On Burnout & Sabbatical

This is not another written piece about how you and I, as individuals, can take personal action to avoid and combat burnout. While this post does address that, my primary objective is to question why’s burnout happening so much in the first place? What’s causing it on all rungs of employment in different industries? Where’s the preventing burnout dialogue within a workplace that addresses the actual workplace and not putting the sole responsibility on the individual?

I don’t have answers to these questions and I am realistic that changing the socioeconomic forces that cause burnout is a constant struggle. Because of this, personal and collective rest and joy are necessary to resist and refute said forces. But longer periods of rest, like a sabbatical or periods of chosen unemployment, are only available to those with housing, food, water, and most importantly, monetary stability and access to some degree. Regardless, I need to write about burnout and sabbatical to process and reflect on it as well as seek and create more emotionally and mentally supportive environments for myself and others.

May is mental health awareness month. Like with all topics given designated days and months in the following format “insert topic here] Day/Month,” we should be integrating mental health conversation and practices into our lifestyles. Also, who designates these days? The awareness and representation are important, but in the case of access to resources, it’s only surface level when said access and resources remain largely unattainable and inequitable.

Over the last year, I’ve grown weary to write or share things based on these topical, contrived timed events. These topical events can either give individuals, groups, and companies a way to signal their values towards these topics during their designated day or month (e.g., companies changing their logos to a rainbow equivalent for pride, companies having posted their #BlackLivesMatter or #StopAAPI hate campaigns) without any fundamental change or accountability that still allows these institutions to uphold antithetical practices to their self-proclaimed values (e.g., leaders in said companies maintaining predominantly white, male, and or wealthy makeup of leadership, a workplace culture that discourages sociopolitical discourse, not paying marginalized identities for doing additional diversity, equity, and inclusion labor in the workplace, the list can and does go on).

It’s like when a company says work-life balance is an important cultural value to them but you still regularly get messages at all hours from your manager and or colleagues, or you’re getting said messages while they’re supposed to be on vacation.

I am also wary of representation like “Girlboss feminism” that doesn’t fundamentally shift or change built-in inequity. In general, no doubt it’s a messy, non-linear road to change on this scale. In terms of burnout, a big part of me believes that getting rid of it is not possible within our prevailing framework, as long as our time, energy, bodies, and production are all necessitated towards profit.

I digress because even though I thought I wasn’t going to publicly share this post, I am! The conversations that occur during certain “[insert topic here] Day/Month” and notable dates are important. My point remains that these conversations are only the start to tangible, transformative change that can and should be integrated into one’s life and thus co-created world.

Narrowing further to my personal experience, I was debating sharing a series of screenshots from my notes app that shows where I was at mental health-wise last year. I won’t be, but the content warning I had typed out is all you need to know to get the point: thoughts of death and self-harm, depression, anxiety.

At the time I wrote these notes, I was in therapy (and still am), safely housed and fed, making use of PTO, trying to adjust to the very specific remote situation that emerged because of the pandemic. But I was immensely depressed. Probably the thickest depression I have ever been in. None of my interests felt replenishing let alone fun if I could muster myself to do them, just in attempts to remain some semblance of a subsisting baseline.

The notes I was writing were about how death felt like the ultimate peace, how I just wanted to go peacefully in my sleep so I wouldn’t have to wake up the next morning to work. The number of times I either woke up and cried or cried throughout my workday. The number of days I overslept 10 plus hours. The number of days I only slept 6 or fewer hours after staying up till 2 or 3 in the morning on workdays. I felt like I couldn’t not hold a job, not work in the conventional sense. I then entered a cycle of feeling guilty for feeling these things since “it could be so much worse.” While that fact stands, it did not invalidate my own struggles.

All of my energy was going into just making it to the next moment. I am grateful for the pockets of joy I experienced and was supported by via my family and friends, in a difficult year to begin with, let alone when I wasn’t yet able to specifically describe or see what I was experiencing. In the workplace it didn’t exactly help that nothing seemed to stop, business mostly unaffected aside from an initial dip in spring 2020. I would get off-hour emails and messages from my team. My expectations were not clearly set for me and when I tried to advocate for myself, I kept running into more walls. The workplace environment was such that I wasn’t supposed to be talking about what was happening outside the business’ doors. This breaches another topic, for another time, of corporate workplace culture and what types of identities and personal expressions are valued and encouraged within those spaces.

