Combine the competitive working practices in the legal profession with the high-achieving personality of the perfectionist lawyer and you have the typical recipe for burnout. The same phenomenon is replayed in many other professions and across businesses today, barely discussed in quiet whispers for fear of stigma or censure.
John Nagulendran, who has been operating at the highest levels in organisations over the last 20 years, has first-hand experience when burnout came knocking.
Following a legal career at Herbert Smith Freehills, John joined Swiss-based Pala Investments in 2010 where he spent the last 12 years leading teams in private equity investing. For years, John was driving high performance in his work, but in an increasingly unsustainable way - often working evenings, weekends and taking calls on family holidays during crunch times.
“The burden of leadership during high stakes negotiations and crisis moments feels like something that can never be put down. There was always another problem to solve, or yet another important conference call or meeting to attend. I felt that I always had a personal responsibility to turn up and be available. As hard as it is to admit, ego was my enemy, and I overestimated my own importance,” he says.
Recognising the signs of burnout
John didn’t appreciate what the signs of burnout meant as they started to show - working harder, neglecting self-care, losing touch with what was important, increased reactivity in personal relationships, and a mind that wouldn’t quiet. “It just wasn’t the done thing to truly rest, disconnect and recharge – it felt like nobody could ever be ‘offline’ in this industry, or people would think we can’t hack it. Or at least that was the narrative I had playing on loop,” John reflects.
Often, it takes those around us to become more self-aware. One of John’s close friends, Cassandra Joseph (now GC at Ivanhoe Electric), who had worked alongside John over several years observes, “It is a highly stressful environment and, unsurprisingly, the emotional load takes its toll over time. I saw the strain gradually taking hold of John and I pointed this out to him. He cared for his team deeply and always wanted to be there for them.”
After a particularly challenging period working on high-stakes transactions, coupled with prolonged and sustained pressures associated with resolving conflicts and leading and managing teams over years, John suddenly found himself immobilised one morning last October while on a business trip in London as he cleared through emails.
“I had hit the wall - I simply couldn’t function,” John recalls. “I remember sitting at the hotel room desk at 7am staring at my laptop feeling sick in both my heart and lungs. I felt emotionally and physically exhausted. I literally heard my body telling my mind that it was ‘time out’ and that it was ‘shutting down’ now whether I liked it or not. We all experience burnout in different forms and through different sensations from time to time, and this was how burnout felt for me that October morning."
Support network is crucial
That morning, John connected with his former boss, Herbert Smith Freehills partner Alan Montgomery who suggested John seek a doctor’s help immediately. Alan, his colleagues, Samantha Brown and Danielle Kelly at Herbert Smith Freehills, as well as many others such as Cassandra and John’s family and friends then became part of an informal support network that was invaluable to John over the following weeks as he took steps to prioritise his health and begin the journey of recovery from burnout under the supervision of his doctors.
“The immediate aftermath of putting the brakes on work abruptly after so many years and sitting at home was not easy. There were days I felt helpless and defeated, and there were other days I felt resentful and bitter. As they say, comparison is the thief of joy. It was painful to watch how the world moves on with or without me as if my sacrifices over the years did not matter,” admits John. John’s own employer, Pala Investments, supported John to take an extended leave of absence to recover, with the goal to reset and reflect on his priorities and approach to work.
“My team at Pala rallied around me. The heroes were Kate Southwell (now Deputy GC at Anglo American) and Shane Attersley (now GC at Pala Investments). Both stepped up to take on my responsibilities allowing me to take the time away,” John shares. “I can’t stress enough the importance of building a network of trust and psychological safety at work, so you have people you can lean on when the going gets tough. I recall Kate’s phone call saying, “We have got your back John, just focus on getting better now.”
Purging stress “stuck” in our body
“I realise the irony now, because at Pala Investments, I was championing the agenda for a more thriving culture built on both high performance and well-being – investing in mental health workshops and leadership development. I admit this was my blind spot. I was so focussed on helping the team take care of themselves that I failed to take care of myself,” John reflects.
“It’s often the way with mental health and well-being initiatives. One never seems to think they apply to us because we haven’t hit rock bottom and we’re still functioning. Often, we’re just surviving. Yet, we need to invest in our mental health before we even get near the slippery slope to burnout,” adds John. His personal coach, Rebecca Moore, shared this quote with John that he thinks will help others. It is from the book “Burnout” written by Drs Emily and Amelia Nagoski:
“To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.”
John points out, “Stress itself isn’t bad, but I was “stuck” in stress. My nervous system was activated, and I was increasingly being triggered. I just didn’t realise until it went all the way to freeze. I’ve since learnt that stress is held physically in our body because we have cortisol and adrenaline in our system ready for a ‘fight-or-flight’ response. The only way to get rid of it is to purge it - whether through sports and exercise (that’s most effective), breathing, meditation, connecting with others, learning, and artistic expression – whatever works to move the stress out of your body every day. Avoid numbing stress with more work, alcohol, Netflix, or anything else that’s allowing the cortisol to stay where it is.”
Rituals of rest and prioritising well-being
During his six-month break, John used the space initially to rest and recover, and then later refocus on what gives him positive energy. He attended a Harvard Business School programme on authentic leadership, which helped him reconnect with his personal values, purpose and the impact he wants to make. He also enrolled in an INSEAD flagship negotiation programme which teaches participants how to manage emotions in conflict situations and become a better, more collaborative negotiator, (and leader) and in the process build stronger long-term sustainable relationships.
