Before the pandemic (and even before I really started my career), I had this idea that a work-life balance was just not an option in my 20s. When I was fresh out of college, I was told the only way I would get a good job was if I dedicated almost all of my time to work. I truly believed this was the pathway to a successful career and, following that, the only way I would ever be happy.
No one ever talked about self-care when I was growing up, let alone taking care of my mental health. We all hear the usual, eat healthy, exercise, take care of your body—but why weren’t we encouraged to take care of our minds? Most people I know or talk to these days have experienced burnout. In fact, in a survey of 2,000 participants run by Yellowbrick, 96% experienced burnout to the point it was affecting their everyday lives.
It wasn’t until the past couple of years that I really thought about taking care of my mental health. In high school and college, I struggled with severe anxiety, not sleeping, and emotional problems. Besides the stress of performing well in school, there were also problems in my social life that I had to navigate. Sometimes I wonder how I got through it all without the self-care practices I have today.
I’ve tried almost everything for self-care, and honestly, what ends up working just depends on the day and my mood. Most recently I tried one of my new favorites for the first time: fully disconnecting from work. I took a week off for my brother’s small wedding—it was one of the many events that was unfortunately heavily affected by the pandemic. Had I not been a part of his bridal party, or had it not been scheduled in advance, I would have never taken the time off and felt as recovered as I did after the trip. Traveling while still in the midst of the coronavirus was stressful enough, and I didn’t want to think about the mountain of work I would have to come back to.
Prior to the trip, I was feeling heavy work fatigue. Along with two covid deaths on different sides of my family, I was also taking on new responsibilities at work. It was a rough time, and it was hard to process everything that was happening all at once. I found myself going through really exciting highs and really low lows. One day I would be ecstatic about my career moving forward and the fact that I was being trusted to take on new projects; the next day I wouldn’t be able to stop crying.
I wondered what was wrong with me and what I could do to help myself before burning out and risking my productivity. I knew I was ready for an actual break and realized the best way to overcome burnout and fully process what I was feeling was to reflect and recharge. What I did next was totally new, and I wasn’t sure how anyone would react to it—I unplugged!
How I Prepared to Unplug in 5 Steps
Normally when I take time off work, I bring my laptop and give myself time to check emails and messages to make sure I don’t miss anything important. This time I decided not to do that. I totally unplugged from all things work-related.
Here’s why fully disconnecting and taking a full break from work is important.
- Prevent or recover from burnout
- Become present in the space you’re in, whether physically or mentally
- Work will still be there when you get back!
After deciding to take a real break, I still had huge anxiety about coming back to 100+ emails that would take hours to sift through. So I set up my work to make sure everything was in place for my week off. Here’s what I did in five steps:
- I finished the work I needed to have done before my break.
- I made sure there was coverage, where necessary, and prepared a boilerplate “Jess will be back by this date” for my team.
- I politely asked people not to email me or message me until I was back and gave them the date of my return. I also gave myself one or two extra days to catch up, which I included in my auto-response email!
- I set up follow-up reminders, tasks, and emails that needed to be completed upon my return.
- I removed or muted notifications for email, messaging, and social media accounts.
This preparation was key to making sure I didn’t continue down that negative path when I returned to work. It also held me accountable, ensuring I was being respectful to my team and not falling behind.
As I’m writing this, I’m giggling to myself because I’m making all of this sound so easy, but it was not! It took a lot of courage to ask my team and others to wait to email me, and I was nervous about giving this practice a try.
Finally Resting and Recharging
While I was out of the office, I did not check my email once. I gave myself full permission to do absolutely nothing while I was out and not think about work. I focused on my brother’s wedding, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, the calming sound of the ocean, and the delicious food! This was also the first time my family had seen each other in months, so I wanted to take it all in and enjoy being with them. It was HARD. Whenever I had an urge to check in at work—which was often!—I would remind myself why I was fully disconnecting.
Part of the struggle was getting through the anxiety of coming back to a million emails (even though I had asked people not to email me). I even considered ignoring some non-urgent emails to lessen my stress while catching up. But luckily, everyone I had spoken to respected my request not to send me emails. Of course, I still received some messages, but it wasn’t nearly as many as I probably would have received had I not asked. I was able to return to work feeling relieved and ready to keep going.
Because I took a whole week off and actually disconnected from work, I had a lot of time to reflect. I realized how important taking that break was for me. By taking this time for myself and my own mental space, I was able to rest my mind. I processed my different emotions without the fear of prioritizing my work responsibilities. In turn, I was able to come back refreshed, less stressed out, and in a more positive mental space than when I left.
I feel happier and more productive than before my break, and I’m able to give 100% effort back to my work responsibilities.
This reflection also speaks true for knowing when to turn your work brain off each day or on weekends, especially with the pandemic forcing most people to work at home. There becomes a blur between work-life and home-life when you’re doing it all in the same place. It’s okay to listen to your body and take breaks and disconnect at the end of the day. It’s okay to hustle and grind—but then turn it off to enjoy your evenings. It’s okay to give yourself permission to rest your mind and body.
This is a personal account of my own reflection and experiences that I wanted to share with you all. Hopefully it will be helpful for someone else to hear. You can also listen to my podcast episode on this topic on our Creator Stories Podcast.