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How To Avoid And Recover From Burnout With Award-Winning Global Resilience Coach Shona Hirons

Shona Hirons, also referred to as “The Burnout Angel” and “The Real Bionic Woman” is recognised globally as an expert in burnout and building resilience after tough times. A breakdown caused by work-related stress, followed by a life-changing accident and then cancer, Shona has worked hard on her mindset and developed healthy coping strategies to completely change her life around. As a result, she now works with businesses all over the world to help their staff avoid and recover from burnout, thus improving staff morale, keeping sickness absence down, less presenteeism, less staff turnover, which creates better profits.

Shona is a keen fitness fanatic and in her spare time, works as a Personal Trainer and enjoys taking part in challenging fitness events, such as iron-man events, marathon running and extreme obstacle course challenges.

Shona gained her nickname “The Real Bionic Woman”, because she has metal pins in her knee after an injury; in her heart after having a hole in her heart; and half of her face has been reconstructed with metal pins and plates following a life-changing accident in 2017. Despite this, nothing stops her. She was told by doctors that she would not take part in sporting events again, but she has proved to herself that if there’s a will, there’s a way.

Shona Hirons, The Burnout Angel

Tell us about a pivotal moment in your life that brought you to where you are today?

Until 2017 I had been a Lawyer for 20 years. The first half of my legal career was mostly enjoyable. I climbed the ladder very quickly and thrived on a bit of stress. However, in 2008 I started a family and when my daughter started school, my priorities changed. As she grew up I knew I didn’t want to be a mum who was never there at the school gates for drop off and pick up, so I made a request at work to reduce my hours to 28 hours per week.

Although this was authorised, I specialised in Employment law, which is incredibly fast paced. My targets were not reduced and my work wasn’t done when I was away from the office.

To avoid being placed on a Performance Improvement Plan I had to work longer hours, which meant getting to work earlier, work through my breaks and stay late.

I soon found myself working 80-hour weeks. I was exhausted, became disconnected and I was so stressed. I stopped doing all the things I enjoyed, and I’d even go a whole week sometimes without washing my hair, because I didn’t have time. I would get to a Friday afternoon and already dread Monday. This impacted my weekends, because I was unable to relax. I would cry when I came home every night and be sick before going to work in the morning. This not only affected me, but I pushed everyone I loved away too.

After months of working this way, I started to make mistakes, which lead to me receiving a final written warning. I remember my Line Manager telling me that “We are not humans, we are robots, so mistakes cannot happen”.

The pressure was so much that I had my first panic attack. I actually thought I was dying. I couldn’t breathe, my heart was pounding and I felt so dizzy. This developed into tingling and burning in my feet and complete numbness in my hands for hours.

The constant pressure was affecting my confidence and self-esteem. I felt totally useless, I was a failure at work and as a mum, wife and friend. I didn’t know what to do.

Things got worse and in May 2013, I collapsed and was rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack. My results were clear, but I was told I’d had a breakdown. I knew something had to change and I remember reading a quote by Geetesh Shukla – “People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses”.

I therefore made the difficult decision to resign and go on a journey of self-discovery to find myself again. I was so low and I didn’t think I was good enough to get any kind of job anywhere else. I therefore started with getting back into my fitness, because I’d heard that exercise was good for mental health. It definitely helped me, so I decided to train as a Spin Instructor and became a Personal Trainer.

Over the next couple of years I finally started to become me again. My confidence and self-esteem was returning, the panic attacks were less frequent, and I was enjoying life.

At the end of 2015 I was head hunted by a company that I had always wanted to work for. It meant going back into the legal world and I knew it would be demanding. However, I was honest with them about what had happened in my previous legal job and I accepted the job on the condition that I could have flexible working.

In the first few months I thrived and even won an award for employee of the quarter. This helped my confidence grow further and I started to believe in myself again. I continued to teach spin classes in my spare time, so I had the best of both worlds.

However, after six months in the job, we had a staff shortage and I became the only person available to deal with certain legal matters and my flexible working went out of the window. Very quickly I found myself working close to 60 hours a week again and I realised I hadn’t properly dealt with the issues I’d experienced a few years earlier. I was never any good at saying “No”. The panic attacks returned with a vengeance, along with the loss of feeling in my hands and burning feet.