“Interestingly, I discovered that devoting my energy towards learning new skills alongside others in the classroom was helping me to recharge my batteries. Learning is one of my coping strategies today for purging the stress out of my body,” he says.
John also used this time to reconnect with some of his closest friends and trusted mentors for advice and perspectives on navigating through his burnout recovery. John admits that he has had to dial back some of the unconscious “know-it-all” attitude built up over his legal career and learn what it means to have a growth mindset, by being more curious and open-minded to other perspectives from friends and mentors.
One such long-time mentor played an invaluable role in John’s burnout recovery journey. VK Rajah, John’s former pupil master at Rajah & Tann where John started his legal career 22 years ago, observes, “Our drive and commitment to work can cause us at times to unconsciously blur priorities and subordinate one’s well-being. This happened to John. We must all learn better when to say enough is enough. Senior colleagues have a responsibility not just to assess work performance but to also monitor the well-being of all who work with them. Mutual support and trust reinforce each other and promotes resilience. John is making a positive difference by promoting greater awareness about the necessity for self-care and availability of empathetic mentors.”
Besides spending more quality time with his daughters, John and his wife Dorothy also went on a nine-day Kumano Kodo trekking trip, following ancient trails through deep forested valleys in Japan. The peace and mental serenity he experienced walking six to seven hours each day in nature was deeply restorative.
Today, John has fully recovered from burnout and has built a ritual of rest, exercise and activities such as yoga and reading in his daily and weekly routine, while also devoting time for learning new skills. He is actively involved in the daily activities of his three daughters in Zug where he resides, and he has been making more regular trips to Singapore to spend time with his parents and siblings. During this time away from his career, John has also been prioritising his passions: volunteering in his local community and partnering with ETH Zürich, a Swiss university, and the Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue to establish scholarships for their postgraduate programme in peace mediation, which train mediators working in peace processes all around the world.
Gratitude and changing the narrative
Reflecting back, John is grateful for the generosity and support he received from his family, close friends, co-workers, mentors, and his former colleagues and personal coach who had all rallied around and supported John’s recovery from burnout.
“They say crises in our lives are unique opportunities for learning and personal growth, allowing us to refocus and tackle new challenges. I came to terms that ‘it’s okay not to be okay’. I was fortunate in my career to work at organisations such as Herbert Smith Freehills, Pala Investments and Rajah & Tann where teams truly care for each other. You don’t recover from burnout with just a week or two off. It takes much longer than you think to build greater resilience and emotional agility. You can’t do it successfully unless you are surrounded by a supportive network, including a caring employer,” he acknowledges.
Leaning on religion also played an essential role in John’s recovery from burnout. He says, “Faith in God helped me to find meaning and inner peace in this increasingly complex and uncertain world we live in. It frames who I am and shapes my values. For others, it could be spirituality or some other beliefs which connect them to something bigger than themselves.”
John adds, “Burnout is a serious problem today in our relentless pursuit of productivity and success. I’m sharing my story to reduce the stigma around burnout in our workplace, to ensure people pay attention to how dysregulated they might be, and to ask for help before it gets worse. First and foremost, each of us needs to take personal responsibility by enabling a ‘rhythm of rest’ in our daily and weekly routines - this means intentionally setting aside time on a consistent basis to rest, refresh and restore ourselves for the next task or challenge. Last but not least, senior leaders must recognise that long-term sustainable high performance in their workplace only emerges from such a ‘rhythm of rest’, and this requires a mindset shift where organisations intentionally support their people in taking time out to recharge their batteries.”
Today burnout continues to be a stigma in the workplace and is a topic not openly discussed between senior leaders and their employees due to concerns that showing vulnerability could lead to risks of losing one's job or perceptions of weakness. Martina Reber, who has been with Pala Investments for over 15 years, argues, "When senior leaders themselves, through their own behaviours and actions, prioritise their well-being by having the courage to take time out from work to replenish their energy, they bring humanity back into the workplace. They set a powerful mindset in the workplace where each employee can feel safe to create a healthy routine of work and rest without fear of stigmatisation."
Dogs and lessons learnt
On a lighter note, John’s wife Dorothy jokes, “Deep down John recognised that it was time to pause and realign his approach to work. When your daughter starts asking her father why he is always on his phone outside the restaurant, that is the wake-up call. I recall John coming home late from work one evening last year to find a note with the title ‘Reasons to get a dog’. Our daughter had wisely concluded that the best way to get John’s attention was to research the internet and present a “memo” to him on 42 benefits of getting a dog! I do believe that was the day John was not only ‘ready to hear, but to also listen’. John realised that very moment that if raising our daughters to become strong, confident and resilient young women was important to him, it became necessary for him to be truly present and fully engaged in their lives. This had become a key priority in John’s life and required redesigning work and not just leaving the task to the dog!”
Watch this space as John reorientates the next phase of his career towards more meaningful challenges that give him greater alignment with his core values, and prioritising the activities which are more important to him at this time of his life. He is determined to be more intentional with the use of his energy and time and in his relationships.
John’s summary of his key learnings:
- Develop a discipline of self-care even when you’re well – manage your stress out of your body every day.
- Nurture your support network at work and home – having good mentors is critical, you never know when you’ll need them.
- Develop absolute clarity on core values, what gives you energy and what’s most important to you. Then create healthy boundaries that protect these things.
This article was first published in Herbert Smith Freehills alumni webpage. John is helping organisations and friends leading teams understand his burnout experience and how they can take small steps to tackle the growing crisis in our workplaces. If anyone wishes to connect with John to seek support as they navigate through chronic stress or burnout to find a rhythm of rest in their lives, he is happy to be contacted at [email protected]