“What are you doing?!” The voice of my supervisor startled me enough that my mouthful of shrimp cauliflower salad nearly escaped. My hand, reaching for my keyboard, froze mid-action. I must have looked quite silly.
“You can’t take lunch at your desk!” she continued, and I remembered the unspoken rule that I’d been breaking — fairly regularly. Now was the time for penance.
“You need to take a break. Come join us in the lunchroom,” she finished. Oh, phew. But also… oh, no. My work would have to wait until I finished my…ew, break.
I’m not alone. Despite being constantly told by boomers that my generation is lazy, I and most fellow millennials have a problem with workaholism. It’s not only that we feel an endless need to work and be perfect doing it, wrought perhaps by the oppressive retail culture in which many of us cut our teeth. It’s also that we consider ourselves martyrs for our work and even make fun of those who take time off. (We’re terrible, I know.) It all boils down to our generally shitty pay (thanks, Great Recession), our lack of financial literacy (thanks, public schools who cut home ec classes), and our nagging feeling that we need to prove that we’re not lazy (thanks, boomers).
This attitude of constantly needing to work seeps down into our daily routines. We eat at our desks, we refuse our 15-minute breaks, we take work home with us, and we even work in the bathroom — why on Earth would we go on vacation?
My supervisor was correct, though: mental breaks are important (plus, it’s generally not wise to have food and drink near a computer). Despite having felt overstressed and sick for months, the need to keep working was as pressing as the need to breathe.
Burnout is real, despite what some people think. As someone with depression and anxiety, I can tell the difference between my feelings of exhaustion as I work myself to death and my feeling of malaise caused by a dip in serotonin. And while my depression is treatable with medication, my burnout is not.
Here’s how my life has gone over the past ten years:
- I couldn’t find a “real job” despite graduating with honors with a science degree, so I went back to school.
- I was stuck in temporary work as I struggled to finish grad school, so I was working meaningless, underpaying jobs, then going to classes or churning out papers.
- There were some weeks I didn’t have work, so I’d have to apply for unemployment or food stamps. During those times, I’d pick up odd jobs. I spent most of one summer working in the Florida sun pulling weeds and trimming shrubs, then would have to scrounge up change to buy ramen for dinner.
- I finally got a “real job” and worked my butt off to prove my worth.
- I was in training for aerial arts and went to the studio four to five days a week, pushing my body to its limits for several hours at a time.
- I was running my own company and putting on art shows and theatre productions, while handling all the marketing.
If it sounds like I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and accomplished a lot, I did. But I’m also burned out. That’s ten years of constant work. I took no real vacation during this time, just the occasional trip to one of Florida’s many springs or to Universal Studios. I have never had a couple of weeks where I wasn’t working hard on some project, and I don’t imagine I will any time soon.
Two weeks off from my current job, my writing, my aerial training, my side hustle?? The guilt and worry would consume me!
The need to keep working was as pressing as the need to breathe.
At some point, I’ll have to get over that. But I believe small steps lead to success, so for now, I’m working on being okay with small breaks. It’s hard, believe it or not, to step away from my Sunday writing sessions and go soak in the pool. It’s hard to sit and watch a movie without attempting to work on a costume or a writing project at the same time. It’s hard to get away from my desk and not think about all the things I have to do.
If you’re struggling with guilt or anxiety from taking time off, whether it’s five minutes or two weeks, remember that you can’t pour from an empty glass. Your overall work will suffer if you don’t practice self-care. I don’t mean bubble baths and red wine, I mean actual periods of time where you do next to nothing.
When I was so into the daily grind that every waking hour was booked, my physical and mental strength started to wane. I started making mistakes. I failed to progress in my training. I wasn’t meeting deadlines. Once I started building in breaks and relaxation time, my productivity actually improved.
I still feel the urge to work and my iPhone makes it oh-so-easy to stay connected to it. I tried setting reminders on my phone to take a break, but that was akin to trying to eat healthier by buying a banana at a donut shop. Now, I just aim to unplug. To take walks without my phone in hand. To simply sit with no music in my ears or screen in front of my eyes. And I’ve truly enjoyed those moments of silence and solitude.
There’s no shame in disconnecting from the demands of your day. In fact, your overall health and productivity will thank you for doing so.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.