Let me tell you a bit about my forthcoming book, THE BURNOUT.
Having experienced burnout myself in the past and seeing it around me everywhere, I was keen to write about it. It’s a serious subject, and I hope I’ve done it justice, but – you know me – I have to see the funny and ridiculous side of any situation. So this is very much a comedy – a romantic comedy.
Sasha hits a wall, quite literally and ends up going to recuperate from burnout at the Devon beach resort she loved as a child. However, the formerly grand hotel is a now a dilapidated shambles with comically bad staff (I loved writing them!) and the February weather is brutal. But even so, she’s in blissful solitude on the deserted, windswept beach, getting her thoughts together; getting her strength back; trying to figure stuff out.
Until, guess what? I’m sure you can… A handsome, obnoxious guy turns up with his own issues – and to her annoyance she has to share the beach with him.
At first, their relationship switches from completely ignoring each other to sparring with each other, but then a series of mysterious messages left on the beach draws them together, and….
I won’t give away any more right now. 😉
I hope this book makes you laugh, cry, find optimism if you’re struggling… and long to be at the beach. That’s how I felt when I was writing it and I kept looking at beach photos to get me in the mood. I’m so happy to share my inspiration for THE BURNOUT and I hope you love reading it!
Discover the joy that awaits when you set yourself free…
Sasha is well and truly over it all: work (all-consuming), friendships (on the back burner), sex-life (non-existent). Sasha has hit a brick wall.
Armed with good intentions to drink kale smoothies, try yoga and find solitude, she heads to the Devon resort she loved as a child. But it’s off-season, the hotel is falling apart and now she has to share the beach with someone else: a grumpy, stressed-out guy called Finn. How can she commune with nature when he’s sitting on a rock, watching her? Especially when they don’t agree on burnout cures. (Sasha: manifesting, wild swimming, secret Mars bars; Finn: drinking whisky.)
But when curious messages start appearing on the beach, Sasha and Finn are forced to begin talking – about everything. What’s the mystery? Why are they both burned out? What exactly is ‘manifesting’, anyway?
They might discover that they have more in common than they think…
It’s not the emails that make me panic.
It’s not even the ‘chasing’ emails. (Just wondering if you got my last email as I have had no reply?)
It’s the ‘chasing-the-chasing’ emails. The ones with two red exclamation marks. The ones that are either super-pissed off – As I mentioned in my TWO previous emails – or else faux- concerned and sarcastic – I’m starting to wonder whether you have been trapped down a well or suffered some other calamity??
Those are the ones that make my chest spasm and my left eye start twitching. Especially when I realize I forgot to flag them. My life is governed by the flagged email, my life. But I forgot to flag the latest one and that was days ago and now my colleague sounds pretty pissed off, although he’s being nice: Seriously, is everything OK with you, Sasha? So now I feel even more guilty. He’s a nice guy. He’s reasonable. It’s not his fault I’m doing the work of three people and keep dropping all the plates.
I work for Zoose, the travel app that’s everywhere right now. You didn’t use Zoose? That’s our latest ad campaign, and it’s genuinely a good app. Wherever you want to go in the world, Zoose finds you instant itineraries, bargain tickets and a great rewards programme. I’m Director of Special Promotions, covering fourteen territories. The fancy title lured me into the job, I’ll be honest. And the fact that Zoose is such a buzzy start-up. When I tell people about my job, they say, ‘Oh, that! I’ve seen it advertised on the Tube!’ Then they add, ‘Cool job!’
It is a cool job. On paper. Zoose is a young company, it’s growing fast, there’s a living wall of plants in our open-plan workspace, and free herbal tea. When I first started here, a couple of years ago, I did feel lucky. Every day I woke up and thought ‘Lucky me!’ But at some point that transitioned into waking up and thinking, ‘Oh God, oh please, I can’t do this, how many emails have I got, how many meetings, what have I missed, how will I cope, what am I going to do?’
I’m not sure when that was. Maybe six months ago? Seven? But it feels as if I’ve been in this state for ever. Kind of in a tunnel, where the only thing I can do is keep going. Just keep going.
I write myself yet another Post-it reminder – FLAG EMAILS!!! – and stick it above my computer screen, next to APP??, which has been there for months.
My mum’s into apps. She’s got a Christmas-planning app and a holiday-planning app and a talking clock from her gadget catalogue, which reminds you to take your vitamins every 7.30 a.m. (It also reminds you to do pelvic-floor exercises every night and calls out ‘inspirational quotes’ randomly throughout the day. I find it very weird and con- trolling, although I haven’t told her that.)
