I quit my job because of burnout, and here’s what I learned

On Instagram, I travelled, ran, and partied. In reality, I barely saw anyone, struggled to get out of bed, cried frequently, vaped weed heavily, and found basic tasks like laundry exhausting.

The darker the news turned, the more dead I felt inside, and I couldn’t escape the news because my job was to stay on top of it. I finally realised that I couldn’t move forward until I stopped and seriously addressed the emptiness I was feeling, borne from years of always being “on.”

Eight months ago, as I huddled over my laptop, trying to compose a Slack message while weeping and asking myself, “What is this all for?” I realised that I had to quit my job.

I could no longer ignore that my health was in shambles, I lacked any semblance of a personal life, and I was incapable of being a good friend or daughter because I was so burned out by the demands of my job working in social media covering breaking news.

Quitting was an idea simmering in my mind for months that I kept pushing away, until, at last, I broke.

I’d broken before. Two years earlier, during the summer of 2017, I was riding the subway and my brain crashed. My body seized. I was rushed to the E.R., then returned to work days after. Three weeks later, I seized again and smacked my head on a coffee table.

Perhaps the concussion and black eye should have been a wake-up call to slow down. But I need my job, I thought. I didn’t know who I was without it. I feared losing health insurance, but mostly I feared losing the security of a title and a salary. Not having a job, in my mind, equated failure. It showed that I couldn’t handle hard work, city life, or being an adult; that everyone else, as social media proved, was stronger, happier, and more successful than me.

After the bruises healed during a brief medical leave, after I’d ordered a tiny gold medical bracelet engraved with a diagnosis of epilepsy, most likely stress-induced, I went back to work.

Current events grew bleaker, and so did my mental health as I stayed on the digital front line of every story. White supremacists descended on Charlottesville; a silent gunman opened fire on a Las Vegas concert; millions of women, myself included, shared intimate accounts of sexual harassment and assault. My dreams were plagued with AR-15s and leering men, and still I declined to deal with my health and fatigue.

I dismissed therapy as requiring too much time and money, and if my colleagues appeared able to withstand the pressure, why couldn’t I? Instead of seeking help, I spent a long evening at an October wedding hidden in a back room, sobbing for hours into my best friend’s shoulder for reasons I couldn’t clearly articulate.

A month after the wedding, I was promoted to direct a new team, and my responsibilities doubled.

Looking back, I wonder: Was that the time to take a break? Even if it meant risking advancement? Or was the time in 2016, when I first started working in news, right before the chaos of the presidential election? Before my job evolved into seemingly constant coverage of every mass shooting as it unfolded, starting with the Pulse massacre? Should I have taken off more than a week between two high-pressure jobs in a media industry rife with layoffs, leadership changes, and scandals?

How about after graduating college in 2011, before immediately moving to New York to job hunt? When was the right time to take a break? When is it ever? Quitting was never an option – until it became the only option.

I know my circumstances are extreme. Not everyone has seizures under duress. But I am not alone in feeling my mental health suffering. My entire generation is burned out, rooted in fallout from the 2008 recession, our addiction to the attention economy, and this polarised political climate. Millennials have seen a 47% increase in major depression diagnoses since 2013, according to a Blue Cross Blue Shield report from 2019. Stories of “millennial burnout” captivated headlines all last year. I’m certain that this trend will only continue and we will see its repercussions writ large over the next decade.

My last day at my job was July 4, or as my friend jokingly called it, “Malia Freedom Day.” It took quitting to finally understand that prioritising my health is more than a sign of strength – it is essential. With distance, I see that working around the clock and never unplugging is unsustainable for anyone, not just me.

If you’re feeling burned out and thinking of quitting, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned that might help you make sense of your options and prepare for what’s next.

If you have access to financial support, ask for it.

Up front: Taking this hiatus has drained my bank account and cut into my parents’ retirement savings. I am anxious about this every day. But I could no longer ignore my burnout, not with a disability so closely tied to it. I needed help and was privileged to have my family’s financial and emotional support.

