When stress escalates many people are reluctant to admit they have a problem. Fiona Finch reports on how business consultant and street pastor Ian Higginbotham is helping people to change course before burnout strikes
An early morning breakfast meeting held in Lancashire recently offered the opportunity to “Breakout From Burnout in 2018” - and attracted more than 50 men.
It is a statistic which gives pause for thought.
For speaker Ian Higginbotham it was a chance to share his conclusions on a lifetime’s experience in the financial sector, as a business consultant and asa church goer.
He explains he is well placed to talk about burn out because he knows it can happen to anybody when life gets out of balance.
He recalls getting perilously close to being in a situation where job stress could have undermined him. Prior to his appointment to the top job of area manager for HSBC bank where he had around 30 branches, including Preston’s Fishergate, in his patch, he was in a “springboard “ job working very long hours.
He had vowed not to give up his church and youth work if he won the promotion but the post came at a cost.
Days started at 6am and continued until 1 am: “I lived like that for nearly four years and a lot of the people around me crashed and burned. I didn’t. I came close to it once or twice.”
Staff shortages had placed him under intense pressure and he was the last staff member due to take a holiday.
Recession had, he recalls, hit the north of England and the work load was heavy: “I came to the point where the Friday before I was due to go (on holiday) the in tray was literally three feet high and I spent all day looking at that in-tray and my knees were banging, my head was banging. I couldn’t focus, concentrate, nothing ... and I’ve always wondered what would it have been like if I hadn’t gone on holiday that day.
“I’ve always thought I am not going to get in that position again. It was a big health warning for me.”
Thankfully the holiday came at the right time. He is adamant that burnout is also about the timing of pressures as well as how we deal with them.
“We can manage with stress in one part of our life pretty well. In fact it often makes us better people, develops our skills, hones our character. We can cope with stress in two parts of our lives if it’s for a limited period...Stress in each part of our life for more than a very short period of time will result in a breakdown.”
Noone can predict exactly when a perfect storm might overtake their life circumstances or what might make them cope one week but not another.
Ian wants to help people take steps to steer away from burnout, recognise the warning signs in time to take avoiding action and never reach that point of crisis where burn out becomes as devastating as it sounds.
He likens it to the pain of a burning match which, when dropped sets fire to the house and he told his audience at the breakfast meeting at Fulwood Free Methodist Church: “You are that house. We call it burnout”
Ian lists signs of burnout as including feeling overwhelmed, not enjoying normal pleasures, feeling isolated or detached, poor sleep, overthinking, and physical/emotional exhaustion
An action plan involves recognising key facts including: “You can’t modify external circumstances, but you can modify your reaction to them.”
Ian, a governor at Myerscough College, where he was also awarded a Fellowship for his work, also runs how own business and management services consultancy Kairos Management Ltd , is a Preston Street Pastors and still finds time for voluntary work overseas.
He believes burnout happens on three levels - physical, in the area of “your life and purpose” and in your spirituality.
If burnt out at the level of role and purpose he says: “You lose your way and your priorities. You find yourself spending all your time responding to situations - you bounce from one thing to another because everything seems urgent, and you find yourself unable to focus on the important.”
He also has a definition to brandish.
Burnout according to one Herbert Freudenberger is “Fatigue brought about by devotion to a cause that failed to produce the expected reward.”
Ian’s response to this is: “There are some things we can’t change - and if we spend our life in frustration about that we damage only ourselves.”
Instead he advises peopleto concentrate on those areas of life or behaviour which lead to burnout where you can change your life.
He said: “There were a lot of people in our church who were stressed at work. The question is can you do something that will specifically help them to break out from burn out.”
Ian failed his 11 plus, joined a bank after leaving school and took three attempts to get his final banking exams. He prospered in his career.
He acknowledges he took some extremely pressurised jobs and he was determined not to place people under unecessary pressures: “As I worked my way up through the bank you find yourself in a position where you can put pressure on people and take pressure off people.”
It was as the new area director he advised an employee promising to have work on his desk first thing on Monday morning to spend the weekend with his family and start again on the Monday.
There are, he explained, enough time pressures without adding in unnecessary ones. He noted: “When you do things like that you send a marker through the organisation you work for.”
Ian retired from his top post in 2004 at the age of 55 and says he seeks to combine “biblical concepts of wholeness” with leadership training.*