Anyway, I’m sure she’s right – if I could just find the right app, my life would fall into place. But there are too many to choose from and, my God, they all needso much input. I have a bullet journal, which came with coloured gel pens. You’re supposed to write out all your tasks, colour-code them and tick them off. But who has time for that? Who has time to select a turquoise pen and write ‘Answer those thirty-four furious emails in your inbox’ and then find an appropriate sad-face sticker? I’ve got precisely one entry in my bullet journal, which I made a year ago. It reads: ‘Task: work’. And it’s never ticked off.
I glance at the clock and feel a nasty lurch. How is it 11.27 already? I need to get on. Get on, Sasha.
Dear Rob, I’m so sorry I have not yet got back to you on this, please accept my apologies. I must type those words, what, twenty times a day? We are looking at 12 April now, and I will be sure to advise you of any change. Meanwhile, on the subject of the roll-out (Netherlands), the decision was made that—
I’m so preoccupied that when a familiar strident voice breaks into my thoughts, I jump right off my office chair.
‘Got a sec?’
My whole body stiffens. A sec? A sec? No. I do not have a sec. I’m sweating through my shirt. My fingers are on fire. I have a million other urgent emails after this one, I need to get on, I do not have a sec . . .
But Joanne, our Empowerment and Wellbeing Officer, is heading towards me. Joanne is in her forties, maybe ten years older than me, although she often says ‘Women of our age’ in meetings, with a glance at me. She’s dressed in her usual athleisure trousers and expensive, understated T-shirt, and has a disapproving look in her eye that I recognize all too well. I’ve messed up. But how? Hastily I grope in my mind for crimes I might have committed, but I can’t think of any. With a sigh, I stop typing and turn my chair towards her a smidge. Just enough to be polite.
‘Sasha,’ she says briskly, flicking back her straightened hair. ‘I’m a little disappointed with your level of engagement in our employee joyfulness programme.’
Shit. Joyfulness. I knew I’d forgotten something. I thought I’d written myself a Post-it – JOYFULNESS! – but maybe it fell off my computer? I shift my gaze and, sure enough, there are two Post-its stuck to the radiator: JOYFULNESS! and GAS BILL.
‘Sorry,’ I say, trying to sound ingratiating and humble. ‘I’m really sorry, Joanne. Sorry.’
Sometimes, if you say ‘Sorry’ enough times to Joanne, she moves on. But not today. She leans against my desk and my stomach clenches. I’m in for the full lecture.
‘Asher has also noticed your lack of participation, Sasha.’ She eyes me more closely. ‘As you know, Asher is particularly committed to the joyfulness of employees.’
Asher is Head of Marketing and therefore my boss. He’s also the brother of Lev, the founder of Zoose, the famous one. Lev is the one who came up with the idea of Zoose. He was arriving at an airport when the notion came to him, and he sat in a cafe in the terminal all day, missing six flights to Luxembourg, while he sketched out the first concepts. That’s the story, anyway. I’ve seen him tell it on a TED Talk.
Lev is wiry and charismatic and charming and asks everyone questions all the time. Whenever he’s in the office, he walks around, a distinctive figure with his wild hair, asking people ‘Why this?’,‘Why that?’, ‘What are you doing?’, ‘Why not try it this way?’ During my interview, he asked me about my coat and my university tutors and what I thought of motorway service stations. It was random and fun and inspiring.
But I never see him now, I only see Asher, who could be from a different planet than Lev. Asher has this thin layer of polished charm, which bowls you over at first. But then you realize he’s really self-important and prickly about Lev’s fame and very sensitive to anything he sees as criticism. Which is pretty much any response apart from ‘That’s a ground-breaking idea, Asher, you’re a genius!’
(In every meeting, whatever stupid thing he says, Joanne exclaims, ‘That’s a ground-breaking idea, Asher, you’re a genius!’)
Anyway. So you have to be careful around Asher, and equally careful around Joanne, who is Asher’s old friend from uni and strides around like his henchwoman, looking for heretics.
‘I fully support Asher’s joyfulness programme,’ I say hastily, trying to sound sincere. ‘I attended the Zoom lecture by Dr Sussman yesterday. It was inspirational.’
The Zoom lecture by Dr Sussman (‘Downwards Can Be Upwards! A Journey to Personal Fulfilment’) was compul- sory for all employees. It was two hours long and was mostly Dr Sussman talking about her divorce and subsequent sexual awakening in a commune in Croydon. I have no idea what it was supposed to teach us, but at least because it was on Zoom I managed to get some work done at the same time.
