Welcome to our “Burn Brighter” series. In this series, we will be sharing stories of real people who not only overcome burnout but also thrived as a result of their burnout. In the first of our showcase, we share the story of James, the Lead Thrive-Synergist & Founder of Emmaus Strategies LLP.
Not your typical 9-5 PMEB, James is part eclectic, part happy go lucky and part serious, but mostly grounded in his values and beliefs. For someone who wears many hats at work, versatility is a virtue of this virtuoso. Driven by passion, he often tinkers with creative ideas on how to fuel good and improve the mental well being of fellow Singaporeans. Having defeated burnout previously, helping others overcome burnout is second nature to him.
Q: Tell us more about yourself
James: A sojourner, an advocate, a life decoder, a coach and a fuel gooder; perhaps some words to paint a picture of who I am as a person. As an introspective person, I love the challenge of thinking and making sense of work and life. I personally believe that there is more to life than just mere existence and with the coach and advocate part of me taking over at times, I enjoy taking all that I have gleaned about life and work and sharing with people so I can “fuel good” while also feeling good.
Q: With your extensive experience across the social service sector, what inspired you to take the road less travelled and start a social enterprise?
James: To be honest, I stumbled upon social entrepreneurship by accident. The television dramas that accompanied my childhood helped shaped my decision to enter into a vocation focusing on helping people (though I had no idea then what this would look like). Soon after, I decided that this vocation may take the form of being a teacher because I was so deeply inspired by the dedication of my teachers. However, years later, as I contemplated which course of study to undertake, I became acquainted with the social work profession and fell instantly in love with it. I soon landed my first job as a social worker. Armed with the passion of a young social worker to “change the world”, I did whatever I could to make that a reality. However, little did I expect that after working for more than a decade in growing and managing volunteer programmes for non-profit organizations, I experienced severe burnout. As I stood at the crossroads battling burnout and read about how more Singaporeans were experiencing mental health challenges, I developed a deep burden within me to take action. Thus, despite not having any experience running a social enterprise nor having any clue how to do so, I put one foot forward. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Q: What would you consider your greatest accomplishment in life so far?
James: While much of the work I do requires me to be at the front line interacting with people, I am an introvert by nature. Thus, one of my greatest accomplishments in life has been to conquer the fear of public speaking – that of being able to stand before a conference crowd of a few hundred participants delivering a presentation on strategic volunteer partnerships a few years ago. What made this a particularly memorable experience was that I overcame my introversion in the most unlikely manner. Doing what was necessary to move forward, I overcame my previous bad experience of standing speechless at a speaking competition some years back. I felt thrilled and exhilarated as I also succeeded in delivering a predominantly image-based presentation for the first time instead of the usual text-heavy presentation style I was used to. Needless to say, this is the modus operandi of how I conduct talks and presentations currently.
Q: How do you achieve purpose and clarity in life?
James: My first encounter with the concept of “purpose” was in 2015 when I had my first burnout experience. Somehow, the bible verse from Jeremiah 29:11 kept coming into my life at that time; it reads “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” From then on, things took a positive turn, as I started to make better sense of who I am and the natural skills and talents that I have been endowed with. I was led to jobs where these skills and talents were the right fit and I continued to acquire other skills which would prove to be helpful in the later stages of my career.
About 4 years ago, I came across the book “Halftime” and as it guided me to reflect on my personal mission statement. I wrote down that I had wanted to be a “launchpad” for others by offering my skills and talents to help others to thrive. Little did I expect that what I had written 4 years ago would come to pass when I started the work of Emmaus in 2017 to help others thrive. Thus I would say having a constant introspection of what makes you uniquely you and the specific vocational purpose that God has for your life helps one to have purpose and clarity in life.
Q: You battled depression and burnout a few years ago. How did you bounce back?
James: The few years I spent battling depression and burnout were not exactly easy. In retrospect, I would say what helped me to bounce back from depression and burnout were the key ingredients of support, willingness to seek help, faith and effort.
I was blessed to have support from my family and friends. Instead of judging me or asking me to “snap out of it”, they believed in me and gave me time and space to work out my depression and burnout, seeking to understand and encourage me from time to time. This made me feel loved and less alone.
Willingness to seek help is also important. As a mental health practitioner myself, I felt I should be on top of things. However, I was wrong. Being open to seeking help and subsequently working with my psychiatrist, counsellor and pastoral counsellor helped me to further gain clarity into my struggle and how I could overcome it.
Perhaps the biggest game changer is that of my Christian faith. My faith helped me catch hold of hope and purpose which were slipping away with each day of depression and burnout. It helped me to turn around my destructive thinking patterns and adopt a more wholesome way of thinking as I made better sense of myself and the world. The daily quiet time I spent every morning reading and meditating on God’s Word was crucial. Without fail, I would receive a word of comfort and help from God that would speak directly to my situation.
