The day started with me waking up as it typically does. The alarm goes off and my husband gets out of bed but the difference was on this day, I didn’t have to follow suit. Why? Because today was the first day of my short term disability leave.
This was a day that I had been thinking about for the prior 7 months but I wasn’t sure would come because of my own hesitations. I had been dealing with the guilt of using a benefit that I paid for throughout my career. The truth was that I was completely burned out. But what probably would have been better received was that I was hit by the CalTrain on my way to work or that I tripped on a MacBook Air cord and fell into the elevator shaft.
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized 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. “ – World Health Organization
About 3 minutes into the Brené Brown Ted Talk on Vulnerability, I had a greater understanding of one of my personal challenges. But after many discussions and reading the influx of articles on burnout, I realized that while my situation is personal, it is not unique. I also learned that there are many people walking around with a sense of helplessness and lack of energy to figure out how to fix themselves.
There is no need to feel alone. With all the things that people juggle daily, managing one’s mental health is often seen as just another thing on the to-do list. I decided to share my story in case someone is looking to better understand their options.
Hustle culture raised me
Growing up in a typical blue-collar family in Detroit, the importance of hard work was illustrated to me from a young age. My parents had the side hustles before it was a hashtag. I easily recall the craft shows. Scenes of me running through the halls of Catholic schools all around Detroit flash in my mind because we always had a booth at weekend craft shows. Other images of evening jobs at H&R Block and Sears flash as well and a recent discussion with my mom confirmed that the Gamble (my maiden name) side hustle game was always strong. I took this foundation and got to work. Solid grades, consistently having multiple jobs, higher education, volunteering & moving up the ladder. “Doing the most” is what I call it. I can’t count how many times I have been told that I am a character in a certain In Living Color skit.
With the help of therapy, I now realize that I have always selected to juggle a lot because my identity was my career. My parents must’ve recognized the potential issues to this because my dad consistently gave me the same foreshadowing advice: “You’re burning the candle at both ends.”
This candle recently met in the middle when I completely burned out.
I was confused. How could this happen? Did I not work hard enough? Was I smart enough? I was conditioned to work so when things get tough, I work through it but this time…it wasn’t working.
I tried everything to “fix” myself — Yoga, meditation, journaling, massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture, talk therapy…you name it. Once I learned about it, I tried it. But, Will Smith said it perfectly recently, “…you can’t work your way out of trauma.”
I also learned that it’s much harder to repair in the environment that made you sick. On the scale of mental illness, I think of burnout like my brain having the flu. Everything was cloudy, I couldn’t focus, I wasn’t myself and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t find the energy and focus to get my work done in the manner that I knew I was capable of. One day it hit me as I walked through the hallways — I was far from the only one that was burned out. It was all around me from the leadership, all the way down. I realized that I was trying to shake this flu in a figurative kindergarten classroom where everyone was wiping their noses and coughing everywhere. Who gets healthy in that situation?!I just couldn’t get better without giving myself space & time.
Why in the world did I need a break? I look fine. I smile, laugh and can even have a good time every once in a while. But everyone knew that I was off my game. So, as I considered taking leave, I was constantly battling the thoughts in my head:
“People work hard every day so why should I be special?”
“There’s a lot of people that have experienced more challenging things and they didn’t take leave.”
“Maybe I am not as good as I think. “
“But I chose to be in a high demand job.”
“This is a sign of failure.”
“I am ungrateful.”
“How will this impact my co-workers?”
As I battled with the running list of guilt-ridden questions and thoughts, this mental issue started to manifest in physical ways and that was where I drew the line. I finally recognized that my emotional health started failing because it was the one thing that would never be on my team’s project list. So, I had to reckon with each of these intrusive thoughts:
1. My co-workers are some of the hardest working people I know, and they also have challenging things going on in their personal life however, people choose to manage things differently. And frankly, they deserve to take a break as well.
2. This does not illustrate failure or that I don’t care about my job.
3. Choosing a stressful job shouldn’t mean sacrificing my health.
4. Recognizing that something is wrong and seeking help is a strength, not a weakness.
What challenged me most was the idea of feeling ungrateful and a little shame. There was a lot of processing for this but, I finally came to a point where I was more concerned about my health than how a team would manage a project for a few weeks. And just because I needed a break doesn’t mean that I’m a failure or that I’m weak. Hell, even Beyonce takes breaks. If there were real concerns about work not getting done, the organization would figure it out. And you know what? They did. To ease my mind and to set the team up for success, I wrapped up priority items and communicated the key tasks, roles and responsibilities before I headed out.
Here’s the conclusion that I came to — My mental and emotional health isn’t the responsibility of my company, my boss or my team members. It has always been and will always be my responsibility. This does not mean that companies bear no responsibility. Companies should remain aware of employee workloads and recognize when employees are consistently overtaxed. They should provide the benefits the help employees manage their mental health AND support to use of said benefits. They should improve or get rid of leaders & employees that add undue stress on the team ( and stop acting like you don’t know who they are.) Managers should have training to understand emotional health and on giving transparent and real feedback. I’m sure that I missed a few but those were first to mind.
No one could truly understand how I felt. No one could hear the continuous thoughts running through my head. Few people knew how, no matter what I did, I couldn’t focus for more than 15 minutes at a time. No one could feel the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realized how I spent days opening and closing different Powerpoint and Excel files rearranging content versus adding value, despite a major deadline looming. Only my husband knew that I couldn’t sleep through the night, rarely ate, drank plenty, and had days at a time when I didn’t leave the house or speak to anyone but him. Anything that wasn’t urgent was optional. This started to affect everything in my life including my personal goals, and even I didn’t recognize this for a while. Like most, when someone asked “How was I doing” the automatic answer was “I’m good. Fine. Okay”. I mean other people have real problems…Right?
That’s when I learned the “secret” — I could take a break. So I started taking a day off to recharge and reprioritizing my time so I could make more for myself. However, because I had waited so long I wasn’t able to quickly make the needed progress. So, with the support of my therapist, I decided to take off a month for short term medical leave. This elusive benefit that I had paid for my entire career, yet I knew nothing about it. Only once I witnessed a friend leverage disability insurance, did I start to understand this available option.
The basic definition of short-term disability is “any sort of injury or illness that renders one unable to do their job.” I am not an insurance provider, HR specialist, therapist or employment lawyer though I have spoken to all of these experts over the past few months. I am an employee that got to a place where things needed to change because it was getting progressively harder to perform to my own standard. For those looking for the basics, here is a great article that I found that’s like a short term disability 101. This article is a good primer but the best source of information is your benefits provider.
Below are some items that I learned with my leave experience. Even the sh*tty lessons, were lessons.
Things to know before taking leave:
1. Everyone’s benefits are different
According to an HBR article “…97% of large American companies (5,000+) offer employee assistance programs (EAPs) to workers seeking support from a mental health professional. However, a recent EAP industry trends report shows that only 6.9% of people use them.”
Use your benefits! Companies are shelling out a lot of money for these benefits and perks and consider it part of your compensation package. It’s like someone is offering you money and you turn your back on it. Americans left 768M unused vacation days in 2018, 236 million were completely forfeited, which comes out to $65.5 billion in lost benefits. Benefits can range from your vacation days, short term disability to health and wellness reimbursement. All of these are important benefits for you to leverage. If you have them, there is a whole team at your organization working hard to find things that can help you be healthier. Pull out that pamphlet from your insurance company that is on the shelf or check with your HR lead to learn more about your company’s benefits. I didn’t know what I was doing when I went on leave so I was at the mercy of the benefits coordinator. I had a good experience with my provider but even with that, there were specific things that I wish I had known to ask about. Keep these handy if you decide to go down this path.
Key questions before you go on leave:
- Do you get paid?
- If so, how much of your salary and for how long?
- Will there be a gap when you stop working until you start receiving benefits (i.e. a check)? If so, how long?
- How will your other insurance(s) get paid while you are out on leave?
- Will there be any changes to your company profile while you’re out? (i.e. “leave status” shut out of certain systems, turned off credit card)
- Are there any special actions or communication that need to take place when you return to work?
2. Leave is not to be taken lightly
Let’s be clear — I am not recommending that everyone needs to take short-term disability leave. This is truly a benefit and one that is not available to everyone. For that reason especially, we should not abuse it. Check with your doctor or therapist if leave would be beneficial to your situation.
It will be helpful to your conversations to have an understanding of how often you are experiencing certain symptoms and feelings. I created Burnout Bingo as a simple way to track how you’re feeling to stave off a potential looming bout of burnout. Download your free Burnout Bingo board. I use the board for 5 minutes every night to do a quick assessment of my day and then reflect monthly on how often I had certain feelings. Check it and let me know if it helps.
And before you decide to go on leave ask yourself, “ will few weeks off will truly benefit my situation?” For example, if you hate your job and everything about it, then will a month make a difference or will you quickly be right back in this situation? If it is the latter then you may need to recognize that finding a new position is the better solution.
3. Your claim can be denied
Yup. That can happen and it happened to me and this is the “sh*tty” lesson I spoke of earlier. I woke up on my wedding anniversary to find out that my claim was denied and I wasn’t going to be paid for a month. One month without paychecks while the bills would not stop. I had to tell my (super supportive) husband about this as we were balancing rent, bills and the mortgage of a condo we had on the market. For a hot second, I even considered cutting my leave short. As upset as I was, thanks to my new clarity of mind, and consistent therapy, I was able to reframe this as a lesson. I was working through the idea of stepping away from my job to do entrepreneurship full-time however, I was nervous to step away from a stable paycheck despite being unhappy in my role. This was my dry run. This time taught me a lot about my relationship with money and my ability to scale back when needed.
I am happy to say that I went through the appeal process and, with some additional disclosure on my end, my appeal was approved.
Mental illness represents one of the most common reasons for disability from the workplace. Over the past decade, insurance companies have seen a rise in the number of disability claims for mental illness and they are getting a little tougher on how they can evaluate claims. Once again, I am not encouraging or supporting working the system, but I do want you to be prepared and avoid some unneeded additional stress.
Make sure that your insurance does not require a certain kind of doctor. For example, do you need an MD or will a Ph.D. work? When I was preparing for the appeal process I learned that sometimes it can matter if your therapist has a doctorate or not. The safest bet is to check your disability insurance before you make a claim to see if that makes a difference.
For privacy, we attempted to limit some of the disclosure of my records however, it was this very thing that caused my claim to initially being denied. Most insurance claims are managed by a third-party vendor so your information is protected and only things that cause concern for the safety of the office will be communicated to your employer. Once I understood this, I felt more comfortable in disclosing more of my notes and records to get my appeal approved.
4. All your problems won’t be fixed in a few weeks but it’s a great start
Nothing that took months, or even years, to get into will be fixed overnight. Burnout happens over time and can last even longer. I am a two-time burnout survivor so I can attest that you can more easily relapse if you do not work to solve the real issues. Also, be aware that some of your burnout symptoms could also be associated with other mental health conditions.
Find your support system. Connection is integral to all people, so find your safety net. This could be family, friends, co-workers or anyone that has shown themselves to be your champion. You will need them more than you ever realized for kind words every so often.
Learn about yourself. I have learned that therapy creates a solid foundation and can repair some of the deepest wounds, both seen and unseen. I shared more about my experience with therapy on the TrillMBA show podcast where I chatted with my own therapist to get an expert’s POV on what people should expect. We also touch on vicarious trauma, where the internalization of someone else’s trauma can trigger traumatic symptoms.
5. Find your outlet
Revisit an old hobby or find a new one. This one is pretty straightforward.
There’s been a little talk on Twitter recently about the loss of hobbies. We have almost lost the ability to enjoy what we are doing without trying to monetize it. While getting paid for what you love to do is the goal, it’s important to have a few things that you do that allow you to relax or let off steam. When money is introduced, it has a funny way of adding stress.
According to Psychology Today, hobbies can help you cope with stress, help you structure your time, make new connections and can even make you more interesting. Most cities have meetup groups for various activities and you can learn anything through your local university or an online class on Udemy. You can even do something free like birdwatching (Don’t judge. After an afternoon of Planet Earth, bird watching is kinda intriguing.)
6. Take regular breaks
Taking weeks off of work is not the first thing I would advise. Start with smaller breaks.
One of my favorite wellness words is “sustainable”. Take a second to reflect on your last 30 days. Is the pace of work & life sustainable for the next 3 months straight? If you answer no, congratulations on recognizing there may be an issue looming. You can start by taking smaller, more regular breaks.
I got tired of burning out and seeing everyone around me do the same. It’s time for some change in our hustle culture so my team & I created the first Hooky Day campaign. On Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019, professionals across the country took the day off and repurposed it for self-care. We had people taking the day to catch up on sleep, people trying out new workout classes, a group visited a pumpkin patch, a small business owner that gave her team a day off and many other examples of how professionals were prioritizing self-care. This was a grassroots effort and we were excited to see the response and adoption. Simple changes like taking a day off here or there can go a long way. If you missed it this year, keep an eye out for #HookyDay2020.
Burnout is a crappy experience. As a 2-time burnout survivor, I am very aware of how much it sucks and how it can feel like there is no way out. I hope this article helps to make one leave a little less confusing. Even if I don’t know you personally, I know that you will be fine. You will continue to achieve. You will get your passion back. Recognize that you are in a transformational moment and while it may be uncomfortable it is where real change takes place. The faster you accept this situation the sooner you can start the next chapter.
Throughout my experiences with burnout, I got intimately familiar with how crappy it can be to find support. And as much as I wanted to got to Bali and Eat Love Pray, but the way my bank accounts are set up…you know the rest and if you don’t, here you go. This experience led me to leave my job and move into entrepreneurship to start Hooky Wellness.
We are creating hustle culture’s first no-working space with the launch of the Hooky mental wellness spa & lounge. Hooky will be a place of emotional wellness, self-discovery and connection helping members manage through the stress and burnout that comes with life. We can’t stop life from happening but we can work on how we respond. Our FSA/HSA reimbursable membership offers services like 1:1 talk therapy with a licensed therapist, coaches, massage, lounge spaces and other wellness services. We are working towards a fall 2020 launch of the first location in downtown Detroit.
If you found this article helpful, I’d love for you to let me know. I am on Insta and Twitter at @Erayna_Sargent and @Erayna_S. For more information on Hooky and future launches, sign up for our newsletter at Hookywellness.com and give us a follow on Insta @HookyWellness