‘I’m talking about the online aspirations mood board, Sasha,’ says Joanne, folding her toned arms like a scary gym teacher who’s about to make you do twenty press-ups. (Is she about to make me do twenty press-ups?) ‘You haven’t logged in for ten days, we notice. Do you have no aspirations?’
Oh God. The online bloody aspirations mood board. I completely forgot about that.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I’ll get to it.’
‘Asher is a very caring head of department,’ Joanne says, her eyes still narrowed. ‘He’s keen that each employee takes time to reflect on their goals and note their everyday joyful moments. Are you making notes of your everyday joyful moments?’
I’m dumbstruck. An everyday joyful moment? What would one of those look like?
‘This is for your own empowerment, Sasha,’ continues Joanne. ‘We at Zoose care about you.’ She makes it sound like an accusation. ‘But you have to care about yourself, too.’
Out of the corner of my eye I can see that six more urgent emails have arrived in my inbox while we’ve been talk- ing. I feel nausea rising as I see all the red exclamation marks. How am I supposed to have time to reflect? How can I feel joyful when I’m constantly gripped by panic? How am I supposed to write down my aspirations when my only aspiration is ‘stay on top of life’ and I’m failing at that?
‘Actually, Joanne . . .’ I take a deep breath. ‘What’s most bothering me is, when are Seamus and Chloe going to be replaced? I asked that on the aspirations board, but no one answered.’
This is the biggest issue. This is the killer. We just don’t have enough staff. Chloe was a maternity cover who lasted a week, and Seamus stayed for a month, had a flaming row with Asher and walked out. As a result, everyone is over- loaded, and there’s still no news on any replacements.
‘Sasha,’ says Joanne condescendingly, ‘I’m afraid you’ve rather misunderstood the function ofthe aspirations mood board. It isn’t about technical HR matters, it’s for personal goals and dreams.’
‘Well, it’s my personal goal and dream to have enough colleagues to do the work!’ I retort. ‘We’re all snowed under, and I’ve spoken to Asher so many times, but he just won’t give me a straight answer, you know what he’s—’
I cut myself off dead before I can say anything negative about Asher that she’ll report back to him and I’ll have to retract in a cringy meeting.
‘Are you twitching?’ says Joanne, peering at me.
‘No. What? Twitching?’ I put a hand to my face. ‘Maybe.’
She’s blanked my actual question, I notice. How is it some people can do that? I can’t help glancing at my monitor – and Rob Wilson has just emailed yet again, this time with four exclamation marks.
‘Joanne, I have to get on,’ I say, in desperation. ‘But thanks for the empowerment. I feel so much more . . . powered.’
I need to do something, I think frantically, as she finally walks away and I resume typing. I need to do something. This job isn’t what it was supposed to be. Nothing like. I was so excited when I got it, two years ago. Director of Special Promotions of Zoose! I started off at a sprint, giving it my all, thinking Iwas on a solid path towards an exciting horizon. But the path isn’t solid any more. It’s mud. Deep, gloopy mud.
I press Send, breathe out and rub my face. I need a coffee. I stand up, stretch my arms and wander over to the window for a breather. The office is silent and intent; half of my team are working from home today. Lina’s in, but she’s typing furiously at her workstation, her headphones clamped over her ears and a murderous scowl on her face. No wonder Joanne left her well alone.
Do I leave? Change jobs? But, oh God, it takes so much energy to change jobs. You have to read recruitment ads and talk to headhunters and decide on acareer strategy. You have to dig out your CV and remember what you’ve achieved and choose outfits for interviews, then somehow secretly fit the interviews into your working day. You have to sound sparky and dynamic while a scary panel quizzes you. Smile brightly when they keep you waiting for forty minutes, while simultaneously stressing out about how behind you’re getting with your actual job.
And that’s just one job application. Then they turn you down and you have to start again. The prospect makes me want to curl up under the duvet. I can’t even seem to sort out my passport renewal right now. Let alone my life.
I lean against the glass, my gaze drifting downwards. Our office is situated in a wide, functional street in north London, full of nasty eighties office blocks and a disappointing shopping centre and, totally randomly, a convent, right opposite. It’s a Victorian building and you wouldn’t know it’s a convent if it wasn’t for the nuns coming in and out. Modern nuns, who wear jeans with their veil andcatch buses to God knows where. Homeless shelters probably, to do good work. As I’m watching, a couple of nuns emerge, talking animatedly, and sit on the bench at the bus stop. I mean, look at them. They lead a completely different life to mine. Do nuns have emails? I bet they don’t. I bet they’re not even allowed to email. They don’t have to reply to 103 WhatsApps a night. They don’t have to apologize to angry people all day. They don’t have to fill in online aspirations mood boards. All their values are different.
