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My Job vs. My Mental Health: At A Crossroads

(Originally posted on The $76K Project on 3/9/2019)

This is a long post about my mental health in the context of modern work culture.

Publicly sharing my mental health challenges isn't easy for me, in part because there's so much skepticism surrounding those of us who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Are these illnesses real? Are we complaining too much? Not getting enough vitamin D? Do we just need to try harder? Have more grit? Be more resilient? I know some people will read this post, roll their eyes, and think, Suck it up, Buttercup. Life is hard.

Most people dealing with mental illness have tried everything from hot baths to medication to therapy. We're well aware of treatment options, and frankly, "You should try x, y, and z"-type advice isn't particularly helpful. Same goes for "Look on the bright side" or "Make a gratitude list" or "Others have it worse". These statements send the message that mental illness is a choice, and we're choosing to feel the way we do. But we live with this stuff, and we know that nobody who's experienced it would choose it. Most of us have probably tried all the things, and oftentimes we feel guilty for not being able improve the situation even when we really, really want to.

If you haven't been in this position, I'm genuinely glad for you. I simply ask that you be open to the possibility that some conditions are more complicated and intractable than they might seem from the outside.

I talk about my mental health on this blog because it's something that continues to affect my life, my relationships, and my financial security. I know other people have experienced this, too, and I want them to know they're not alone. I want me to know I'm not alone.

So here's what's going on.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that my new job is not going well. I think I have potential as an editor, but an extremely heavy workload combined with accumulated burnout has created a perfect storm of anxiety, insomnia, self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness. I feel like I'm drowning.

When I interviewed for my current job, I was told by multiple people that they work a standard schedule: 40 hours a week, occasionally more when things get busy. That sounded perfect, and during my interviews, I expressed my desire for a work-life balance that would allow me to flourish at work and in other aspects of my life. I felt like we were all on the same page.

Now I think they were lying to me.

Here's how my job works: each week, we're required to meet a certain word count quota. For the first two months of training, our quota increases every week. It was relatively low in the first couple of weeks, and I was able to meet my targets. But in the third week, when the word count quota really ramped up, I started to struggle. A forty-hour schedule wasn't cutting it. I began extending my workday and logging in for a few hours on the weekend. 

We're required to not only meet our quotas and deadlines but also adhere to strict quality standards. During training, our edits are reviewed, critiqued, and graded. We receive constant feedback (much of which is contradictory, but that's beside the point). Now, more than halfway through training, I'm hanging on by my fingernails just to get the work done. Finding and correcting every error in a timely fashion seems absolutely impossible.

I'm working 9-10 hours a day, including Saturday, and I've developed anxiety-related insomnia. Every single night goes something like this: 10 PM: kind of tired. 11 PM: still not asleep. Midnight: still awake. 2 AM: I am wide awake and will never sleep again. 3 AM: FUCK HOW AM I STILL AWAKE. And nothing - not warm baths, not reading, not yoga, not soothing music, not sleep podcasts, not pretending that I didn't want to go to sleep anyway! - seems to work. The only thing that knocks me out is Benadryl, but that leaves me feeling drugged the next day.

It's a never-ending cycle: the anxiety causes insomnia, the insomnia makes me feel strung-out and anxious, and on and on.

Aside from being completely exhausted, I'm snappy, and I feel totally panicked most of the time. The crazy thing is that over the next few weeks, my quota is scheduled to further increase by more than a third of the current word count. I can't wrap my head around it, and I don't understand how even the most experienced editors reach their quotas while submitting high-quality edits. I suspect they don't; that, or they're working every single day, all day long. 

(Last night I logged into Glassdoor and took a good hard look at the reviews for my company. It's clear I'm not alone: many people are floundering, and turnover is apparently sky-high. I have quite a knack for finding exploitative employers!)

The truth is, this experience probably wouldn't be so terrible - or at least, it wouldn't be so terrible this early on - if it weren't for the fact that I'm now at a critical point of accumulated burnout. What's happening now is just another iteration of what's been going on since I finished graduate school. For the past four years, my anxiety has dogged me in every single job I've worked:

Job 1: Two years, assistant professor. Worked non-stop, as one does as a tenure-track professor. Developed panic attacks; at one point, had a massive panic attack in front of 100 students. Occasionally lost the ability to speak while lecturing. Cried on the kitchen floor every morning. Felt suicidal. Coping mechanisms: Saw a therapist regularly. Took meds. Worked out like crazy. Meditated. Found a new job.

Job 2: One year, academic advisor. Generally 40 hours a week, with weeks of 10-12 hour days in the summer. During particularly busy times, completely lost my words, making advising meetings awkward and torturous. Regularly broke out in a cold sweat. Developed severe insomnia and at one point didn't sleep for nearly three days. Coping mechanisms: Sleeping pills. Spent time with friends and family. Ran. Took walks around my office building. Found a new job.

Job 3: One year, online educator. 40 hours a week from home, which I thought would solve all of my work problems. Job was not as advertised; I was more of a salesperson than a teacher. Expected to make people do things they didn't want to do. Employer was obsessed with metrics, metrics, metrics. Nothing was ever good enough. You met your goal? WHY DIDN'T YOU SET A BIGGER GOAL. Had panic attacks on the regular. Often couldn't find my words when meeting with students (this seems to be one of my biggest anxiety symptoms). Coping mechanisms: Everything. Meditation. Healthy eating. Working out. Power poses. Frequent vacations.

