I had a breakdown - and it's nothing to be ashamed of

Written by
Karam Filfilan

15 May 2018

15 May 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

Three-quarters of workers will experience symptoms of poor mental health in their lifetime. For David Brewin, People Advisory Services partner at EY, rock bottom happened when he could no longer be the perfect employee.

To his colleagues, David Brewin was a reliable, personable high-achiever – the EY managing partner they turned to ‘to get things done’ in a crisis. But inside, the sense of detachment from the world he had felt since his teenage years was becoming unmanageable.

“Every so often, there would be periods of acute depression. I didn’t know what they were, but I would feel compressed, like the world was squeezing down on me. I’d be completely lacking in energy, and would take a week off for a cold. I had no idea what was going on,” he says.

Brewin had drifted in and out of therapy throughout adulthood, looking for a solution to his feelings, but as his career progressed, he kept his problems hidden. In his eyes, he was a successful partner at one of the world’s leading professional services firms, renowned for his ability to absorb pressure. What did he have to feel worried about?

Then, in 2010, things came to a head. His personal relationship ended and he was asked to take on a stressful reorganisation project at work which, he says, crystallised in him “an inability to function”.

“I remember sitting at my desk, knowing what needed to happen, but not able to do it,” he recalls. “It was a feeling I didn’t understand, because I’d always been able to rely on my ability to get things done. This time, I couldn’t concentrate. My head wasn’t working. It was as if I’d lost myself; the core of who I was wasn’t working and it was scary.”

Unbeknown to Brewin, his team was about to intervene. In the midst of his panic, he took a call from his secretary, who told him a car was waiting for him outside to go to mental health clinic The Priory.

“I hadn’t spoken to her about how I was feeling – she just knew. I didn’t fight it, I had a sense of resigned relief: I give up. I need to yield, whatever happens, happens,” he remembers.

How do you define yourself?

According to research by Business in the Community, 77% of employees in the UK will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. These can include panic attacks, mood swings, physical symptoms such as migraines or dizziness, or simple anxiety.

For many, the episode will be the culmination of something that has been going on for many years, whether low-level anxiety, a feeling of detachment, or periods of depression. But are we doing enough to recognise the symptoms and stop them escalating?

Brewin does not believe his breakdown was a stress reaction to circumstances, but rather a realisation that he hadn’t been happy for many years and that the way he engaged – and coped – with the world had had led him to mask his true self.

“The disconnect between head and heart meant I was living two different lives – one that I presented to the world, which was the Dave that got things done, and the one inside, which was a scared little boy who’d learned to navigate the complexities of the adult world, but deep down was anxious and wasn’t taking care of himself,” he explains.

“The message from the doctors was to access my emotional wellbeing and look after the whole of me, rather than just the intellectual capacity I had to get things done. I needed to be a whole person.”

Too often, Brewin says, we define ourselves by our work and what we do, rather than by our personalities and what we are. This tension leaves too many people living dual lives, unable to be themselves at work. The perfect example of this is that most people say their family and children are more important than their jobs, but very few act as if it is true.

“When someone says ‘good to meet you Dave, what do you do?’, there are a lot of loaded assumptions. What you do is a code for who you are and your priorities. Too often, we define and value who we are by what we do and I think that’s a root cause of a lot of depression,” he argues.

Brewin urges a sea change in attitudes towards work, starting with the individual: we must be honest with ourselves about our desires, fears and feelings.

“The one person who hears everything you say is yourself,” he says. “We wouldn’t speak to our worst enemy the way we talk to ourselves, like a nagging bully saying ‘I should have done this, I ought to have done that’.”

The recovery

Brewin is keen to acknowledge the support given to him by EY throughout his illness. After a period of leave following a month long stay at The Priory, he returned to the firm’s Manchester office as a tax partner – the role he first had when joining in 1997. He admits it “took some adjustment” to transition from a senior position to a smaller role, but says he was just grateful to be back at work, whether pitching to prospective clients or interacting with colleagues, despite his nerves.

He recalls his first client meeting after his breakdown, where he confided to a colleague about being unsure as to whether he’d be able to pitch effectively.

“I genuinely thought all the stuff I was good at – being smart, quick-witted, getting things done – was gone. I didn’t know if I could do it anymore. But when I went into the meeting, it was like riding a bike. That was a turning point for me.”

Brewin rebuilt his career in Manchester before returning to the London office in 2014 as COO of EY UK Financial Services, subsequently taking up his current role as a partner of its People Advisory Service.

To the outside world, it might seem as if Brewin had a period of ill health and returned to the status quo. By contrast, he stresses that his approach to work and how he relates to the world have been transformed by his experiences.

“I have the same focus and way of doing things, but I‘m much more sensitive to stressful situations. It’s not that I don’t go into them, but I’m more aware of them.

“Now I can physically feel stress in my chest and I listen to that. If I have a challenging day, I take care of myself, whether speaking to a loved one, going to the gym or simply making sure I don’t drink alcohol,” he adds.

While emphasising that work didn’t cause his breakdown (he believes it would have happened whatever job he had), Brewin argues that the future of work provides challenging questions for how we maintain our wellbeing in an era of ceaseless email, globalisation and economic turmoil.

To someone feeling the strain he advises: “Get professional help. It’s a crass example, but if someone breaks their leg, they see a doctor, not someone who has broken their leg before. But more than anything, be kind to yourself. Value yourself for who you are, not what you do.”

To hear David talk about his experiences in his own words, listen to our Future Talent Podcast with him, available on iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud