I once had a terrible panic attack that led to me being on sick leave. Long story short, this happened in 2016. At the time I was a full-time university student working at least 20-30 hours per week. I held an office job that was quite demanding. I was handling my tasks plus work that should have been divvied up amongst the team. Many would come to talk to me in private and tell me that the supervisors were taking advantage of me. While I knew that was true, I did not say anything about it. Why? Because I was the youngest and I needed that job to cover my bills and other school-related expenses. They already viewed me as the “kid” in the group so I did not want them to know that I was overwhelmed with the work they threw at me.
I was silent to my detriment and one day it all the stress got to me. I was at my desk that morning and had difficulty breathing. My vision was blurring, my chest felt tight and I could barely speak. I really thought I was going to have a heart attack or something. Not wanting to cause a scene, I drove myself home (I would never recommend that looking back. That was a dangerous decision). I thought resting a bit at home would help but it only got worst. I eventually went to the ER. That experience was terrible. The doctor there barely listened and just concluded I had asthma which didn’t make sense.
Given the ordeal in the ER and not feeling any better, I booked an appointment with my medical doctor. After a series of examinations and questions, I was told that I had a panic attack. My doctor insisted I go on sick leave as I was in a terrible state. I felt like a failure at that point. I allowed people in a higher position to take advantage of me because I was afraid of speaking up. You know how long it took me to recover? Over a month.
Since then, I made a vow that I would not allow myself to deteriorate like that again. After recovering, I stayed at that job for 6 months. I had a meeting with the manager and another with HR so that I don’t end up being overworked again (I’m surprised they listened. Maybe because I had sufficient proof that I was forced to do other people’s work). I quit that job because I got into a second post-secondary program that conflicted with my work hours. Nonetheless, I was glad. It gave me an out and a chance to honour my vow going forward.
Now did I have other jobs that tried to overwork me? (spoiler: yes!) I remember a job I held out of college that was really the embodiment of hell on earth. My first corporate job that matched contributions was terrible. Just my luck! Aesthetically the office looked nice but it felt empty. It was odd that there were so many empty cubicles. I presumed that it was because they just built the area but that’s when I was told that 35% of staff were on sick leave. Why? Because they were burnt out from their work. Oh shit! Here we go again!
I barely started and I could sense where this was going. I was given the workload of a person that was on sick leave. One of many who burnt out. I could tell by the person’s work that they were on top of things for a while but then more work started plowing on them. That’s exactly what began to happen to me. After a few weeks, I found myself working 10-12 hours trying to keep up AND I STILL COULDN’T!! It didn’t help that I had a supervisor that was verbally abusive and would question my work experience in a condescending way when I told her that it was challenging to keep up with the ever-growing workload. Eventually, I felt the same symptoms I had in 2016 creeping up on me. I remembered my vow to never repeat said experience. I needed to get out of there, ASAP!
I did some math and crunched some numbers because I was about to quit my job with nothing lined up for the first time. I had a set date in mind based on my budget but when I came in one morning to another one of my supervisor’s antics, I had enough. I literally typed my resignation letter, printed it and went to HR to give in my notice. I was 25 at the time.
While I was second-guessing my impulses I confided in some of the women I bonded with. They all told me that I was brave and did a good thing. I was confused. Like Sis are you aware that I quit my job with NOTHING lined up??? I’ll give you brave but how is this a good thing? Well, they’ve all shared similar stories. One colleague told me that she started at the same age as me and has contemplated quitting so many times but never acted on it. Now she felt that it was too late as she has expenses and other responsibilities that would make it difficult to quit. She assured me that I made a sound decision and later on I’ll be glad that I left (she was right).
Fast forward a couple years later (presently) and we are in a pandemic. These experiences were pre-covid but in this past year, I’ve been thinking of work and what it means to me. I believe that I’m financially responsible but I’m not in a position (yet) where working is optional. I must work. I have more responsibilities now than in my early twenties and I need a way to cover them. HOWEVER, I will NOT allow employers to take advantage of me anymore.
I lost my job last year during this pandemic. While being unemployed for a while isn’t the best thing, I was relieved. From the lack of diversity, the microaggressions and the subtle acts to undermine my work, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing for them to end my contract. That led me to go in a different direction by looking for work in other fields. I was tired of the ridiculous workload due to short-staffed environments and the racism I had the deal with. I know every field came with its set of challenges but being overworked was not a “challenge” that I’m willing to take on (would be nice if I could avoid racism but as a Black Woman…yeah it’s been hard).
I do not dream of labour. If we’re being honest, I don’t have a dream job right now either. I’m just focused on survival and healing from my recent loss because losing a loved one so unexpectedly has taken a toll on me. Even if I weren’t dealing with said life stressors, I’m clear on one thing: I don’t believe in overworking myself. It has never paid off. It has been more destructive if anything. I’m not going to work myself to the bone just for someone else to enjoy the fruits of my labour. NO THANKS!
This is your friendly reminder to prioritize yourself. If you burn out, guess what? The business still goes on. Believe me, they will find someone else to do your work while you’re fighting to regain your energy at home. Yes, we need to work to make ends meet, but at what cost if we’re sacrificing our well-being?
Pace yourself. Don’t take on more than you can handle. Make sure to take your breaks because there’s no sense in working through them. Your work will still be there when you come back; it isn’t going anywhere (plus you’re legally entitled to breaks!). It’s important to take a breather. Whether it’s stretching, playing a game, going for a walk, or whatever, just do something that makes YOU happy and relieves tension.
There’s only one you. You’re not a machine. Don’t let these corporations/employers drain the life out of you. Because they will if you give them the chance and when you “malfunction”, there will be a job posting within the next few hours for your replacement. Pandemic aside, there are jobs out there. You can replace a job title but you cannot replace yourself. Remember that.
All the best,