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Rock bottom Career coach reveals why quitting high-pressure finance job saved her life

I had panic attacks and OCD. I had a checklist to leave the apartment, checking every room and every plug socket"

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Taking control: Joanna Denton

Taking control: Joanna Denton

Taking control: Joanna Denton

High-flier Joanna Denton knows what it’s like to hit rock bottom.

The former international tax specialist seemed to be living the perfect life before it all came crashing down when she hit burnout the same week a close friend killed himself.

The Co Antrim woman knew if she stayed on the same path, she’d be dead from a heart attack at 45, so she changed jobs, moved home and now she’s written a book aimed at helping other people cope with the corporate treadmill.

In A Different Truth, Joanna is encouraging people to look at their lives and make different choices before their career kills them.

The 48-year-old says not everyone can jack in their job, but they can ask for help.

She’s brutally honest about her own path to a career coaching clients in public speaking which has led her to deliver TEDx talks and set up her own company in 2016.

Joanna admits that when she first got the warning signs that something was wrong, she didn’t pay enough attention.

After a spell off sick from her job as a VAT specialist with one of the Big 4 accountancy firms, based first in Leeds and then in Luxembourg, she went back to working harder than ever.

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Help at hand: Joanna gives a Tedx talk

Help at hand: Joanna gives a Tedx talk

Help at hand: Joanna gives a Tedx talk

“I was signed off for a month at the end of 2009 and when I returned to work, rather than step back and say, ‘what are you going to do differently?’ I went straight back in at 120 miles per hour. Nothing changed,” says Joanna.

“I had panic attacks and OCD. I had a checklist to leave the apartment, checking every room and every plug socket.

“If I worked late and I left the office to go down to the car park I would take a video of the floor from the office to the car just to make sure I hadn’t dropped anything.

“Looking back, I was so full of anxiety. There was a part of me that was so pissed off with work and different things I couldn’t express, it manifested itself in OCD behaviour.

“If I could control every part of my life by being super-prepared then everything would be fine.”

Joanna chose not to ask her friends for help and just worked harder. She knew that on the surface she was the high achiever, a qualified lawyer, working with big clients in a firm that looked after multi-million-pound businesses.

She feared that if she showed pals her desperation, they would judge her.

By the time Joanna hit rock bottom she woke every morning full of fear, dreading that others would see through her facade of success to the impostor she felt.

“When things got tough, I would just do more hours and if I didn’t do those hours then I was lazy and unprofessional,” she says.

“The more tired I got the more anxious I got.

“On the face of it I was the definition of success, but I was riddled with self-doubt and constantly second-guessing myself.

“The universe was sending me signs and I was ignoring them.”

When her burnout arrived, she spent a week on her sofa, unable to go out and uninterested in washing or eating.

Then the call came that a close friend, Peter, had killed himself.

He had spent the weekend with pals and showed no sign that his life was less than good, and then got up on the Monday morning and jumped from a bridge.

“He was a gentleman and a gentle man. His friends said if he had told us we would have been there for him.

“It was a mirror for me.

“After the funeral I sat in the car with tears streaming down my face and picked up the phone and asked a friend for help. My friends weren’t going to judge me.”

Joanna learned that she wasn’t the only one who felt under huge pressure to succeed.

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as work-related stress that hasn’t been effectively managed, and stars like Beyoncé have admitted in the past they’ve struggled.

The singer took a year off in 2011 citing stress and burnout, while former child actor Selena Gomez says therapy helped her through the pressure of performing. Joanna says women feel under pressure to be the perfect wife and mother, but men feel similar challenges.

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Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez

“Men feel the challenge to be the strong one and the provider. Look at the level of suicides among men.”

She went to her boss with the idea of coaching clients in public speaking in-house and he agreed to letting her move sideways in the company, which led to her setting up on her own and moving home two years ago.

“For a lot of people there was surprise because they thought I had my sh*t together. You get good at putting on a mask. At the time I thought I was the only pathetic heap in the corner, and I was terrified of telling anyone.”

After her first TEDx talk in Brest in France following her career change, Joanna was asked by a student what he should do if he thought his friend was experiencing burnout.

“I came away thinking if that student in this university is getting some help because his friend came and saw my talk then I have done my job,” she says.

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Joanna hopes her book can offer guidance to people who feel as trapped as she did.

“We put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and maybe this year has taught us to lower the bar a little bit.

“What I have had to learn is that life is not black and white. The most exciting part of life is in the grey zones,” says the author.

  • A Different Truth is available now.

roisin.gorman@sundayworld.com

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