Was my own burnout accelerated by the pandemic and all the social, cultural, and climate reckonings that had been bubbling and burst in 2020? And the general sense that I was supposed to just keep my head down and work even though work was an immense source of psychological stress as well? You bet. Would I have burned out otherwise had this not been the situation? I believe so, but that’s not the reality at hand.

I used to think that long working hours, zero work-life balance or boundaries, and a very explicitly toxic, abusive workplace were the exclusive contributing factors to burnout. I’d seen iterations of this in broader social circles, but also more closely in friends and family, or rather, seen it through them via my lack of seeing them as they were busy at and with work.

What I did learn through many late-night Google searches hoping to quell deepening existentialism and personal experience, is that burnout is not necessarily always about poor boundaries and excessive work. It is also about a lack of resources and or expectations, being poorly managed or supported, feeling like your target is always moving.

Written digital media on burnout that puts the responsibility on the individual to prevent or “fix it” in their experience is part of the larger problem. Only more recently and in reckoning with the multitudes of ways late-stage capitalism is unsustainable has the conversation come into scope that burnout is a symptom of the world we’ve created.

This logically explains why burnout happens at any type of job, any level, any industry. There isn’t currently a labor shortage as the endless train of the economy revs up again, but a shortage of jobs and policies that provide living wages. Activists face burnout both from showing up to do the work as well as in the emotional labor of recounting or educating on these issues. At the beginning of this recently published New Yorker article on burnout, the author cites Moses saying to God, “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.” If I had to lead a movement all on my own, I’d be saying the same to God, too.

It’s important to note that we can experience burnout from work we are passionate about and enjoy doing. It can be from unpaid work or labor (e.g., daily/weekly domestic work within a household, emotional labor societally put onto feminine gender, non-binary, and BIPOC identities). The constant need to produce, to always be doing something, to have that production and productivity associated with our inherent value as people, is just not sustainable for any one person, and arguably a company or business itself! The overarching culture of glamorizing the grind, overworking, of never taking breaks, is not sustainable. There’s finally conversation and reckoning happening with that. I understand and respect the hustle, commitment to craft, practices, and process, the uniqueness and nuance of every individual’s situation, the fact that we have to get the bread or get dead. But literally never ceasing from it has its own serious consequences.

This is where rest as resistance is necessary.

When I first knew I was going to be let go from my job, months before I was actually let go, the haze of my depression started to lift. It was only at this point that I could begin to see how depleted I had been. The analogy I’ve used to describe it is being in a romantic relationship you can’t put your finger on what’s not working, but know isn’t working and you’re going to break up with them, but then they break up with you. And you think, woah, wait, I’m supposed to break up with you!

In the 3 months before my last day, I started earnestly planning for a sabbatical. A break after this job before my next one, spending time regaining myself. The planning mostly covered what budget I’d set for expense and benefits and of course, what I wanted to do during this time. There are many iterations of this list. Here’s an early version (note the time, at which I should’ve been asleep since it was a weekday):

The pandemic was at its worst in LA county at the time of writing this note, so it felt weird to write about where I wanted to travel, even locally by car. Knowing that my sabbatical would start in the spring and hinge upon vaccines as well as turning a corner in the pandemic (in LA and the U.S. at least), I allowed myself to list some outdoor-related activities and travel.

In early 2021, there were still many hard, demoralizing days at work until I was officially unemployed. The crying was happening a bit less and transforming into an emotion I don’t like to sit with, anger. I metabolized this to my best ability (I recommend this book, as recommended to me by a writing teacher). The anger kind of released me, fueled me to say to myself “I’m going to do well for me,” to get energizing exercise in before my workday, and to give myself the mental and emotional space I deserve, since I was definitely not going to get it in my workspace. I began realizing I had time to prepare for a clean slate. I began regaining my agency to change and redirect my own life.

I had relocated to live with family at the beginning of the pandemic so I had been saving money. I even paid off my remaining debt in 2020. A huge personal win in the landscape of 2020. My reality was that I did not have to find work right away once I was let go. It felt strange and weird to allow myself to think that, then begin planning for it, the privilege and access I have to do that. It’s limited, but still enough for me personally to take a multi-month break.