Found a new job.

And now here I am.

Earlier this week, I decided that as much as I don't like to advertise my wobbly mental health, nobody can help me if they don't know I need help. So I decided to take a chance and send an SOS to my manager, something I've never done before at work. I've never, ever disclosed my anxiety and depression or admitted that I'm having trouble. It just doesn't feel like a safe thing to do in a world of at-will employment. Usually, I just take some sick days and try to figure it out on my own.

But since one of my employer's stated values is vulnerability, and since I need to find a way to make this job sustainable, I decided it was worth letting my guard down and taking a chance.

I wrote a detailed email to my boss explaining that I deal with anxiety and anxiety-related insomnia and that I'm struggling in a major way. I emphasized that I enjoy the job itself but that I can't keep up with the pace. I let her know that I really, really want this to work out, but I also want to protect my health. And I offered some possible solutions, namely, slowing the pace of training or dropping down to a part-time schedule. Although working part-time would mean I'd lose my company-sponsored health insurance, it would also allow me to have some semblance of work-life balance.

My boss wrote back and thanked me for my candidness. She said she'd talk to her boss and come back to me the next day with some options.

And the next day? She came back to me with... no options at all. She didn't offer any empathy or suggestions. She didn't comment on my proposed solutions. She didn't say anything about her meeting with her boss. Instead, she sent a brief, two-line reply and said she'll meet with me in 10 days (she's going out of town) to "check in". She asked me to consider what I can do to improve my situation. 

In the meantime, my workload is slated to increase and my quota will be even higher next week. 

Although there are many things in my life that are going extremely well, work has been a disaster. I'm tired of trying so hard and finding myself in the same situation every time. I'm exhausted and depleted, and I feel like I'm on the verge of having a nervous breakdown. I've been able to last at least a year in my previous jobs, but this time, the situation feels different. I'll be amazed if I survive next week.

Employment is not supposed to be an endurance sport. It shouldn't be this hard. But for people with anxiety or other mental health conditions, modern workplace culture is fraught with obstacles: heavy workloads, an obsession with metrics, constant feedback, and micromanagement. Companies expect loyalty, time, self-sacrifice, gratitude, and unwavering devotion to the bottom line. Moreover, they want it all at the lowest cost possible. Some of us (...most of us?) can't give all that without destroying ourselves in the process.

Nevertheless, I'm ashamed. Embarrassed. Frustrated. Why am I having so much trouble being an employee? Why can't I do what millions and millions of people do every day? Why can't I live up to my education? Why can't I just go to work, do my job, come home, and repeat? Am I lazy? Am I not trying hard enough? Are my expectations too high?

But here’s the thing. It’s not a matter of not wanting to do my job. It’s not a matter of laziness or an unwillingness to try. I’m a hard worker; I give it my all, and I've always delivered.

Until now. If work is an endurance race, my brain seems to be walking off the course. It is done. 

Anxiety is an illness like any other serious illness in that it can be completely debilitating. However, it's also largely invisible - especially if you’re one of those people who’s been living with it for so long that you are an absolute expert at hiding it. Sometimes, the people who look the happiest, who seem the most stable and the most determined, are the people being crushed from the inside out. The invisible nature of mental illness is what makes it particularly insidious and dangerous. It means that it's often the person who's living with the illness who has to make the call when things have reached a breaking point. And that's a very, very difficult call to make, especially when you're not functioning at your optimal level.

But I've been living with this a long time. I know myself, and I'm ready to make that tough call - if not right now, very soon.

First of all, I'm taking this weekend off. I haven't met my quota. I'm behind. I don't know what will happen on Monday. But I need this time.

My immediate plan is to stick it out, but on my own terms. That is, I'll work 8-5 Monday through Friday and do what I can in that amount of time. This is purely a stop-gap measure. I won't meet my quotas, but at least for the immediate future, I'll still be getting paid.

I've also contacted HR to see if they can work with me on accommodations. The Fioneers encouraged me to do this (thank you so much for the support, Fioneers!) If my boss won't help me, maybe HR will.

Ultimately, though, the writing on the wall says that I need a career break. Taking a few months off is something I've been considering for over a year, and my body and mind are screaming at me to do it now. From a financial standpoint, it might be a terrible decision. Our emergency fund isn't large enough to cover us for more than a few months, we'd end up spending more on health insurance either through Fortysomething's work or through the ACA, and we'd have to live on a bare-bones budget. We would be contributing far less to our retirement accounts than we do now.

But stress takes a terrible toll. No amount of money is worth destroying my health. I'm not willing to throw it away.

Instead, I want to take some time to do the things I love: spend time with my family, hang out with friends, actually read the books for book club, write/blog, run, hike, cook dinner every night, volunteer at my son's school, tutor, be creative. I'd love to expand the blog. I'd love to establish a regular series, similar to what Tread Lightly, Retire Early does on her blog. I'd love to write some guest posts. I'd love to develop some collaborations with people in the personal finance community and work on some projects together.

Sometimes we need to hit the pause button. As one of my Twitter friends reminded me, I need to be there for my son and family. That's the most important thing.

Taking a time out from a work culture that values never stopping feels like a big risk. It would be a complete leap of faith - but it's a leap I'm seriously considering.


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