Maybe I could lead a different life, too. Get a different job, move flat, change everything up. It just requires impetus. I need impetus. A sign from the universe, maybe.
Sighing, I turn away and head to the coffee machine. Caf- feine will have to get me through for now.
I walk out of the building at 6 p.m., breathing in the cold evening air in large gulps, as though I’vebeen suffocating all day. Our company is located above a Pret a Manger and I head there straight away, as I do every night.
The thing about Pret a Manger is, you can buy all your meals there, not just lunch. This is allowed. And once you have that revelation, then life becomes manageable. Or at least, more manageable.
I don’t know when cooking became so daunting. It kind of crept up on me. But now I just can’t face it. I cannot face buying some piece of . . . whatever . . . food, I guess, from the supermarket. And peeling it or whatever, cutting it up, getting out pans and looking for a recipe and then washing up afterwards. Just the thought overwhelms me. How do people do that every night?
Whereas the falafel and halloumi wrap is a nice warm, comforting supper which goes nicely with a glass of wine, and then you just chuck the wrapper in the bin.
I collect my wrap, a choc bar, some kind of ‘healthy’ drink in a can, and a bircher muesli – which is tomorrow’s breakfast – along with an apple. That’s my five a day. (OK, one a day, if you’re being pedantic.)
As I reach the till, I get out my credit card. And I’m expecting the usual silent electronic transaction, but when I touch my card on the reader, nothing happens. I look up and see the Pretguy smiling at me, his dark eyes warm and friendly.
‘You buy the same thing every night,’ he says. ‘Wrap, bircher muesli, apple, drink, choc bar. Same thing.’
‘Yes,’ I say, taken aback.
‘Don’t you ever cook? Go to a restaurant?’
At once, I stiffen. What is this, the food police?
‘I usually have work to catch up on.’ I smile tightly. ‘So.’
‘I’m training to be a chef,’ he replies easily. ‘I’m into food. Seems a shame to eat the same thing every day.’
‘Well. It’s fine. I like it. Thanks.’
I glance meaningfully at the card reader, but he doesn’t seem in any hurry to process the transaction.
‘You know what my perfect evening would be?’ he says. ‘It would involve you, by the way.’
His voice is low and kind of seductive. His eyes haven’t left mine, this whole conversation. I blink back at him, dis- concerted. What’s happening right now? Wait, is he hitting on me? Is he flirting with me?
Yes, he is. Shit! OK. What do I do?
Do I want to flirt back? How do I flirt back? How does that go, again? I try to reach inside myself for my flirting moves. For the light, fun version of Sasha Worth who would smile or say something witty. But I’ve lost it. I feel empty inside. I don’t have a line.
‘We’d walk round Borough Market,’ he continues, undaunted by my lack of response. ‘We’d buy vegetables, herbs, cheese. We’d go home, spend a few hours cooking, then eat a beautiful meal . . . and see where that took us. What do you think?’
His eyes are crinkling adorably. I know what he expects me to say. How do I tell him what I’m really thinking?
‘Honestly?’ I say, playing for time.
‘Honestly.’ His smile broadens infectiously. ‘Be as honest as it gets. I’m not scared.’
‘The truth is, it sounds kind of exhausting,’ I say bluntly.
‘All that cooking. Chopping. Clearing up. Potato peelings everywhere, you know? And some always fall on the floor and you have to sweep them up . . .’ I break off. ‘It’s not really for me.’
I can tell he’s taken aback by my answer, but he recovers almost at once. ‘We could skip the cooking,’ he suggests.
‘So, what, straight to sex?’
‘Well.’ He laughs, his eyes glinting. ‘Maybe move in that direction.’
Oh God, he seems a really nice guy. I need to be completely frank.
‘OK, so the issue with sex is, I’m not really interested in it at the moment. I can see how you would be into it,’ I add politely. ‘But for me, not so much. Thanks for the approach, though.’
I hear a gasp behind me and turn to see a woman in a purple coat staring at me. ‘Are you nuts?’ she exclaims. ‘I’ll come,’ she adds huskily. ‘I’ll come and cook with you. And the rest. Any time you like. Say the word.’