I commuted the twelve miles into work by cycling, because this kept me fit and it was a great way to own my morning. However, with the increased hours, I would rush to get out of the door in the morning and on one day in February 2017, feeling exhausted and stressed, I must have taken my eyes off the road for a second. The rest is a blur. I woke up in an Ambulance some time later unsure of the seriousness of my injuries. I could feel blood trickling down my face, but it didn’t hurt that much. Whereas several of my fingers really hurt, so I was sure I’d broken them.

Several CT scans later, the Consultant told me that he had good news and bad news. The good news was, I hadn’t broken my fingers, which I was surprised at. The bad news was that I had broken all the bones around my orbital area, smashed my cheek bone to pieces, fractured my jaw and the base of my skull. After further tests I was told I’d probably lose my left eye and I was deaf in my left ear. I was told I had a 20% chance of survival and would need to undergo major facial reconstructive surgery. Thankfully my left eye was saved, but it was another year before I had further surgery to restore my hearing. I also have no recollection of events that took place in the couple of weeks leading up to my accident.

During my long recovery, I realised that if that fateful day really was my last on earth, would I have been happy with what I’d achieved? The answer was “No”. I needed more. I wanted to do a job that I felt rewarded in, was my passion, my calling, my ‘Why’. At the same time I came across a blog about Stephen Covey and his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which resonated so much with my life so far.

I had to go to some very dark places to find myself and it took a suicide attempt during my recovery for me to have the wake-up call I needed to start to change my mindset once and for all. I now look at this dark time as a positive thing, because I feel like I had to go there in order to come back out and keep rising.

I realised that my whole career to date had been someone else’s why, not mine. Throughout my career I had won awards for my empathetic nature. I loved listening to people, but disliked the fact that much of the time I was on a timer to turn around each call as quickly as possible.

After what I had been through with two different companies, I wanted to do everything I could to end the stigma and discrimination around mental in the workplace and help other people to avoid and recover from burnout.

The first talk I was invited to deliver was during Mental Health Awareness Week in May 2018, which was at the company where I had worked and experienced my breakdown. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, because every time I was close to the building I would have a panic attack. However, I was stronger now and I knew I had to do it. I used mindfulness tools to get me into the right mindset. Despite having delivered my talk in front of thousands of people since, this will always be the most empowering talk I have ever done, because it was so personal and I was able to let a lot of bad feelings go.

“Tough Time Make Tougher People”

What is your business name and how do you help your clients?

My business is called Mindset in Motion

I believe the right mindset is all you need to achieve your life goals. Motion comes from the need to keep going and not giving up.

When I started my business in 2018 I mainly worked with burnt out Executives. I could very quickly resonate with them and felt that they were just like me, just a few steps behind.

This has moved on over the last couple of years to Resilience Coaching in businesses all over the world and won me an award for Best Mental Health Provider in Somerset by SME News in 2021. I work on a Consultancy basis and staff have a safe, confidential space to come and chat to me about anything that is affecting their mental health. This can be from managing work/life balance, setting boundaries to more personal issues.

The businesses I have worked with have reported that their staff are much happier, there is less staff sickness, less presenteeism, less staff turnover and overall profits are up.

What are your current goals for your business?

When I started my business, my goal was to improve the wellbeing of people and businesses throughout the world and raise awareness on the dangers of burnout.

I had a vision that I wanted to have my own wellness centre, with people working for me offering different methods of wellbeing. I’m now well on my way to having my own wellbeing centre by the end of 2022. I have collaborated with several other leading wellness experts who share the same values as me, and we’re building something very exciting.

I also want to continue delivering my award-winning talk ‘Broken to Bionic’ all over the world and to put this into a Tedx talk.

What kind of audience do you target your business towards?

I focus mainly on growing corporate companies who are genuinely passionate about the wellbeing of their employees. In the early days of my business I was invited to deliver my talk to several organisations and far too many of them just saw this as a tick box exercise. For wellbeing to be taken seriously, it has to be tackled every day.

