When I started my career, I didn’t own a smartphone (ouch - yes I am that old). So in order to be “on” at work, I needed to be at my computer. Now, with my email queued up on my phone, I have easy access to answer emails, check my schedule, or hop online. It is so much harder to turn off my work brain than ever before. Even at the beginning of my career, when it was easier to disconnect, I had an unhealthy relationship with work. As someone who has always strived to achieve, putting in hours upon hours of extra time working beyond the typical 40 hour work week was my status quo. I had to get everything done and I needed to do more. Particularly working in the nonprofit sector, the urgency of the work was palpable. It gave me the reason I needed to have this unhealthy approach to work. And what happened a few years into my career? I was burnt out, anxious, mentally and physically exhausted.
Something had to change. I was in my early twenties and falling asleep at 8 pm on a Friday night. My partner would talk to me and I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. I had no mental capacity left. My anxiety was at an all-time high.
So I did something unthinkable for the achiever in me, I stopped working over 40 hours a week. Now I will acknowledge, I was in a privileged position to be able to do this without losing income or getting fired, I know that is not everyone’s reality. For me, these boundaries were necessary to allow me to continue functioning. I started leaving work when the day was done and not when the work was done. At first, this brought me more anxiety - all the unfinished work! But as I kept at it, the work still got done, I set more reasonable deadlines for myself, and I found myself able to breathe.
One of the biggest changes I made was not working on weekends and evenings. This gave my brain a much-needed break. I started having space in my life for hobbies and downtime. While I know a big life shift like this may not be feasible for everyone, maybe picking one night a week when you don’t check your email could be a start. Or building in a 30-minute walk break during the workday once a week. I cannot express how refreshing it feels to give yourself even the smallest mental break from work. And while it might be difficult at first (especially for those of us who like to check things off the to-do list) I have found it to be well worth it in the long run.
Melissa Cuthbert, MBA
Executive Director, Timber Creek Counseling