Stress Leave: How I Used the Time Away From My Job
Recently, I approached my doctor about taking some stress leave from my job. I was terribly nervous about doing this, and most of that stress had little to do with the fact that I'd never seen this doctor before and I don't do well with strangers. No, mostly I was worried because of the cycle of stress over why people tend to take stress leave in the first place.
It's no surprise that stress leave is becoming more and more common in jobs; people take weeks at a time off work because they're under so much stress that they feel they can no longer live their lives—let alone perform their jobs—as best they can. And stress leave is also much more common in the younger generation than the older one.
So, with those two facts in mind, I had a remarkably self-defeating thought process going on. I was under stress. But some people go through much worse than I do, and for longer, working the same crappy job for years and years and never taking more than a week of vacation a year. And there I was, not even 25 years old, looking for time off work because I felt like I could no longer handle my life.
I felt like a slacker looking for an excuse to just skive off work and avoid taking responsibility for a while. I mean, how could I, someone who's supposed to be in the prime of their life, end up with so much stress that I needed to take a step back from life for a little while to sort myself out? I should be able to handle everything on my plate and more, right?
After all, I have a fairly comfortable life. I have an apartment, a good friend and roommate, adorable pets, hobbies that keep me entertained for hours, sometimes days if I have half the chance—things could be a lot worse.
But I also had two pets die this past December. I have a job that pays well, but I also have a job where I'm on probation and may end up fired after another month because I suck at the on-the-phone work. On the flip side of that, in my overnight database work, I'd spent weeks feeling as though I was the only one doing the work properly, and I spent half my shifts catching up on the work other people should have already done but yet didn't.
The lousy winter weather wasn't helping my mood, I spent far too much time in pain because of a sprained ankle (and then the subsequent feeling of lopsidedness and different pain as my body adjusted to walking without having to lean to one side), and I wondered quite seriously if my depression wasn't making a comeback. I had family issues going on, like watching my mother's new relationship with her supervisor implode, for which I was also taking some fallout. My shifts were cut back at work and had to switch to a schedule that meant consistently messing up my sleep schedule. I needed some time to back away from the things in life that were causing me stress, to see if that could help improve things before I talked to my doctor about perhaps going back on anti-depressants—something I really didn't want.
But I still felt weak. There was a little nagging voice in the back of my head saying that I should still be able to handle all of this and that people wouldn't take me seriously because I was young. Young people want to slack off, after all. That is the defining image of my age group, aside from the partying and drinking.
After hearing my problems, though, the doctor did put me on stress leave—more than I expected, actually. I had gone there expecting to maybe get a few weeks off, a month at the most, but what I ended up getting was 12 weeks off work and instructions on how to draw Employment Insurance during that time.
12 weeks! That was more of a reprieve than I could have possibly hoped for!
But what to do with all this time off? I can't just sit on my butt and watch TV for 12 weeks. As far as I was concerned, I'd been given a gift; I had a chance to potentially turn my life around from crap to cream, so to speak, and I didn't want to waste it.
What to Do While You're on Stress Leave
I made the decision there and then that I'd use this time productively. A friend of mine from a previous job confirmed that this was the right way to handle things. She had spent some time on stress leave in the past, and she said that without projects and tasks to keep her busy, she'd found herself under the stress of boredom, and that didn't help matters in the slightest.
First and foremost, my apartment needed cleaning, unpacked boxes needed sorting and repacking into better containers and put into storage, and I had a pile of dishes mounting up in the kitchen. This, I knew, would serve me well. In addition to the fact that cleaning would keep me busy, a clean living space is very good for one's mentality. A cluttered living space can make for a cluttered mind. It doesn't tend to make one feel good to go into a messy room and to see belongings piled willy-nilly. Cleaning and organizing my physical belongings had a sense of symbolism to it. I clean my apartment, and I clean my mind. I organize what I own, I organize my thoughts. It sounds cheesy, but it's true.
Being in a clean space also tends to make one feel more creative, and I'd felt a serious lack of creativity lately. While I had creative ideas, it was more along the lines of "I want to want to do this thing," rather than actually wanting to just do it. I had no focus. That, too, is changing.
But cleaning up won't take 12 weeks (I hope). What to do during the rest of the time?
The weather's finally turning warm and sunny around here, the snow and ice have finally melted, and the outdoors is fit to walk in once again. I need to exercise more, and so I've been making an effort to take even a short walk every day.
It hurt for a while, what with the ankle and lopsided body problems I mentioned earlier, but I'm stronger now, and my walks don't hurt nearly as much as they used to. And with regular exercise, I ought to start losing a bit of weight soon. That will be better for my physical health and my mental health, as I'll see myself getting steps closer to my healthy eventual goal.
With all this time on my hands, I now have the chance to work on some projects I've had on the back burner for ages. I have some original knitting pattern ideas that need working on, some that may help bring in a bit of money if I choose to sell them rather than to release them for free. I've had dreams now of making my way as an independent artist, and if this isn't my chance to make a start on that, I don't know what will be!
I have the time on my hands to work on designs, patterns, items to sell, writing to submit, without having to try to squeeze everything in a few minutes at a time among work, sleep, and trying to sort out everything else in my life. I know that 12 weeks of this won't be enough time to get established as an artist and make enough money to avoid going back to a more mundane job, but it's a start.
I've been meaning to start up an account on artfire.com, a site somewhat like Etsy that allows independent small artists and crafters to sell their work and to increase visibility in their chosen field or fields. As soon as I get some products made, I'll likely put them up for sale there (and then probably write an article reviewing the site's ease of use and the diversity of crafts). I'm thinking of using some of my various scraps of material to make some embroidered pouches and bags to start off with before I jump right in and start listing larger pieces. (Plus, it'll give me a bit of a placeholder so that I actually have time to work on said larger pieces.)
