Essays & Confessions/Self Love/Work/Life Balance

The Burnout Red Flags I Didn’t Notice Until I Took a Month Off Work

By | Thursday, March 05, 2020

Last year, I was promoted to what felt like my dream job, a human resources program manager focused on culture and engagement. And in many ways, it was my dream job. I had an incredible, empathetic manager who was mentoring me each week, and I was working alongside a true visionary CPO who was just as passionate about creating a safe and inclusive workplace in an otherwise Silicon Valley tech-bro paradise. My projects focused on people and how to cultivate an authentic community at work, and I was beginning to see many programs that started out as Post-It doodles turn into assignments — with a real budget! 

For a very long time, I didn’t question what a job demanded of me outside the hours of 9 to 5 (or 7:50ish AM – 8:03 PM, and at 2:15 AM when I got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and checked my email if we’re being honest). And I certainly didn’t pause when I had free snacks and ping pong tables to indulge in. In retrospect, I sent the message to both myself and my employer that my mental health could be bought with recognition, promotions, and the idea of American success. I thought: You can’t buy time but you can always catch up on rest during the weekend. And it’s that very thinking that landed me in a dark, emotional headspace. 

The promotion was the peak of what appeared to look like a meteoric climb at a hyper-growth company. But it also felt as though the higher I climbed, the more pressure I felt — to be successful, to be high-achieving, to keep going, even when my body was telling me otherwise. 

I went from being an office manager to a regional people manager to a national program manager, all within two years flat. I went from fetching the CEO his coffee when he came into town to pitching him campaigns for the upcoming year. For a while, I was high from these fast-paced victories.  Over time, I became addicted to those victories, sacrificing time with loved ones, my resources, and myself. Ultimately, I burned myself out. 

We often acknowledge the monetary cost of something that we deem a splurge. This new pantsuit will cost me X amount of dollars. And when we go a little further, we contemplate the time we could spend on something as a net cost. I can have my groceries delivered while I work on this report for my boss to save on time. But how often are we placing value in — and determining the worth of — our mental health currency?

Hi, I’m Jazmine and I am a recovering workaholic. (Hi Jazmine.) 

Workaholism and work addiction are real. Dr. Mark Griffiths, one of the leading researchers on work addiction, has said that “Although the manifestations of workaholism are at the level of the individual, workaholic behavior is socially acceptable and even encouraged by major organization.” And while there’s not a clear-cut definition of workaholism — it’s a phrase we use in a tongue-in-cheek way — addiction has six defining traits: salience, mood-modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse, according to Griffiths. If you work to alter your mood and it’s causing conflict in your life, this might be an issue for you. But even if you don’t have a true addiction to work, an obsession with work can still lead to long-term burnout.

Mental health issues can turn into physical ones.

I was in a zombie-like state, gulping espresso shots in the morning to distract my mind from the debilitating imposter syndrome, numbing my tongue with CBD oil to relieve post-meeting panic attacks and taking back glasses of wine in the evening to unwind after a supersonic revolving door of meetings, complaints, edits, changes, and catering to everyone else around me, except myself. 

Around August of 2019, I slithered into a dark depression: a melancholic place I had known since middle school but hadn’t visited in a couple of years. At first, I was in a high-functioning season of my depression. I was able to show up to work on time, perform my tasks, and have the energy to “fake it.” Over time, I was working from home more often as I didn’t have the strength to do much more, and the panic attacks became more frequent on Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings, specifically. My mental illness manifested itself physically, as my stomach and gut issues worsened, and I was getting the flu or a bad bug every month. I ultimately knew it had gotten out of hand when after Christmas break, I opened my laptop to work from home (again), and I vomited. 

It wasn’t a coincidence. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut.” In other words, stomach issues can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. “That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected,” the paper continues.“Based on these observations, you might expect that at least some patients with functional GI conditions might improve with therapy to reduce stress or treat anxiety or depression.”

I asked my manager about the resources available to me. While employee benefits and company policies can vary, it’s custom for most companies to offer family medical leave, or FMLA. FMLA is traditionally a period of unpaid* leave, up to 12 weeks, where an employee will continue to have health benefits while they tend to a medical emergency or personal circumstances. In addition to mental health, FMLA is used for but is not limited to, caring for another serious health condition such as terminal illness or to care for an ill parent. And in January 2020 I took one month of leave to focus on repairing my mental health.

* You can file for disability and potentially be paid a portion of or your full salary while on FMLA.

 **Also people shouldn’t be punished financially for taking care of their health, but that’s an article for another time. 

I took stock of my emotions.

The first week of my break resembled much of the same daily routine, mentally. I was anxious if others were mad at me for prioritizing my mental health, ashamed that I had revealed I don’t have it altogether, and my mind still felt incredibly polluted by self-doubt. I often wondered during that first week if I had just surrendered to a new prison. 

But I also knew from years of therapy and Brené Brown sermons — er, I mean speeches — that it wasn’t enough for me to be vulnerable and clap my hands clean. There had to be intention behind my break, so I developed a plan to reflect, restore, and take daily action in my healing process. 

For the next few days, I observed myself and kept a list in my phone with a quasi feelings chart, listing the emotions I most often felt throughout the day:

  • Anxious (Fearful)
  • Insecure (Fearful)
  • Excited (Surprised) 
  • Thankful (Happy) 
  • Accomplished (Happy) 

Under each feeling, I would first write what event sparked the emotion, and a subsequent bullet challenging myself to ask, Is this factual and/or something I can control? For example:

Anxious (Fear)

  • People at work think I’m not doing anything 
    • I don’t know this to be true, and I can’t control what people think

Annoyed (Angry)

  • Person A said I was making a mistake by taking time off and they  just “didn’t get it”, and asked when I would be over it
    • Yes, this interaction did happen, and I controlled the situation by standing up for myself and letting them know they didn’t have to understand. 
      • It felt good to stand-up for myself and my mental health; it felt isolating to know a someone I consider a friend isn’t supporting me 
        • I can control how much energy I put into this friendship and what common bonds I want to share with friends

Accomplished (Happy)  

  • I finally took all the compost to the recycling center 
    • This is factual, and something I could control. It felt good to cross something off my list, especially something that was a New Year’s resolution. (Trying to be less wasteful in 2020.) 

