Last April, I quit the corporate world to go down the path of self-employment. One year on, I finally feel brave enough to talk about lessons learnt, skills gained, fears felt, and priorities re-adjusted.
People are often stunned that I made the decision to leave. “You were so close to the mark, why’d you quit?” The reasons were many (and complex), one of them being I wasn’t sure what this magical “mark” was.
But the most pressing element that drove me over the edge is a seldom talked about issue – Burnout. And I was not alone, my colleagues and I danced around with our heads on fire, smoke coming out of our behinds. We all dove headfirst into the blazing corporate volcano, and forgot to take the extinguisher with us.
A common thread that ran through many of us was over-working and a depressing lack of work-life balance. I pulled more 14 hour days and 6 day weeks than I can remember, as did many of my colleagues. Phone calls past 11pm were common, and I was guilty of answering them. Often they were for things that could easily wait till the next day, but we were all in this blind race to get to an unknown finish line, see, and the next day was just too far away.
My phone beeped late into the night and I always texted back. Dark circles and pain killers became an integral part of my life. The pressure kept building and if I listened carefully, I could hear my hair graying.
Meetings past 9pm were the norm, and the tiniest protest was met with very proper corporate scoff. I was expected to be eternally grateful to have been allowed initiation into the Sacred Brotherhood of the Boardroom. Give me lifelong passes to Shakira and Colplay concerts, bruv, and we’ll discuss the terms of my eternal gratefulness!
This Thing Called Work-Life Balance
Let’s for a moment talk about the reality of ‘Work-Life Balance.’ As much as HR Departments throw this buzzword around, the very basic fact is that your work is a big part of your life, and vice-versa. They co-exist, they are co-dependent. Together your work and your personal life combine to form an ecosystem in which you can flourish or perish (depending on whether you have flesh-eating bosses in there).
The relationship between work and life is as strong and undeniable as the love affair between cats and cardboard boxes. Neither is complete without the other. Instead of trying to seek “balance,” we must endeavour to create a space where ‘work’ and ‘life’ are equally respected and not compartmentalised.
Go Home People. You Too, Bosses.
As the empowered youth of one of the largest nations in the world, we each have the right to choose the roles we want to play – partners, spouses, friends, parents, CEOs. When we go to work, we don’t suddenly stop being a father, and when we go back home, we don’t stop being a manager. Our two (or more) roles are complementary.
So go home, people. Go home to your parents, your spouses, your children, your pets, your neighbours, yourselves. Leave the office on time and watch some John Oliver on your couch. Go eat some Maggi and drink some Cola in your faded shorts.
To Empower Women, We Must Empower Men
Woman empowerment doesn’t come from initiating us into the Sacred Brotherhood of the Boardroom. It comes from equality of load sharing – both at work and at home. The corporate culture is a little more tolerant towards women who say they need to get home to help their kids with homework. But men aren’t often afforded the same privilege.
As a society, we must empower men to be proud of the roles in their personal lives just as much as the ones in their professional lives, so they can be proud of the women who do the same too. When men stop feeling the pressure to work like a bullock pulling a cart, and they are not ridiculed for wanting to go home on time to make chicken for their puppy, the male-female dynamic in the workplace will begin to evolve to empower everyone.
More and more women are burning out in their 20s (scary!) – read more here.
It’s Okay To Cry
I’ve cried at my desk, I’ve cried in the ladies room. I’ve seen perfectly calm people spontaneously burst into uncontrollable tears at work. Big whoop. Get over it people, it’s okay to cry. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. When the pressure gets to you, you need to let it out. And if your body tells you to “cry it out” just do it.
No matter what the magazines tell you, it’s not career suicide, it’s not giving away power, it’s not anti-feminist (or anti-manist). It’s just an expression of how you’re feeling. It’s important to remember that crying doesn’t always come from sadness; high-stress jobs can induce tears of frustration, of stress, of hunger, of anger. And that’s okay.
We must be compassionate towards people who have had a cry in the office, rather than call up colleagues on the 5th floor to spread “you’re never going to believe this, Sharon’s bawling her eyes out” through the toxic grapevine.
If even the great Obama can shed a frustrated tear at work, I think we’re all good.
Apart from being utterly spent, I often found myself stuck in conflict between my personal values, and my work-actions. I felt increasingly guilty for not having the time for things that really mattered to me. I wanted to have the time to think about eating healthier, reducing my carbon footprint, figuring out water-efficient ways of doing dishes. I wanted to have the time to sit opposite my cat and tell him how much I loved him, while he softly pawed at my floor plotting my murder. (Rest in peace Charlie Brown, you have left a cat-shaped hole in my soul).
Burnout, unrealistic goals, and fear of speaking out blended into one big politics-peppered mush. My brain began to resemble a college student’s refrigerator. Full of junk, never cleaned out, an egg here, a lettuce shred there. I kept going back to it for something, and kept coming back hungry.
The thing about burnout is that you don’t realise what’s happening until you’ve reached critical mass, and the very mention of the next time-wasting conference call can trigger complete combustion.
If HR departments and leaders don’t watch out for signs, and wake up to deep-rooted unhappiness stemming from burnout too late, nothing they say or do can change how you feel. Because companies cannot discount emotion and feelings in performance appraisals and work reviews. You can knock at my door all you want, but nobody’s home. You can offer a raise, dangle a promotion, but the show’s over, the credits are rolling, and we can all pack up and leave.
I try to look at it on two parallel planes: Professional growth and invaluable experience on one; stress, health issues, and gross neglect of personal life on the other. What it built for me professionally; and what it destroyed for me personally. It is a paradox and always will be.
So, would I recommend a high stress corporate job that requires you to work 14 hours a day? Sure, just as much as I would recommend eating a live furry spider for dinner. But if you do choose to eat a spider, you tried something new, you felt it crawl down your throat, and you experienced the aftermaths of it. In the process, you learned something about yourself you would never have, had you not eaten the live furry spider for dinner.
Now That That’s Out Of The Way…
…we can go back to talking about really important things.