The most stressful part of being on stress leave was actually telling people that I was on stress leave. I’m not sure if that falls into the Alanis Morissette type of irony, which is to say, it’s more inconvenient than it is ironic. Stress leave usually carries a lot of stigma. This stigma is largely assigned to the person on it, and shared with the organisation the person belongs to. My fears of people thinking I was ‘difficult’ or ‘fragile’ was only equalled by the fear that people would think the company I worked for was an awful employer. Of course, none of these things were true. In fact, as head of people at BlueChilli, my job is to create the working conditions that will keep people from needing stress leave. So imagine my shock when I was advised to take it.
My journey through stress leave
There are a million ways we experience stress. Mine manifests when I feel trapped by conflicting priorities – regardless of whether they are at work or at home. Our brains are not equipped to compartmentalise ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress, so we tend to have the same physical reaction to both. What this means is that ‘bad’ stress from dealing with layoffs at work is processed in a similar way as the ‘good stress’ of moving into your dream house. As luck would have it, I was going through both at the end of last year, resulting in paralysing anxiety.
I realised how much of my self-worth was attached to getting things done. If I wasn’t doing something useful or productive, my day had not amounted to much.
I have grown to recognise my symptoms of stress: I tend to isolate myself from my peers by working from home or skipping social events, my appetite and sleep patterns change, I start looking for instant-gratification tasks, rather than focusing on the most impactful projects. I was probably two weeks into this process when I finally decided to reach out for help.
Go find help, then take it
BlueChilli works with The Indigo Project – a wonderful wellness firm profiled on this website. I promptly booked a session with them to talk through my feelings. Even before I got there, I could tell what the problem was. I showed up to the session with a series of notes, charts and lists about how I felt, my patterns for the previous two weeks, and ways I had tried to curb my stress. As I entered the session, the therapist gently asked me to put my notes away and just relax into our conversation.
An hour later, it was obvious I needed time out. A week, in fact. But many of you would ask, what does one do on stress leave? Well, I can tell you I kind of did it wrong, so here are the lessons I learnt.
It’s not about resting, it’s about breaking habits
The biggest, and arguably the most important, revelation is that the culprit wasn’t work. I was so quick to assign blame to my workload and the constantly changing priorities of working in the startup world that I ignored the fact that it was my approach to work that was actually getting in my way.
What do I mean? Well, it should have been obvious when I found myself spending day one of my week-long stress leave putting together a spreadsheet of all the personal projects I was going to get done while I was away from work. I was going to clear out my closet, plan a housewarming party, label all my receipts to get them ready for tax time, clean the house, cook every day and workout each morning. The list had about six weeks’ worth of work.
It was madness.
But it was not until day two, when I caught myself frantically rifling through my closet, trying to find clothes to take to the dry cleaner, when I realised that I was assigning myself these projects for no reason. I realised how much of my self-worth was attached to getting things done. If I wasn’t doing something useful or productive, my day had not amounted to much.
I stood there, mouth agape, thinking to myself, ‘Why am I in such a hurry to get this done? Who even cares?’ It was then that everything started falling into place. The assumption is that we accept stress from others – assignments, projects, workload, deadlines. We are rewarded for getting through the stress and achieving results. So we tend to associate stress – and the acquisition of stress – with a positive reward. Whether it’s pride when you get kudos from your boss, or the sense of relief you get when your house is finally vacuumed, the reward centres in our brains are programmed to seek that feeling. It’s not surprising that we end up addicted to the feeling and seek out chores that will make us feel that way.
That moment was life-changing. I had to break the habit of chasing stress.
Productivity versus impact
The best way you can go about breaking habits is to understand your triggers. Why do you do what you do? Where does the decision start? The answer was simpler than I wanted to admit. For me, it was the self-talk at the end of the day.
When I look back on the day, it’s usually when I’m home, getting ready for bed. I think about what I did and how I did it. This results in a rolodex of tasks ticking in my head – ‘Did this get done? Did I send that off? Did I get enough done?’ Inevitably, what you get done in a day is never going to be enough, and there is always room for improvement in how you do things. Framing your accomplishments in that way is always going to leave you feeling unfulfilled.
What to do instead? Easy: reframe your day in terms of impact. Now I ask myself, ‘How do I feel about what I did today? Will what I did today make tomorrow easier or better? What did I change today?’ Something as easy as that can be the switch you need. It certainly was for me.
So next time you feel like the walls are closing in and your priorities just cannot get aligned, fight your instinct to find instant relief and go searching for the causes instead. I can assure you, the answer is just a couple of deep breaths away.