I moved to France to escape burnout
Life

“I left London to escape burnout culture”

After her stress levels and cost of living skyrocketed, Danielle Woods, 38, swapped living in London for a remote farmhouse in south-west France.

Beginning the day with a leisurely coffee overlooking the farmer’s fields is a far cry from how I used to start my morning in London. My coffee then would be in a Keepcup, drunk on the move as I weaved through the rush-hour hoards of people at Waterloo station, racing to get to my desk on time. Even thinking about it now is stressful.

In my new home, surrounded by vineyards in the French countryside, the day involves a long leisurely lunch – because that’s pretty much mandatory in France – and time spent tending to my kitchen garden. A stark contrast to the London flatshare I had with seven other people, where our only outside space was a small, square concrete courtyard.

Not that I was home much. Back then, life was busy and rushed because I felt I had to make the most of living in London. I spent all my time eating out at cool new restaurants and going to see the latest shows, so I never had any money left at the end of the month. And while I wanted to save, I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice having fun. The result was a lifestyle that was so high intensity, I was left constantly drained and full of anxiety about the cost of living. 

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I wasn’t the only one who felt exhausted – searches for “burnout” were up 150% in 2020, while more recently, a survey revealed that 2022 has left more than half of Brits feeling more burnt out than previous years. It’s hardly surprising: workers in London suffer the worst mental health in the whole of the UK, a study by the Trade Unions Congress revealed. They reported that British people work longer hours than any country in the EU, clocking up on average 42.5 working hours a week – 6% more than the average.

My problem was that I prioritised work that I found meaningful rather than financially rewarding, so I never had a high salary, despite living in an incredibly expensive city. I worked as a support manager for a charity, which demanded a lot of travel that left me time-poor, too. This lifestyle left me feeling constantly under pressure; if I didn’t get something right at work, it would drive me crazy. I’d worry that I wasn’t doing things well and I could never switch off. As a self-confessed people pleaser, it was totally exhausting.

I was getting tired of flat sharing, too. I lived with seven other people and our only outside space was a courtyard that was essentially a small concrete square. I couldn’t afford to rent my own place, let alone buy anywhere. I longed to get on the property ladder, but I just couldn’t see it ever happening while I continued my life in London. For me, at least, burnout felt inevitable. 

The final straw, though, was when my physical health began to falter alongside my mental health. I’m a Type 1 diabetic, a condition that can be more difficult to control when stressed, and my stress levels were soaring. I would feel exhausted even after a good night’s rest. I’d find it hard to get motivated and I began to feel hopeless. I was eventually referred to an NHS counsellor, but unfortunately, it didn’t help.

After I was made redundant back in 2016, I set up the UK outpost of The Foot Collective, a Canadian company that sells products to help reclaim natural functional alignment in the feet. This meant that I could work from anywhere, so I slowly began to ask myself whether I really needed to be in this extremely busy and expensive city? But it wasn’t until during the first lockdown in 2020 that I realised I was finally ready for a change and began looking into the process of moving and living somewhere new for when we were finally allowed out in the world again.

I’d always loved the area in south-west France, near Bordeaux, where I’ve got friends and have been on many holidays, and that was exactly where my mind went to during those long lockdown days cooped up indoors. I researched residency, and at the end of 2020, I decided to go for it – and I haven’t looked back.

I moved in with a friend in a beautiful old stone farmhouse, three miles from the closest village, and adopted a German shepherd-whippet cross, Kito. Getting a dog was the best decision for my mental health – I now spend every morning walking him through the forest or around the lake before work. With no garden and a hectic lifestyle, I’d never have been able to have a dog in London.

My days look very different to the ones I was living pre-pandemic. I have the time and space to do all those things that help me both mentally and physically. I journal, I bake and I garden. In fact, I’ve gone from not being able to keep a houseplant alive in London to growing my own vegetables from seeds. Bedtimes are early now and, with it being so quiet here, I sleep well and wake up feeling refreshed the next day.

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I’ve focused on simplifying the way I live, too. And, as a result, I spend a lot less money on going out and food. I buy from local producers at an outdoor market. It’s unprocessed, and there’s less choice, so you can’t help but eat seasonally. My partner is now planning to move over later in the year, but I’ve made new friends through the market, too. It’s hard building relationships in a new language, but having a dog has helped as I now walk him with a couple of local women each week, which helps me to practise my French. I also write about my new life online here, which has helped me make connections.  

Workwise, I’ve got a lovely set-up where I’m able to sit on the ground with my laptop riser desk, and I’ve got movement equipment right next to me so I can just have a break to do some exercises (and no one is going to look at me weirdly). I used to feel accountable for every toilet break, but now I can do things on my own terms, and I actually feel a lot more productive.

The biggest difference, though, is that I can finally think about the future. Property is much cheaper here – you can buy a 4-bed stone farmhouse for £200,000, and my hope is to buy some land and build a house, something made from repurposed materials. Compared to the property market in London, that feels like an achievable dream.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love London and enjoy my visits there. Sometimes I do wish I could just go out for brunch, and it’s very hard to find a good curry here, but I get my city fix in Bordeaux. Besides, wherever you live, there’s going to be some kind of compromise. I simply find my life now is so much less cluttered and stressful that I have the time to do the things I truly love.

There is a quote from an author called Seth Godin that has stuck with me for years. He said: “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life that you don’t need to escape from.” It’s really hard to take that leap into the unknown, but two years later I’m very thankful I did. 

Illustration: Irina Selaru