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Lessons from Houdini

31 October marked the 94th anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. Days before his death, he had a broken ankle, was running a fever and was suffering from acute appendicitis. Despite a doctor strongly advising that surgery was urgently required, he ignored the advice and performed what would turn out to be his last performance. He died believing he would recover, though apparently his last words were, “I’m tired of fighting… I do not want to fight anymore…”.

I’m reminded of Houdini when I think of this summer, when I discovered what I thought was just a heat rash was in fact shingles. It took me 2 months to realise that this might have been a symptom of an underlying problem. With hindsight, there were a few things that could explain why I was not 100%. My assumption that working from home would be casual fun were quickly dashed. Not only did work increase, but so did the urgency. I also found myself taking on responsibilities at a charity just when the charity was facing increased demand. At least I had running to let off steam… until the news announced that Ahmaud Arbery had been shot while running. The phrase, “running while black” was echoed everywhere. Suddenly, running outside became tense, rather than relaxing.  Looking back, I was excusing how bad I felt, believing I had no right to feel run down, given what others were going through.

Signs of burnout will not always manifest themselves in physical ailments, so it’s often something we don’t take seriously. It is, however, serious enough to warrant an inclusion in the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases: “An [occupational] syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

We are no good to anyone if we get to this stage, let alone good for ourselves. Our body and mind could be sending little signs that burnout is on its way. Aside from extreme signs like physical pain and illnesses, the path to burnout could start with:

  • Outbursts of emotion
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Problems managing boundaries
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Detachment, feeling disconnected from your surroundings and those around you
  • Loss of meaning and a feeling of hopelessness

I don’t want history to repeat itself, so when lockdown 2.0 was announced, I made the following commitments:

  • I am setting boundaries: I will stop letting work overtake my whole life. With the commute gone, I will be taking a mental commute before and after work.
  • I will do a mental inventory each day: is there anything that’s not quite right that I should check on?
  • I will maintain and re-establish social connections: I calculated that 80% of my conversations since March have been with work colleagues. What few friends I have must have assumed I fell off the face of the earth. I will reach out, rather than wait to hear from people
  • I will plan things to look forward to: even if its just a cupcake at the end of day.

And most importantly…

  • I will look out for triggers to avoid Houdini-like issues during the second lockdown.

Mr Houdini was 52 when he died. He had expected to continue performing for at least a couple more years, and not to end his career so abruptly in Detroit’s Grace Hospital. We’ll never really know if agreeing to address the pain earlier could have ultimately prevented his death. However, if we take anything from his life, is that thinking of ourselves first is not selfish, but can often be a necessity.


Efe Avan-Nomayo works at the Financial Conduct Authority and is a member of the Bar Council Employed Barristers Committee. Efe is a wellbeing representative from the Employed Bar.

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