When I work with companies, I provide a report at the end of each month on the things I have been helping people with and provide feedback on any issues that arise from a Leadership perspective. We then develop essential training to Leaders and Manager’s on these areas. Action is key if change is to be made.

I have also created a signature programme for individuals called ‘Executive Life Mastery’. I looked at all the things that held me back, such as understanding my ‘why’, always being busy, having bad habits and not understanding how the right set of coping strategies could change my mindset, and with everything I learnt, I created a programme that would help people to work smarter, not harder.

Who inspires you to be the best that you can be?

This may sound like a strange answer, but it is my late nan. Even though she died many years ago, I’ve always felt that she was with me. Her name was Iris, and when I got married in 2014 I chose Iris’s as my wedding flowers.

Following my accident and career change, my dad disapproved of my choices and couldn’t understand why anyone would give up a successful career to do what he considered was “nothing”. Whilst I was recovering and finding my ‘why’. I stumbled across a Clairvoyant at a spiritual event and she told me that she needed to speak with me. I was apprehensive, but she described a woman just like my nan, and she said she was with me. She told me she had a message for me “She really approved of your flowers on your wedding day”. There was no way she could have known this and it gave me a huge sense of comfort. She also said that my nan had said that I should ignore my dad and chase my dreams. She said I’d have to work very hard and there would be some stumbling blocks, but I wouldn’t give up and I would get there.

The Clairvoyant went on to say that my nan wanted me know that every time I saw a robin, it would be her just checking in on me. I now see robins everywhere and this gives me my drive to keep chasing my dreams and goals.

After my accident in 2017 I was told there would be certain things I’d never do again. My big goal was to get back on a bike, which I couldn’t do, so I entered my first half iron-man event, which involved 56 miles on the bike. Crossing the finishing line in July 2018 in just under six hours was such a wonderful experience. I was in intense pain, but the positive feeling I felt was far more intense. I finally believed in myself again.

Last week I ran my first marathon with another person who has inspired me so much over the last few years, Ben Smith, who has dedicated the last few years to the 401 Foundation. Ben is a true example of inspiration and I recommend reading his story. I have never run more than 13 miles before so this was another goal ticked off the list.

Next year, I’ll be in my 50th year and I plan to achieve 50 goals in that year. I’m working on some big ones now, but I’m open to any suggestions.

“Keep Chasing Your Dreams, Instead of Just Sleeping with Them”

If you could change one thing about your industry, what would it be and why?

So many companies pledge to put their staff wellbeing at the top of their priority, but it needs to be worked on every day and not just be a tick box exercise. Leaders and Manager’s need to be trained on how to recognise if a member of staff is struggling, know what signs to look out for. For example, is someone taking more sick days? Has their performance dipped? Do they appear to be disconnected?

They should not jump to conclusions, but instead look at the best way to support them. When I was diagnosed with episodic depression following my life-changing accident and stress at work as a result of micro-management, my Line Manager gave me three options. I could either go on a Performance Improvement Plan for a month and if I wasn’t better, I’d face disciplinary action. Or, I could take an unpaid sabbatical until I was better. The final option was to leave.

On the surface this company appeared to care about the wellbeing of their staff. They would get inspirational speakers in to talk about resilience, they would put on yoga before work started, and provide bowls of fruit a couple of times per week. The Executive Team made a pledge that anyone struggling with mental health would be looked after. However, when it came down to it, they did not actually care and hung people out to dry.

Providing an independent Resilience Coaching service for your staff to know they have somewhere safe to speak to someone without judgement is a win, win for everyone. What employers need to realise is that the costs involved in hiring a Resilience Coach is around four times less than the cost of staff turnover. Poor mental health at work costs the global economy an estimated US$ 1 trillion in lost productivity (World Health Organisation). With the right resources and training in place, this figure can be massively reduced.

Although remote working has its benefits, more employees are feeling the effects of burnout, because they don’t adopt good working practices, set boundaries and it can be easy to just fall out of bed and start work. It has created an ‘Always-on’ culture and a lack of separation between work and home life. Employers need to take this seriously, before burnout becomes the next pandemic.

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