‘I’ll come!’ chimes in a good-looking man standing in the other queue. ‘You’re bi, right?’ he adds to the Pret guy, who looks freaked out and ignores both of them.
‘You’re not into sex?’ the Pret guy says, eyeing me curiously. ‘You’re religious?’
‘No, just gone off it. I broke up with someone a year ago and . . .’ I shrug. ‘Dunno. I find the whole notion unappealing.’
‘You find the whole notion of sex unappealing ?’ He gives a loud, incredulous laugh. ‘No. I don’t believe that.’
I feel a flash of annoyance, because who is this stranger to tell me what I might or might not find appealing?
‘It’s true!’ I retort, more vehemently than I intended. ‘What’s so great about sex? I mean, whenyou think about it,
what is sex? It’s . . . it’s . . .’ I cast wildly around. ‘It’s genitals rubbing together. I mean, really ? That’s supposed to be enjoyable? Genitals rubbing together?’
The entire shop is silent and I realize that about twenty people are staring at me.
OK, I’m going to need to find a different Pret.
‘I think I’ll pay now,’ I say, my face blazing hot. ‘Thanks.’
The Pret guy is silent as he takes my payment, fills my bag and hands it to me. Then he meets myeye again. ‘That’s just sad,’ he says. ‘Someone like you. It’s sad.’
His words hit a sensitive place, deep inside me. Someone like me. Who is that? I used to be someone who could flirt, have sex, have fun, enjoy life. Whoever I am right now, it’s not me. But I don’t seem able to be anyone else.
‘Yup.’ I nod. ‘It is.’
Usually I take my Pret supper back up to my desk, but I’m feeling so deflated by now, I decide to go straight home. As soon as I get inside my flat, I sink down on a chair, still in my coat, and close my eyes. Every night, I arrive back here and feel like I’ve just run a marathon, dragging an elephant behind me.
At length I open my eyes and find myself surveying the array of dead plants on the windowsill thatI’ve been intend- ing to chuck out for about six months.
I will one day. I really will. Just . . . not right this second.
Eventually, I manage to shrug off my coat, pour myself a glass of wine and settle on the sofa with my Pret bag at my feet. My phone is flashing with WhatsApp messages and I log on to see that my old uni friends are all chatting about some new plan where we all hold dinner parties in turn with movie themes, wouldn’t that be fun?
There is no way I’m having anyone round for a dinner party. I’d be too embarrassed. My flat is a shambles. Every- where I look, I see the evidence of some task I’ve been intending to do – from the unopened tester paint pots, to the exercise bands I was going to use, to the dead plant, to the magazines I haven’t read. It was Mum who gave me the subscription to Women’s Health. Mum, who works at an estate agency and does Pilates and has a full face of make-up on before 7 a.m. every day.
She makes me feel like a complete failure. How does she do it? By my age she was married and making lasagne every night for Dad. I have one job. One flat. No children. But still life feels impossible.
The WhatsApp group has now moved on to the subject of the latest box set and I feel like I should probably join in.
Sounds amazing! I type. I’ll definitely watch that!!
I’m lying. I won’t watch it. I don’t know what’s happened to me – maybe I have ‘box-set fatigue’? Or ‘box-set-discussion fatigue’? Conversations light up at work like bushfires taking hold, and it’s as if everyone’s suddenly in a secret club, outdoing each other with their expert analysis. ‘Oh, it’s totally underrated. It’s Shakespearean. You haven’t seen it? You have to.’ Whoever is furthest ahead in the viewing behaves like they’re Jed Mercurio, just because they know what happens in episode six. My ex-boyfriend Stuart was like that. ‘You wait,’ he would say proprietorially, as if he’d invented the whole thing. ‘You think it’s good so far? You wait.’
I used to watch box sets. I used to enjoy them. But my brain has gone on strike; I can’t cope with anything new. Instead, after I’ve finished eating my wrap, I turn on my TV, scroll down my planner, call up Legally Blonde and press ‘Play movie again’ for maybe the hundredth time.
I watch Legally Blonde every night and no one can stop me. As the opening song begins, I sag against my sofa and take a bite of choc bar, watching the familiar scenes in a mesmerized trance. This opening sequence is my downtime. It’s a few minutes when I don’t do anything, just gaze at a pink, marshmallow world.
Then, as Reese Witherspoon appears onscreen, it’s my cue to move. I come to, and reach for my laptop. I open my emails, take a deep breath as though surveying Mount Everest, then click on the first flagged one.
Dear Karina, I’m so sorry I have not yet got back to you on this.
I take a swig of wine. Please accept my apologies.