Neil Thomas | Founder of Oryx Education

I’ve spoken a lot about the lack of back to school vibes recently so it seems fitting to chat to an ex-teacher. Neil Thomas has over 14 years of international teaching and leadership experience. He recently returned to the UK from Doha to establish his own education consultancy, Oryx Education and is an Associate at High Performance Learning and The-Learning-Crowd. He speaks freely about his mental health and wellbeing and I am chuffed to bits that he is sharing his learning with us in this chapter. 

What’s your experience of burnout?
I guess that I first realised that I was burnt out in March 2020. In April 2019 I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After two rounds of chemotherapy, I was given the all clear in July.  Following the summer holiday, I jumped straight back into my role, hungry to make up for the lost time.
Term 1 was its usual busy self, but I noticed that I was more tired than I had ever been and had continuous aching pains in my legs. Normally, I would re-charge over the two-week winter break and be ready to go again in January, but it was different this time. 
There was a fundamental change. I had loved every moment of my 14-year teaching career until January 2020, but suddenly I didn’t want to go to work, I didn’t want to attend meetings, I didn’t care, and I constantly had a high level of anxiousness.
I was mentally and physically exhausted.This exhaustion wiped me out; I was no good to anyone, if I’m honest, and was constantly on the verge of crying. Looking back on pictures of me during this time, I looked pale, withdrawn and not very well.
The critical point for me in identifying that I was burnt out, as opposed to stressed, was that I didn’t have any hope within my work context and couldn’t see the situation changing for the better After many conversations with my supportive Principal, Dr Steffen Sommer, and my family, I decided I needed to leave Doha College for the sake of my mental health. The chemotherapy’s fatigue contributed significantly to the physical issues I was having (inexplicable tiredness, the continuous aching in my legs). However, I also realised that I had been non-stop in my career for the last 14 years. All of the continuous effort and commitment had taken its toll, and I realised I was falling out of love with what I was doing. A change was needed!

Were there any warning signs of burnout? 

Looking back, there were so many warning signs that things were not right, but I was confused as to what was causing me to feel like I was. Was this how people recovering from cancer felt? Was I weak? Was it a delayed reaction to having cancer and the realisation of how big an event it was? Did I go back to work too early? Was I depressed? Was I angry? Why did cancer happen to me? The list of questions was endless.

I could not have wished for more love and support from my family, friends and colleagues, but it was not until I spoke to a counsellor with experience of dealing with cancer patients that things began to become clear for me.

The warning signs that were there, inexplicable tiredness, constant ache and pains, a constant twitching in my eye and a constant dread about opening emails, messages or interacting with colleagues at work about work, were there from September 2020.

However, from January I showed signs of burnout and was constantly restless (Is this right place to be right now? Do I want this job anymore? Do I want to be in Qatar? Are there other options for me?), had little patience (although I always tried to be professional here), I withdrew from social gatherings (although Covid-19 restrictions helped with this!) and I was constantly on the edge of crying.

A few things helped me manage this from March onwards;

1) Speaking to a counsellor helped tremendously. It was a neutral person who I could be upset in front of without feeling like they would be worried or upset for me.

2) I was given time-off and relieved of some work duties, which allowed my last four months in my job to be a little easier. I will be forever grateful to my colleagues on the Leadership Group for taking on extra work in my time of need. If you are a Leader reading this, please try to do the same if you know someone is suffering.

3) I realised that the only person who could help me was me. Other people can not see mental health issues/burnout/stress. You have to come forward and highlight them. If you had broken both your legs, would you be expected to be at work? No. Well, you need to apply this train of thought to you being stressed or burnt-out.

What did you do to recover?

Rest! I took three weeks off work plus the two weeks of the Easter holiday to rest – a lot! Once I returned to work, I was on a reduced work load as I was leaving at the end of the academic year. I was given specific projects to oversee and this helped start my recovery.
Although I wasn’t expecting it to be, moving back to Wales has helped significantly. I took the whole of July and August off before starting my new venture as an educational consultant in September 2020. I have taken seen a significant change in my workload since choosing to work for myself and work when I want, how I want, which is a sea change from the the day-to-day pressures that come with working in a school. I do now feel much better and far more centred than I ever did before. I am slowly coming off the anti-depressants I was on and now focus on controlling the controllable – i.e. I only take on work that I enjoy and divide my time up accordingly.

If you had to go back to that situation what, if anything, would you do differently? 
I would change a few things, but the main one is that I would have got help from a counsellor with specific experience with cancer patients much earlier. This support was not available in Qatar (as it would have been in the UK), and it cost me later on in my journey. I didn’t get the help that I needed early enough, which contributed significantly to burnout affecting me the way it did. However, I try not to waste energy thinking about it or to be angry about it as what has happened has happened. I have learnt an enormous amount about myself over the last two years, and, in a way, I am glad I have been on the journey.
Do you have any tricks to manage feelings of stress or overwhelm? 
Talking is critical for me. Whether this is with your wife/husband, a close friend, a colleague, your line manager, or someone removed from your situation (a counsellor, for example), sharing your issues and worries helps a great deal. The other tricks I felt helped were exercise and journaling. The journalling only happens when I want it too, but I always try to write three things that I am grateful for, single words that describe how I feel that day, what went well (WWW) that day, and my list of must do’s the next day.

If you’re feeling the effects of stress and burnout and would like some support – whether that’s for you, your team or your business – drop me an email or book a free call, no strings attached.

I’d love to help you with tailormade 1:1 Anti Burnout Business Coaching or Mental Wellbeing Workshops or talks.