By Kay Newton
Sarah Ross is the founder of ‘Your Reason to Breathe’, a consultancy that helps executives and their teams limit the impact of burnout in the workplace. And her journey to reach this point in her professional life is deeply personal.
Before Sarah burnt out in the corporate world herself, she had the perfect Instagram life. She was jet-setting around the world, drinking champagne in business class [she just returned from her 103rd country], and had an amazing lifestyle.
“Yet I was not looking after myself,” she admits. “My relationship started to suffer. I even gave up my dream job so that I could be with my partner but he repaid me by cheating on me and leaving me.”
As Sarah grieved her lost job and relationship, her health declined. She dealt with the continuous stress by throwing herself further into work. “My body started giving me signs that things were not right and I began to have migraines for 25 days a month. It got to the point where I thought life wasn’t worth living. I just wanted the pain to stop and so I decided to choose a day on which I would end my life.”
Sarah chose a date six months in the future.
“I made a plan to say goodbye to everyone though I hid my pain from the people I loved and carried on as if everything was normal. I did a coaching qualification and went on personal-development courses. I also did the things that I had always wanted to do, yet never had the time. I saw the Northern Lights and then headed to an orphanage for disabled children in Vietnam. This was my last destination because even though my life was a mess, I could still paint nails and hug children – that was all they wanted, someone to spend time with them – and I could do that before I left this world.”
Then, on Christmas Day 2014, Sarah found her reason to breathe.
“I was in Vietnam for four months. The first two months were a pretty dark place and I was not a very nice person to be around. Then I had this crazy thought that if this was to be my last Christmas, it should be a fun one and I should be ‘Father Christmas’. I wore a Santa outfit and spent the day handing out sweets, giving hugs and having my beard pulled.”
Towards the end of the day, the orphanage staff told Sarah that one of the little girls would not make it through the night and it was time to say goodbye. She headed into the child’s room and as she leaned over the crib, the little girl reached up and held Sarah’s fake beard.
“I watched her breathe. At that moment she probably had just a few hours left of life and yet she was fighting for every breath.”
It was a wakeup call for Sarah. “There was me, educated, travelling the world, relatively healthy, with a family who loved me, and I wanted to give up. That little girl gave me the greatest gift as she passed on, that pure lightness of: ‘What if I did not give up? What if I had a reason to breathe?’ She gave me the courage to ask for help, to turn my life around,” says Sarah.
A few days later, on New Year’s Eve, a baby girl was put in Sarah’s arms. “For the first time in my life I had this amazing feeling of unconditional love and that changed my relationship with every child I came into contact with. I began to see them as the individual they were, not their issues or their diagnosis. They were little people with quirks that made life a lot more fun.”
Duc was one such boy who just loved to dance. One day, Sarah was asked to put 20 pairs of socks on 20 children’s feet. It was not easy. Kids liked to take them off, eat them, or hit her or other kids with them.
“When I finished with all the children, I turned around to realise that 10 of them were sockless! I thought I would be in trouble for losing 10 pairs of socks, then I saw Duc had them in the corner. He had realised that by putting on 10 pairs, his large shoes would fit and he could dance.”
The sock incident opened Sarah’s eyes to the importance of such a small item that never get donated. At Vietnamese New Year, tons of clothes were given to the orphanage yet there were no socks. Socks turn plastic sandals into winter shoes. They are not just for feet; they can be used as hair bands, bandages, trousers, gloves, mittens, ties, mops and sanitary towels. And so, Sarah started the ‘Socks 4 Forgotten Feet’ project.
Five years on, Sarah makes sure no one burns out in the corporate world and no child goes to sleep at night with cold feet. “The biggest change for me in these five years is letting my body heal itself. Burnout masks itself as anxiety, stress, depression and all of those can be helped by turning on the body’s natural happy hormones such as smiling more or laughing regularly. Five minutes daily to laugh until our sides hurt would improve life tremendously.”
She advises everyone to find their ‘why’: “Once you do that, decisions become easier. Finding ‘my reason to breathe’ for me was so powerful and easy, things simply fell into place. Don’t give up, trust your journey and remember to breathe.”