So that’s where I’m writing to you from, my sabbatical. I’m not going to share or talk more specifically about what I am doing with this sabbatical since I’m in the midst of it currently. I will say that as I’ve shared my sabbatical & rest plan with family, friends, and new people alike, I’ve been met with echoes of support and wishing they could do the same, since what I’ve gathered is that everyone is SO DAMN TIRED. So if you’re reading this, I leave you with a call to use your vacation time, spend quality time with people you love, to take a rest, and to just be however you can.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Audre Lorde in “A Burst of Light: Living With Cancer

P.S. If you can take a long term break and are thinking about it (or like an actual sabbatical where you’re still employed and getting paid), I recommend these videos by Evelyn from the Internets and their comment sections where much vulnerability, experiences, and wisdom is shared.

Attempting My First DIY Writing Retreat

Summary Takeaway: I did not need a writing retreat as I referred to it at the time of planning. I used the idea of a writing retreat to justify to myself going to Joshua Tree. I found that once I was there, I was really craving being outdoors, hiking, taking in the desert landscape. I did complete some writing I wanted to get done but wanting a writing retreat and lots of outdoor adventure time in the same 3-day experience was too ambitious. I spent the majority of my trip enjoying hiking and being in the park. I’m not disappointed at all with this. Maybe this was even the ultimate purpose of the retreat, to invigorate and inspire me in my life holistically, including writing but also beyond it.

The first sign of me not needing to travel somewhere for a writing retreat was probably my last-minute planning. Up until the night before leaving, all I had done was book the Airbnb. With COVID cases and hospitalization so high in January, I didn’t gauge till the week of the trip if I felt safe and in good conscience traveling. I’m in the LA area, so Joshua Tree is a 2-hour drive in my own car, but traveling nonetheless. Thankfully, the cases had gone down significantly locally and across southern California. So I made the decision to proceed with the trip, still practicing social distancing, mask, and public health measures!

After catching up with a dear friend that night (and after she sent me a mini-playlist for the drive and her own JTree recommendations), I took to the ol’ oracle of Google and searched “how to plan your own writing retreat.” Here are some main takeaways I gleaned that helped me better frame up my time.

Prime the pump. Do not – I repeat, do not! – go on a writing retreat having not written or even having not thought about your project for weeks or longer.

Jennifer Louden, “A Guide to Creating Your Own Writing Retreat

Good thing I had been in a writing class at the time of this trip! Good thing I had signed up for workshop critique the following week upon returning from this trip! I felt vindicated, even relieved that my inclinations for a writing retreat weren’t totally baseless.

The story I worked on during this retreat had its first beginnings in 2019 and in recent months I’ve brought the pages to the workshop in a structured setting. Big shout out to my Voices of Color Workshop. This group’s feedback has given me insight into paths and bridges to cross as I keep working on the story.

Create a daily writing plan before you get there. Come with an outline prepared.

Kelly Notaras, “DIY Writing Retreat Guide: Everything You Need to Succeed

You’d think someone justifying a trip as a writing retreat might’ve had an outline sooner than the night before they leave. Well, that person was not me this time around. Luckily, based on workshop notes I got in a prior class meeting, I was able to put together a little plan and list of story parts I wanted to work on.

A redacted outline and itinerary for Day 2 with my daily intention written top. I did go on that Warren Peak hike in the morning and also manage 4 hours of writing!
(two after lunch and two after dinner)

If I weren’t in writing classes right now, who’s to say how this writing retreat would’ve gone. Maybe I wouldn’t even have had the idea for a retreat in my head if I weren’t needing to get writing done for a deadline. I probably would’ve just gone fully for that outdoor adventure and camped instead! That being said…

Let yourself sit quietly and think. 80% of writing is thinking, so let yourself ponder. Take walks. Sit quietly looking at the sunset. Let your creativity have some space to open up. 

Kelly Notaras, “DIY Writing Retreat Guide: Everything You Need to Succeed

When I make time for it, hiking and spending time outdoors expands my creativity and outlook on the regular. I’m privileged to be able to prioritize being outdoors for leisure, but even so, modern work culture and the digital, industrialized world literally removes us from being able to access and connect with greenspaces and nature.

I acknowledge and understand the irony of typing this out on a blog, of sharing photos of hikes on social media. It’s something I think about a lot, if and how I should share these outdoor adventures online when I’m very often preaching “get off your screens!” The internet and social media have very dark, real-world consequences (queue up the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma), but it still also serves as a place for wholesome learning, sharing of resources, and finding community. At the end of the day, this is where I feel like my writing and sharing my own experiences online add to.

