Working through it

Sam Villis
5 min readMay 25


I remember having a cold when I joined the conference SDinGov last September. From that point, through November I seemed to constantly have a cold of some form or other, and at some point in October I also had a very weak but very real extra line on a covid test, though thankfully I wasn’t too ill.

Anyway, over a few months I bored myself stupid answering “not feeling too great, have a cold” whenever anyone asked how I was.

Then just before Christmas I developed a cough (not covid) which lingered into January. And then in February, after returning from a short jaunt to Disneyland Paris, the gland under my jawline on the right side turned into an egg-sized lump – a scary follow on from the sharp scissor pain that I’d been getting on the right hand side of my forehead for a good week before.

The doctor wasn’t particularly helpful and told me it “might be shingles” offering a blood test, which, given their indifference to my presence in their office, felt like it wouldn’t be particularly useful. I decided not to have it done.

Fast forward to May:

In May my husband got ill, and I followed close behind. An intense feeling of exhaustion, the truly misery-inducing full-on melancholy-crying kind, ensued.

But I wasn’t as ill as husband, and life has to go on. My little one didn’t get sick, so somebody (me) still needed to get up, get him ready for school, put him to bed and watch him at the weekend. Two parents getting sick at the same time is, as they say, suboptimal. I even have extra help in the form of little man’s nanny — who watches him after school.

Why am I telling everyone my most recent medical history? Well I’m not sure really. I got burned out, did I? I guess I’m using this blog post to process that.

Things I did wrong and signs I missed:

  • Through bouts of illness I kept trying to push through, I didn’t take time off or I took minimal time off. Sometimes illness came in line with holidays or trips which made me feel like I couldn’t take extra time.
  • When my brain could work, I worked. And I kept working, later into to the evening, at weekends hoping this would make up for any ‘blank spots’ I’d had during the day.
  • The ‘hibernation’ I’d expected to come out of when spring arrived didn’t end. When I finished work and finished dinner I went to bed and sat alone quietly in the dark, semi-watching tv, mostly playing inane iPhone games or mindlessly scrolling Instagram.
  • I expected my weekends to be enough to restore me and increasingly napped, sometimes both afternoons, and still slept all night.
  • I found writing weeknotes really difficult and not at all useful/fulfilling.
  • I found myself getting increasingly cynical, e.g at work events or at training. I expected the worst instead of going in with an open mind. I don’t know why this happens, maybe when you don’t really have any extra bandwidth your brain puts extra walls up to prevent having to make any additional effort?
  • Related: Finding it really difficult to celebrate successes either of project teams or individuals
  • I stopped being able to trust my judgement. Others’ opinions and thoughts felt imbued with meaning, subtext, judgement.

I guess I thought that if I was going to get burned out it would be categorised by “losing my shit” in a mental health kinda way. I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of my body. I kept pushing through until my body finally had a word with my brain and my brain stopped playing ball too.

When I saw the doctor again they told me that I’ve been suffering with ‘opportunistic viruses’ because of my ‘stressful lifestyle’ and suggested I take some time off work.

Things that have gone through my mind while being off work

I’ve been out of work for almost 3 weeks now and over that time my thoughts have evolved and changed moving from general despair at being ill and exhaustion from being ill, through guilt for not being able to work, through to where I am now; in some sense of anxiety about returning to work.

As a (non-exhaustive) list:

  • Why can’t I do this, I should be able to do this
  • Everyone will have to do extra work because of me
  • I am leaving people in the lurch
  • People will think I’m unrelable, a flake, untrustworthy
  • People will think I can’t do it
  • People will treat me differently
  • People will think I’m too sensitive
  • People will think I’ve been having a lovely holiday
  • If I go for a walk and get my nails done will people think I’m taking the piss?
  • If I go to the gig I have tickets for, will people think I’m taking the piss?
  • The sun is shining but I should be indoors being ‘ill’
  • How can I use this ‘time off’ productively?
  • Maybe I should research that MA, that course, see what’s on FutureLearn
  • If I relax too much I might not be able to work again
  • People at work will miss my contribution, or worse, people won’t miss my contribution and will realise I don’t add any value
  • What if I can’t work out how to get back to work? Do I remember how to do my job?
  • Am I going to get sucked straight back in?
  • What if this happens again? I don’t have the energy to keep getting sick
  • Will anyone actually understand this?
  • If I say I’ve been burned out will people equate that will a mental health breakdown of some sort? What stigma will that attach?

And now what?

Well it’s Thursday as I write this, I’ve noticed my horizon expanded slightly. I hadn’t realised how claustrophobic I had been feeling, how insular and internal looking, I feel a bit lighter, but I’m starting to worry about what comes next now that I’ve rested up and am feeling mostly better.

I guess the difficulty of dealing with burnout as I write this is that it’s made up of lots of little incremental things that eventually add up. It’s a slow drip drip drip of contributing factors over time, not an obvious immediate flood that requires buckets and sandbags quickly. But that also makes it really difficult to understand what those contributing factors have been and how to add them up to changes that will stop this from happening again. I’m still working through those thoughts.

Thanks for reading, if you would like more information about Burnout: https://mentalhealth-uk.org/burnout/#:~:text=What%20is%20burnout%3F,drained%20most%20of%20the%20time



Sam Villis

Now: @socialfinanceuk Prev:@ldgovuk, Head of Digital at National Leadership Centre. GDS. Proud to be @OneTeamGov.