.
I’m using my own time to set up coaching circles, and adding in things like ‘mood cards’ and providing staff with help learning mindfulness activities (and yes, even adult colouring books! Heaven knows, I received more than my share from well meaning folk!) to help them with healthy mental wellness. If I can make some of this stuff the ‘norm’ then that is success in my tiny sphere of influence, anyway.
My therapist says I have a special gift of making him laugh when I am crying. I guess I want to continue to use a sense of humour to help people through some shitty stuff.
You tell me that someone told you ‘your past is over and that people need to move on’, I know that from talking to lots of different people who suffer from mental illness that this is not helpful, and I know that you agree! What advice would you give to people who feel that they are put under too much pressure at work?
Find some help. Be your own advocate, talk to your boss, whomever that may be. Talk to your union, your doctor, a best friend. Be honest at least with yourself about how you really feel. You are the only ‘you’ there is – and someone out there needs you to be okay. Feeling overwhelmed? Talk to someone. Maybe there is an employee assistance program or a distress centre you can reach out to. Maybe you need to find professional help and ensure you take the time to go to appointments and to do the work needed to start to feel better. Examine the workload – is this all actually yours or are you taking on stuff that isn’t yours, for whatever reason, and need to take a step back to re-evaluate what is truly your responsibility, and what you need to give back or give away. Are you worrying about things that don’t need attention right now? What are you doing to sustain this feeling or reality of too much pressure – speak up, get help, delegate back to where tasks belong. Are you being psychologically abused or dealing with a trauma from work or elsewhere? That is OK. There is help for that, often free help.
And if you still struggle, take time off. People get mad, people think you’re weak, so be it. You’re the only ‘you’ out there and believe it, none of it is worth losing yourself.
There are of course lots of different contributors to stress, were you aware of other areas of stress in your life? Were they highlighted or were they ignored? How do you manage your stress differently now?
At the time, I didn’t see any other contributors. I have a pretty good life, a nice little house, I live with cats who are pretty low-maintenance. I work out and eat right. But I had poor sleeping habits and had for over a decade – that got much much worse with the work stuff. I had worries about my niece and my dad, both struggling with health concerns before I broke down. Surely these things were in the back of my mind. However I’ve dealt with personal stresses much more serious in the past without this kind of result.
After 14 months of intensive therapy, I did learn about a pattern I had adopted since childhood, as a result of various factors, where I learned to be tough and let people say whatever they liked to me, and I just let them to avoid conflict, and because I’m a peacemaker. A loyal peacemaker. I don’t want to cause a fuss over hurt feelings, so I just don’t let it hurt. But it does hurt. And over time it builds up to cause quite a fissure. It isn’t like now I freak out if someone is mean or says something negative to me, but I am learning to be more assertive in a positive way of not letting people be rude or cruel to me just because they’re in charge, or have some authority in some way. I’m learning to assert myself and clarify my needs. I’m also learning to be assertive in the way of saying ‘enough is enough’ for me, in the workplace. Setting my boundaries and maintaining them has become a difficult but necessary practice for me. And thanks to having a new boss, my boundaries are only shocking to certain staff members and well, that’s okay by me.
What have you learnt from all of this? And how do you find time for yourself now?
I have learned that I am not weak. That needing quiet time is okay. I have learned that I love gardening, and reading and sitting with my cats in my yard and listening to birds. And all this is just fine! I have learned to listen to myself and do what I need, no shame.
I am lucky in one sense in that I live alone so I don’t have a lot of competing priorities. However I have really figured out that if my brain says “Tired. Must rest today” I skip the gym, do some yoga at home, or just read and nap. No guilt. If my brain says “I miss mom” I call mom and just listen to her voice. I schedule breaks at work. I ensure I don’t work through lunch, ever. And if others wish to sit with me at lunch, the rule is, no work talk. I leave work on time. I truly love most of my life.
What is your ultimate goal with regards to your work and your future projects?
I would love to be able to create a position for myself, at my current level, where I help departments set up coaching circles and mental wellness programs. Bring in speakers, organize events and discussions and bring issues to senior management as needed. A position reporting to someone like the Clerk of the Privy Council, as the highest public servant in the federal government. I want to take my coaching practice and integrate it fully with my personal experience with PTSD/Burnout, and with my management and people expertise (I am not good at much, I say, but I am an expert with people!!), to make the public service even better than it is, and strides ahead of anyone else in mental health diversity programming.
A pipe dream, I admit, so I get sad thinking about it.
In the meantime, I will continue to manage my team as best I can with my new boundaries and self-expectations, and continue to establish the coaching circles/Pre-Burnout Anonymous club in my department. I will continue to speak about burnout openly to make sure the conversation doesn’t end with a new policy being drafted.
I am also planning a trip to Jakarta to visit friends. Probably Rwanda and Germany as well. But first, NASHVILLE.
I thank you for your time Jen, for your honesty and sharing your story with us, I wish you all the best with your future.
http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Burnout-and-post-traumatic-stre - Geri Puleo’s ted talks.
I watched the 60 Minutes interview with the Canadian Prime Minister. At the end, the interviewer says that he learned a lot about PM Trudeau in talking with him, but the one thing he can say in summary is “He is kind.”
At that moment it was like a lightbulb went off (one of many over the last 2 years, no doubt!). All I could think was that if I were to disappear today, the legacy I want to leave is that people would say “Jennifer was kind.” If I can be kind by helping people at work, I will do so – to be able to bring something to the public service so that public servants are better able to provide even better service to Canadians. One little coaching circle at a time.