One year ago, this month I left my corporate job. With the exception of a 9-month period of time in my 30s when I was laid off when the company I worked for closed, 2019 was the first year since I was 15 years old that I hadn’t been steadily employed.
I turned 50 this past year. As that birthday was approaching, I was utterly exhausted and, for the better part of a year, went home at the end of every work day feeling like I was failing. It was time to reassess my priorities. And I’m so glad I did. This past year has given me a new perspective and a new sense of happiness that I don’t think I could have gained any other way.
What led up to the decision to leave my job was that I was losing myself. Somewhere along the way I had burned out. And with that, I lost my passion for my work. I had been struggling with the overwhelming workload for quite some time. And I was failing to achieve the things that gave me satisfaction in my work.
That was coupled with the need to reduce even more staff, the challenges of finding good people to fill the critical vacancies we did have, the need to make some major system redesign changes and the continued increasing expectations that came with being an executive in a high performing health care organization - the pressures just continued to increase.
I found myself skipping my son’s sports games for work commitments, staying later and later at work, missing family gatherings, and bringing my laptop home to do work at nights and on weekends all in an effort to try to meet deadlines and keep up with the demands. I wasn’t sleeping well and started skipping my gym time to stay later at the office. It started to take its toll on my health.
My boss was always supportive when I wanted to take time off, but the expectations of getting the work done was still there. I felt like I was in a constant state of crisis management – if it wasn’t one person’s crisis that I was responding to, it was another’s. Vacations inevitably always became working vacations, often disrupted by one thing or another. I was chained to my cell phone constantly and it seemed never ending.
I didn’t feel I could delegate more because my staff was already so overloaded that they didn’t have any capacity either – at least that was my perception. We had enough turnover on the team and HR positions are very hard to fill - losing more would just add to the problem. It was a vicious cycle. It seemed like we could never get ahead and I couldn’t get approval to add the FTEs we needed.
Empathy is one of my strengths, but this also became a double edge sword in my work. My team had dealt with some extraordinary personal challenges – parent and spouse illnesses/deaths and I had a close colleague whose son had committed suicide. While supporting these folks during these times was a privilege, it also took a real personal toll on me. All of those challenges, coupled with my own parents’ declining health just became too much.
I recognized that continuing in the current state wasn’t fair to me, my family, my team or the organization. My attempts to improve the situation weren’t working – at least not fast enough. The organization needed a leader that could come in with a fresh perspective, a renewed energy and get out of the hole I thought we were in. And I needed some relief from the stress. It was time to throw in the towel and take a break.
It was far from easy for me to come to that conclusion. My husband and I talked about it for the better part of six months. Once I finally decided to leave, it felt a lot like jumping off a cliff into the unknown. It was scary…really scary. And very emotional. Leaving my work family, where I had established so many strong relationships and had put in so many hours of dedicated hard work for almost thirteen years was very hard. I felt like I was abandoning my team. But I knew I had to do it for myself and my family.
Now that I’ve had a year to reflect, I’ve gained more perspective on the situation and I’ve learned some important things about myself, about what will make me happy and more successful in the future. Some of what I’ve learned is:
I’ve realized that the level of productivity that I managed to sustain all those years and how that translated to expectations of others was very unrealistic. What I consider now to be a “productive” day is more in line with that of a reasonable person. I couldn’t see that when I was running as fast as I could on the hamster wheel. And that wasn’t fair to my staff as it translated to expectations of them.
So, what have I done with my time off this year?
Having this time has also helped to guide me to the next step in my professional career. When you are constantly feeling like you can’t be successful at work it doesn’t do much for the self-esteem. But this past year has helped me regain my confidence and as I’ve reflected, I have come to recognize all of the knowledge and professional experience I have gained over the amazing career that I’ve had.
I’ve had the privilege of working for some pretty great organizations and with some great leaders who have taught me a lot. I’ve been through a merger, an affiliation, a de-affiliation, a dissolution of an organization and countless large organizational change initiatives…all of those involving major impacts to people and all done in a way that kept respect for people at the forefront. I played a key leadership role throughout those initiatives and, as such, I have tremendous knowledge I can offer potential clients who may be facing similar challenges or who simply want to make improvements in their workplaces.
I now have a sense of personal peace and professional purpose that I haven’t had in a long time. This summer as I was taking a walk around town, I noticed the color of the sky seemed bluer and the grass seemed greener. The colors of the flowers were noticeably different to me…brighter. It’s like I’ve become awake for the first time in who knows how long.
I’ve had people tell me that I look ten years younger. I can only imagine what the effects of chronic stress has done to my body. I just know that ultimately, that feeling of failure, while terrible in the moment, led me to a much more beautiful place in the long run once I stopped fighting it and embraced it.
I’m so happy about that and excited to see what the next phase of my professional life brings with this new-found perspective. Jumping into the unknown, while difficult in the moment, can be worth it in the long run.That’s one thing I’m sure of.
Laurie is an experienced Human Resources executive who is passionate about organizational culture, creating great workplaces and employee engagement.