Before I knew it, with all these plans, I had enough to keep me quite busy during this time off, almost as busy as when I was working my shifts in the first place. At first, that seemed somewhat daunting, but then I realized that the biggest difference between then and now is that now all my busy projects are things that I actually want to do, not just things I have to do. I may be spending a full day going for a walk and washing dishes, then doing some sketching, knitting, and designing, but even if all my hours are taken up doing that stuff, does it really sound so daunting? It is, after all, probably exactly what I'd be doing if I were on vacation from work rather than a stress leave.
And the stress leave lasts longer.
I still sometimes wake up with that annoying nagging thought that I'm just being weak and lazy, that if I'd pushed myself just a little bit harder I could have gotten through this without having to take any time off at all. Other people do it, and put up with worse, so what makes me so special?
The ultimate answer? Nothing. Nothing makes me so special, more deserving of time off than anybody else going through stress. The only difference between me and the people that push through it even when they know it's tearing them to pieces is that I went and asked for some time to step back. While some would see that as weakness, as not being willing to stick with things until they improved, it could also be a sign of strength, and a step toward the ultimate solution.
I saw a problem, I saw a potential solution, and I took the steps to get to the solution. The solution is a personal one—me taking some time off to get my life in order—but it's still a step in the right direction, and nobody should be able to fault me for that. Nor should they find fault with anybody else who feels the need to do the same thing.
Sometimes pushing limits isn't actually the right way to solve a problem. Sometimes it works, breaking past the barriers and working nonstop to find an active solution. Sometimes, though, that attitude actually makes the problem worse, depending on what the problem is.
If the problem is too much stress piling up on someone who may not be able to handle that much, or doesn't tend to handle stress well at all, then adding more stress by telling them to just keep pushing forward is likely to make the problem worse. Sometimes the right thing to do is to take a step back, look at things from a bit more a removed perspective, and try again from the beginning. Or maybe use the chance to take a different path, or to carve out a new path entirely. That's one of the best things about having a chance to step back or to start over—if you have motivation again, anything and everything can be possible.
The Financial Downside of Stress Leave
The downside of stress leave, aside from the nagging voice of weakness that I keep having to tell to shut up and go away, is the financial aspect. EI is notoriously slow to process and arrive, and unless you conveniently had money put aside to take a few weeks or months off, you're likely to run into a few financial snags along the way. This can add stress to the time you're supposed to be taking to destress, which can do a lot to set things back.
My only advice on that is to be as frugal as possible while still being happy. Apply for EI as soon as you can, if you're eligible, so that even if the money comes a little late it still at least comes, and you can catch up on debt as quickly as possible. It won't be as much money as you're accustomed to, but every little bit helps.
Also, with less 'unassigned' money (money that's left over after paying bills, rent, debt, etc), you may find yourself appreciating what you have a whole lot more, and taking more pleasure from the free things in life. It costs nothing to fill a bottle with water and to go for a walk on a sunny day, or even to just sit in a comfy chair outside and draw, write, or read an old favorite.
I'm a stockpiler and packrat, so I end up collecting more than I can immediately use. As such, I have a large backlog of books to read, video games to play, TV shows I want to watch, and stories I want to write. I already have these things in my possession; it costs me nothing to grab something from the shelf and to start it. The money has already been spent, and I don't need to worry about factoring a new cost into things.
In a time where money will be scarce, this sort of thing is important. It's entertainment, which means that I'll be enjoying myself for hours, days, maybe even weeks, at no cost to the current me, and no debits from my bank account or borrowing money from friends. It's good, guilt-free fun, and if it's a book I haven't read or a game I haven't played, then it's something completely new to me, which can give me the same feeling of satisfaction as it would if I'd just gone out and spent money on the item half an hour ago. And it lets me go through my backlog so that I don't look at the lists of all the things I haven't done yet and feel so overwhelmed. A double-dose of something good for the soul, and it cost me nothing that I hadn't already spent.
Writing articles for HubPages has been beneficial for me these past few days, too. Not only does it get the creative juices flowing again (apathy, depression, and a feeling of a lack of time all combined to put a block on those juices for so long), but when I feel like I'm running out of things to write about, I get a greater urge to go and try something new, so that I can write about that instead.
Try New Things
Another fantastic thing to do on stress leave is to try something new! If you have the money and have always wanted to take a painting class, go for it! Or hike a certain trail in a nearby park or wooded area. Or try writing a novel. If you've got the time and materials, there's nothing to stop you from going nuts and trying out some wonderful new ideas that you think will be fun. If you enjoy them, then they too will help cut down on your stress level and make your time off that much better or make you feel productive while you're at it.
While I have only just made a start to all these big plans I've talked about, at least a start has been made, and I also have the time to keep making some progress on them, to move forward in a way that I previously felt had been blocked off to me due to a lack of time and due to stresses sapping my motivation. Hopefully, by the end of this, I'll come out a better person, feeling more in control of my life, and having taken a few steps on the road to living my life the way I want to live it. There will be fewer chains around my neck that are dragging me down, and more freedom to make my living in a way that doesn't make me want to tear my hair out at the end of my shift.
And really, isn't that something we're all searching for in life? A bit of freedom, and chance to turn things in a more positive direction and to take control of our lives back from the people who spend their time learning better ways to control us? Most of us tend to live at the whims of somebody else, often a lot of different "somebodies," and that can be incredibly frustrating. Even if it doesn't reach the point where you need stress leave from work, it's important to take a step back and take some time for yourself. After all, without yourself, who are you?