Now, this is where my craving for being in nature and writing practice met, and nourished each other in my life overall as I am integrating my experiences from this trip.

I spent one day on this trip driving through the whole park. It was my favorite day of the trip. I learned so much from reading the signs set up along the park road, at trailheads (have been following up my curiosity with reading in the weeks since). I started around sunrise at the west entrance and spent the day making my way to the south entrance, stopping as I pleased to explore, do shorter hikes, and more importantly, to just be.

At the Cholla Cactus Garden, I felt so present and content in the landscape. I spent a good chunk of time there and just remember thinking to myself, these are the feelings and moments I live for.

Since returning, the invigoration and inspiration have led me to regain my agency at work, respect my own promises and boundaries, and refocus my energy. I know, super vague, so an example I’ll share is that I’ve been hiking weekly, knowing it will positively affect my mental and physical health. It all comes back to small decisions I can make on a daily and weekly basis to regulate and better myself.

Did I need to travel to get to this sense of peace at being? This invigoration and inspiration? Not necessarily, so the second part in writing this blog post (although it’s the one I actually wrote first…) leads me to reflect on what travel itself means to me.

I’ve done my best, and am continuously learning how to travel with intention. For me this includes some due diligence, taking time to read up on a destination’s history, and plan some sightseeing or more niche stops based on my interests. I love reading and learning via that medium, also planning and organizing things to do once I get into it, but there’s only so much one can fully read or look up online.

Intentional travel also includes critical thinking, from being self-aware of my privileges of time and money from a white-collar job, to how to engage in a place I’m not from to avoid being a waltzing-in type of tourist/visitor (but I think we’ve all done this to a certain degree until we learn better), to best support local business and communities instead of opportunists who flock to a destination for their own stake and profit (Dr. Kiona’s Instagram and podcast have expanded my mind in how to travel with all of this and community in mind, on local and global levels).

Joshua Tree is an incredibly popular location and gets a lot of tourist traffic because of its locale in southern California. I am a part of this tourist traffic. Regardless of how intentional I am, it doesn’t stop or slow the challenges the area faces. Arguably, my being there in any capacity might accelerate them depending on who you ask (i.e., the rise in rental properties, fewer owner-occupants who have different community interests). Because I am a visitor and I don’t have the knowledge around the social/economic impacts and longevity of the area, I can’t make much else comment on these types of issues other than acknowledging the nuanced reality.

Lastly, intentional travel for me includes self-awareness and self-reflection. This is different from critical thinking because it addresses myself and my why. Sometimes I feel that people use travel as a way to escape themselves and their problems. I’m all for spontaneity and living life in the moment, but I also believe that you can’t escape yourself. Wherever you go, all your personal inner workings and ways of being are going to be with you, including the ones that are challenging to confront and hold space for.

The why for this trip was simple enough, get writing done and spend time in nature. But on my first night, I quickly realized I was not ready to be alone in silence with myself and with my thoughts. I lost sleep from overthinking but knew I had to recalibrate my mindset the next day. I had to remind myself, hey, I’ve got this! I’m here for myself so let’s hold space for it. It’s uncomfortable and here are the reasons why and here’s what we can do now to process and let it go

I’ve found that, for better or worse, relaxing, just being, soaking it all in, presence, usually happens for me after going through all of the planning and reflecting, and the anxieties that emerge. Practicing presence is something I do in different ways every day. I think a lot of us practice it each day, trying to slow down, but know it’s a fleeting thing in itself.

Depending on the setting, the unplugging, the being in my center while traveling takes time. Isn’t that what part of traveling and taking a trip are? Going from one destination to another, moving through the challenges that arise and once they’ve passed, savoring waves of joy, each ebb and flow with presence. Isn’t that the act of life itself?

Why I’m Blogging in 2021

So what’s led me to want to revitalize this blog again? It comes down to these four things: 1) I want to practice writing things that I can finish more easily (and want to finish), 2) I am burnt out from work, 3) I want to publicly document bits of this chapter of my life, and gosh darn it 4) I just want to create stuff.

With most days still feeling paused yet really cyclical, I often feel that I am staring into the void or shouting into it. But Fran, is that what writing blog posts is? Sure, yes it is, but it still stands that writing for me is a process and practice that helps me make sense of the world and the way I navigate it. It’s the medium I’m most comfortable with but am still expanding through and growing within my life.