Within a couple of days, I had written evidence that most of the pressure in my life was yes, due to my diagnosed anxiety, but also due to everyday toxicity that I had control over. Furthermore, I recorded the small victories I achieved most days but previously overlooked. Pretty quickly I had emotional data points” to signal not only what my “perfect” day looked like, but also that I had the control to make it happen. 

Through this self-experiment, I found my preference and greatest pleasure is to start my day when it’s still dark outside with coffee in a funny mug (yes, must be a funny mug) and doing a load of laundry. I feel most proud of myself when I’ve been able to complete chores that both my partner and I benefit from, as I feel I have accomplished something and performed an act of service, which is his love language. And I feel rested after a long walk with my dog while listening to a podcast — I personally like to listen to the gratitude-focused, The Upside with Callie and Jeff. (If you can’t tell, I’m one of the freaks living among you: a morning person.) 

And with the positive, I also learned I do not appreciate micromanagement or working with larger-than-life personalities. I do not respond well to hostile communication styles. I am the laziest person alive if I do not have a to-do list for the day, with a tight schedule of when to do it all. I say “yes” to more things that don’t interest me than I do activities I love. Ultimately, I saw just how codependent I had become on the expectations and ideas of other people. 

Taking care of yourself is a powerful thing.

As a side dish to introspection, I also did things like adopt a skincare routine (gasp!) and —  look out — get my hair done for the first time in five (!) years. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I took honor in self-deprivation. ~*Look at me, I’m so sacrificial that I don’t even participate in basic self-care*~. Now removed from that person, I can honestly testify that investing in your skin is investing in yourself. When I carve out time in my day for nothing and no one other than Me, Myself, and I, I am affirming: Hey, you deserve my full attention. Nothing is as important as you are right now. And this time is precious, will be uninterrupted, and not compromised for anything else. I also began to workout again, cut back on drinking, and take time for hobbies I abandoned, like a storytelling class at my local comedy club and poetry writing. 

As simple as it sounds, American culture worships the idea of a “hustle and grinder,” and anything and everyone else not grinding is bound to end up as a useless tumbleweed wondering which way their dreams and goals went, apparently. It was only during this time that I had the courage to admit to myself that my dream and goals are simply to be content, live a slower-paced but meaningful lifestyle, and have the energy and time to travel — even if the destination is Trader Joe’s.  

Workaholism isn’t just about work.

And I want to be clear. I am not blaming an employer or a job itself for my mental deterioration. Yes, I believe workplaces are triggering for people. Yes, I know firsthand office culture can facilitate and even encourage the behaviors we’re all going to therapy to change. But for me specifically, I know I played a part in it as well.  

As an empath and someone with diagnosed anxiety and depression, it’s a non-negotiable to my well-being to take a social and mental audit of the surroundings, people, and energy I allow to permeate my mental and physical space. In fact, my therapist and I worked tirelessly on boundary-setting in the workplace a good year before my leave even occurred, and in that year, I kept making small exceptions. I continued to compromise pinky-swears I had made for myself. I insisted on helping with projects that I had no business being on. Like a true addict, I kept lying to myself and justifying my actions until I hit rock bottom. 

During my leave, I had to sit with myself and uncover why I had overstepped my own boundaries when I knew what was at stake. I was driven by fear, but what was I afraid of? Not being liked? Being revealed as a fraud or idiot? Being unworthy of time and attention? The sunken cost of pouring my soul into a company for years? As I flung myself into this sea of questions and swam through my own psyche, I needed to assign value to my mental health and honor it as something just as precious and tangible as a valuable possession. 

While I acknowledge a relapse of my workaholism can happen, I am grateful to have a more crystallized perspective of who I am as Jazmine the Person, not Jazmine the Employee. I’ve been able to shed layers of myself that soaked in the lie that self-love is earned, and earned at work. I’ve redefined success for myself. For me, success means pursuing creative projects that excite me. Success means having a stronger relationship with myself.  Success means setting out and accomplishing the visions I have for myself, whether they’re traditional, unconventional, or simplistic to others.

The hustle isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I came back from my leave to a supportive team of leaders and coworkers. I wasn’t made to feel ashamed for taking the due leave, and never once did I feel punished once I returned. But it would be remiss of me to waltz over the fact that I had many things going for me at the company, including tenure and status. And I know the stigma of mental health, and prioritizing it over marginal gains, is taboo in our culture. Even writing this article, knowing it will be on my “Internet public record,” I wonder if the self-preservation action I took will supersede and ultimately compromise a prospective employer’s trust that I can be a reliable employee. I suppose time will tell.

I have since resigned from my current company as a new opportunity presented itself, and I’ll begin my new journey in a few weeks. I’m proud to report, during both the interview and negotiation stage, I advocated specifically for my mental health and what boundaries I need as it relates to hours and flexibility before accepting. And hey, I still got the job. 

There is a wicked, kool-aid cocktail dressed up as an elixir called “hustle,” and it can coerce any well-intentioned person into a lifestyle of addiction best known as workaholism. And there is nothing wrong with seeking the proper treatment and prioritizing your mental health. 

Jazmine Reed-Clark is a true crime and self-improvement junkie working in HR, and a millennial who (finally) knows the difference between a stock and a bond. She thinks. 

Image via Pexels

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