Lastly, walking out of burnout and depression takes personal effort. It is one thing to have support, be willing to seek help and have faith but the critical part, I guess, is what I do with all that. Battling mental health challenges can be extremely debilitating and draining; often times, it was so tempting for me to just “waste away” and not do anything at all. However, I needed to act and find help; I needed to stay connected with the people who care for me; I needed to engage in spiritual discipline so I can combat the lies in my thought life that keep me from being who I am meant to be and I needed to take steps to fight to the end – whether through keeping a thanksgiving journal or limiting the use of screens as a way of escaping my reality.
I managed to bounce back many a time and am a much different person today as I continue to learn and grow. With all that I have gleaned these few years, I hope to share my experiences with others so they can benefit from my sharing.
In retrospect, I would say what helped me to bounce back from depression and burnout were the key ingredients of support, willingness to seek help, faith and effort.”
Q. What was the most important lesson you learnt from the struggles you’ve faced, and how do you perceive them now?
James: I have learned that mountains such as depression and burnout, though as insurmountable as they may seem at first, are conquerable. It takes time and effort but then there is hope and there’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel. I once came across someone writing about depression on social media. This lady shared that as she looks at her family now, she is glad that she had not succumbed to thoughts of ending her life when all seemed bleak. Along the same line, I also recalled how my psychiatrist once reminded me that we must not choose the permanent solution of ending our lives to escape the temporary problem we are facing. Thus, I now remind myself whenever I face any challenge that this too shall pass. For those who need to be reminded that there is hope, I dedicate Jeremiah 29:11 to you.
I have learnt that mountains such as depression and burnout, as insurmountable as they may seem at first, are conquerable.”
Q: What are your current goals and what motivates you to achieve them?
James: When I set up Emmaus, I had the simple vision of every individual, organization and community living out the best version of who they are meant to be. Along the way, I have also come to learn that burnout and mental health challenges can keep us from thriving. At present, I feel that we are just scratching the surface of mental wellness of Singaporeans. Thus, I hope to be able to help people start conversations about burnout and mental wellness and to appreciate the fact that burnout, rather than being a solely negative experience, can also yield good, as it presents us with the opportunity to confront what is keeping us from thriving and overcoming it.
Emmaus will be launching a series of public education initiatives to that end and we hope to reach out to at least 15 organizations by end 2020. This vision coupled with the sense of purpose I see in my life, the burden I feel for helping people prevent and overcome burnout, as well as my personal gratitude to God for helping me overcome depression, burnout and a few other major trials in my life continue to drive what I do.
… burnout rather than being a solely negative experience, can also yield good, as it presents us with the opportunity to confront what is keeping us from thriving and overcoming it.”
Q: Cafe Wowee (Working Optimally Without Encountering Exhaustion) is Emmaus’ latest venture to fuel good. How can the Cafe help readers prevent and overcome burnout, and lead a more meaningful life?
James: I have seen the damage that burnout can do to our physical and mental health, our work, our life and our relationships. Burnout hurts not only us but our loved ones as well. As such, I strongly believe that we must start conversations about burnout.
With Cafe Wowee, we hope to facilitate this very conversation to help people learn what burnout is all about and also provide them with specific handles on how they can keep burnout at bay. This is the very spirit of Cafe Wowee – encouraging dialogue between people to help them thrive.
Q: You wear many hats at work – that of a trainer, an accountant, and a marketing professional, not to mention you personally troubleshoot your IT problems. Tell us how you manage!
James: Well, I have come to learn the hard way that running a “one-man show” social enterprise is no simple feat. However, during the last few years, I have found that 4Ps – purpose, priority, people and processes helped me along in this journey.
Firstly, being clear about why I am doing what I am doing (purpose) keeps me going even when the going gets tough. Having said that, with many things vying for my attention every day, I also need to be realistic, lest I burn out again. I have learned that work is never-ending; having a “to-do” list is, therefore, essential as it helps me to prioritize what I do each day.
In addition, travelling on the less travelled road I am on now is definitely lonely, so it makes sense for me to share my vision and heartbeat with like-minded people and invite them to join me on this advocacy journey against burnout. Indeed, people are the driving force behind achieving significant and sustainable change. Today, I am blessed to have with me a team of skilled and talented volunteers (we call them FuelGooders) who help me with marketing, finance, administration, research, lesson planning and strategy. Much of how far we have come as Emmaus has been made possible because of my FuelGooders and I am deeply grateful to and for them.
Lastly, I also need to sustain the work I do with efficient and effective processes. I once came across a cheeky poster in the toilet which reminded us how every big business requires paperwork. Thus I intentionally design my work processes so that my operations can be lean and where necessary, I automate with IT.
We thank James for the heartfelt sharing of his journey battling burnout and depression and in setting up Emmaus.
We hope you have been blessed by this showcase. Indeed, everyone has life stories which could fuel good, encourage and inspire others. Know such a story of a person who overcame burnout and thrived thereafter? Connect with us as we tap into the power of stories to bring about healing and positive change.
Want to learn other handles to preventing or overcoming burnout? Join us for our upcoming events or join our mailing list to be notified of them. Burnout-proof your team too by talking to us. You may also find out what we offer here.
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Linnette is one who loves intellectual discussions and believes that journaling is one of the best ways to declutter your mind. Old school butter cake with a cup of English tea is one of her favorite indulgences.