For me, there are distinct differences between writing on the internet or in any public fashion, versus in personal journaling. I imagine this is the case for many and of course, there are overlaps in the actual process of writing, no matter what it’s being written for. Regardless of if and when this ever gets read by someone other than myself, writing on a publicly accessible in a tiny part of the internet makes me feel more accountable to finish writing something. These two videos made by Evelyn from the Internets on why it’s important to finish things and to not be afraid to be seen trying have stuck with me.

Writing is a bit self-serving for me, I must admit. It’s a mix of self-care, a lot of overthinking, and sometimes integrating self-doubt and fear to the path of self-acceptance, which for me, usually means to just do the thing before I stand in my way for no good reason (in this case, writing and publishing blog posts again). On a genuine, beyond-me-and-about-my-purpose sentiment, maybe these writings and posts will help someone else make sense of something or feel a little less alone. That would be a small but great impact I hope to impart to anyone who would read anything I write.

In the professional, career-oriented jobs I’ve held, I do quite a bit of writing. Is it the type of writing that I want to do? No. Did I learn some new skills? Most definitely. Has it put me on a path for following my dreams? Yes, but as in many of my self-reflections and life manifesting practices, not in the way I imagined.

Which leads me to burnout. I used to think of burnout only being caused by overworking and having long hours or a poor work-life balance. What I learned over the last few months, is that burnout is also caused by unclear expectations that are more like moving targets, lack of social support (either in the workplace and/or in one’s personal life), and lack of resources needed to complete the work.

Until I learned more about these other factors which are directly related to the amount of time working or boundaries, I had never considered myself as someone who has experienced burnout. I’ve appreciated the work-life balance and boundaries I’ve respected in various workplaces. Real talk though, if you’re Googling “how do I know I’m burnout” beyond Sunday Scaries like I have, you might be burnt out. My own story of burnout is for another blog post at a later time.

So what is this chapter of my life and why I want to document it? Needless to say (but I am going to say because that’s how this phrase works), 2020 was a lot. Unnerving, the year revealed the most horrendous parts of humanity’s existence that have always existed and led to all these crises. Crises that are caused by capitalistic power and most disproportionately and negatively affect the marginalized and disposed communities the capital owning groups have exploited to gain such power! There is immense resilience and joy to be experienced, too, which I have a difficult time remembering let alone experiencing. For reference, I Googled “how to get more serotonin” before I started writing this. But I’m not here for spiritual bypassing or conspirituality. Regardless, I digress. All of this is for other blog posts.

Amidst all of the reckonings of oppressive structures that humanity’s built for itself, I started therapy again in April 2020. I was living alone in West LA. The initial lockdown and being cut off from face-to-face social support brought up some traumatic memories from the last time in my life when I was forced to be alone.

I thought in therapy I’d talk about how much I hate humanity’s systems of oppression and just talk a bunch of shit, which I guess does happen, but the discussion turns to how I’ve been unearthing how these systems and ideologies manifest in my personal life and learned to condition (mostly patriarchy and white supremacy, but you know, they’re all connected). If you know me, angry is the last way I’d describe myself. Only a few people have ever truly seen me angry, but it’s something I’ve seen much more of myself recently in private self-reflection. I’ve been reading Love and Rage, as recommended by a creative writing teacher, to metabolize said anger. Shout out to my therapist and all the well-space holding therapists, and mentors, and communities out there. I appreciate y’all so much.

Since living back at home, these paused yet really cyclical feeling days have led to a lot of self-reflection. I keep asking myself the same questions, what do I want to do with my life? What things do I need to do every day to feel like I had a soul-filled day? Where do I want to be and who do I want to be with at the apocalypse? That last one is intense, but honestly, the mood I was in after watching the final season of The Good Place was one emotional factor that led me to move back in with my parents.

I’m at a point where the answers to those questions are becoming more clear. I can’t say too much in the public forum of the internet as much of this chapter of my life is continuing to unfold. I will say, that writing has given me the agency again to be the dreamer and doer of my own life. Writing is one of the answers to the question what do I need to do every day to feel like I had a soul-filled day. 

With that, writing is how I’m creating right now. I struggle with the concept of a content creator or titles of creative as it’s tied up with social media and for-profit marketing. But hey, I can respect it and acknowledge the hustle (but also, re above: burnout).

Anyway, shouting into the void, at least I know my voice is out there. Come join me and let’s catch up.