Quitting is not financially feasible for everyone, but if you have the ability to ask for assistance or to save in advance, do it. The time you take to heal is worth the cost.

Take a real break.

Once you quit, it is tempting to fill your calendar with appointments. There are so many people to see, so many activities you didn’t have time for before. But the need to recover from burnout is legitimate, and for me, treatment involved turning down the noise.

I deleted social media from my phone. I disabled notifications. I stopped reading the news, setting alarms, wearing makeup, and listening to music while walking or waiting. I stayed home instead of travelling. I slept and cooked. I started journalling. I spent hours alone grappling with my thoughts and anxieties. I got a psychologist. Essentially, I created my own medical leave, but one far more constructive than my first. It wasn’t Eat, Pray, Love; more like Eat, Sleep, Therapy.

I learned that what I needed was to simply be, to have no requirements, no agenda, no guilt; just the freedom to do nothing. And in the silence, I began to hear whispers of myself coming back.

You can decide what a “break” means for you. What’s most important is to open a dialogue with yourself about what actions to take in order to feel healthy.

Be prepared for a lot of opinions.

You will encounter all sorts of reactions when you tell people your decision. Including: “You quit?! Amazing! You should move to Italy!” “If I were you, I’d go to the beach every day.” “What’re you doing with your time? Volunteering? Learning Spanish?” “Aren’t you lucky?” “Aren’t you scared?” And my favourite: “How’s funemployment?”

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of quitting is having to talk about it with everyone else. Some will applaud you on your bravery. Some will wonder where you’re vacationing. Others will try to tell you how to spend your time.

It’s okay to be honest. You can say, “I’m burned out, so I’m lying low for a bit.” When people ask about your future, you can reply, “I’m still figuring it out.”

And be prepared for even your own opinions and expectations of this break to be wrong.

Initially, I thought I’d treat my hiatus like a staycation. I’d walk the length of Manhattan! Sign up for a half marathon! Pitch freelance assignments every week! LOL. I spent the first three months sleeping. When I wasn’t in bed, I was on the couch bingeing Say Yes to the Dress and berating myself for not doing more. Going to the grocery store was overwhelming. Picking a single recipe or arranging a phone call with a friend was hard. Socialising was draining. I wasn’t going on vacation; I was realising how deeply my burnout had manifested itself.

Remember: Only you can determine what you need, and that is no one else’s job to distinguish but your own.

Progress takes time and doesn’t always look the way you expect it to.

Some days, progress feels more obvious, like doing stand-up for the first time, turning down a job that isn’t a good fit, or writing a draft of an article you care about. Other days, it’s waking up before noon, going on a walk, having a meaningful conversation, or reading.

Take time to note these moments and give yourself credit. I recommend journaling so you can reflect on your growth. And yes, some days, some hours will be harder than others. Take it easy, friend. Being kind to yourself counts as progress too.

You will struggle with the fear of getting a new job and burning out again.

And with the fear of not knowing exactly where you’ll land. Try to step back from that big, scary picture.

First, list out your work-life must-haves for the future. What do you require in both spheres to flourish? What are your non-negotiables? I’ve learned from this break that what I need is independence and stability in my next role. I need to have a creative outlet, time for friends and family, regular exercise, sleep, access to a therapist, and time away from my phone. The responsibility of ensuring these needs are met mostly falls to me, but they factor in highly during my job considerations.

Then, set small, achievable goals. For me, that was getting my résumé in shape and reaching out to people I admire for coffee. Eventually, I worked my way up to consulting gigs, applying for a few positions, and writing an article about my experience and sharing it with you.

Quitting served as a necessary reminder that I am not my job – that I possess the power to take back control of my life and will fight to keep it. I don’t know what’s next, but I do know I’ll look back at this time and wonder, Why didn’t I do it sooner?

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