Voices: By 29, I had everything I’d ever wanted in my work life – and it broke me

·4-min read
I have learnt to be much more careful in future work situations (Getty Images)
I have learnt to be much more careful in future work situations (Getty Images)

At the age of 29, I gained a senior position on a six-figure salary after a series of promotions at an industry-renowned company. On paper, I had achieved everything. But it nearly broke me.

“You have to work extremely hard to be successful and it won’t always be easy,” I had been told from a very young age. I simply followed instructions. I had achieved two first-class degrees at university, and I wanted to make sure I had the same boxes ticked in my career.

But quickly, the number of boxes I had to tick became too much. I found myself running several departments, regularly presenting to the company’s chief executive and managing a large and difficult team.

Achieving my life goal made me physically and mentally ill. I slowly had to give up everything else for work, and my life became empty and colourless.

I could barely discuss anything other than work and after previously being known for my active lifestyle, I could not even “find the time” to go outside for a walk. My smartwatch chided me for not hitting my daily goal – let alone 1,000 steps. I put on weight; I hated myself for being so dull; I went out for drinks with colleagues and we all complained. The cycle of self-loathing continued.

At one point, I started jolting awake at 2am, thinking about the emails I hadn’t got round to sending. I would get up and start scheduling them to send later that morning. It was the only way to get ahead of the emails and the tasks that continually mounted up. I often thought of it as a treadmill on the highest setting as I sprinted, gasping for air to keep up.

It was mortifying when the email scheduling function didn’t work. I didn’t want people to think I had “lost it” by noticing the real send time. That would have been like losing my core identity. I had it all under control, didn’t I?

I negotiated working from home more frequently. While this seemed like a reward for my hard work, I needed this flexibility because I was unable to get up in the morning and shower.

It felt completely normal to work for six hours straight without a break, on the sofa, in my dressing gown. My partner, thankfully, pointed out that it wasn’t and I told him, in a muddled daze, that “I probably needed a break”.

So I negotiated 10 days off from the company after telling them I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was given promises about how my workload would improve with better delegation. Even my boss admitted they had “crushed” me.

I was never afraid of hard work, but I believe that displaying the much-praised “can-do” attitude only meant that my tasks mounted up as the company learned I could confidently achieve the “business goals”.

I was often dragged into situations I shouldn’t have been involved in. In one extremely stressful example, an employee kept threatening to leak company secrets.

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When I returned to work after the break, a clear cry for help, my workload was even larger. With no real support to solve the issues, I focused on the reward of money in the hope it would make things better.

But I quickly learned that there is no point in having money you are too miserable to spend. At my lowest point, or perhaps my strongest, I told my boss I couldn’t do it anymore and handed in my notice. They were not surprised at all but hadn’t stepped in to help when it was needed. Then the offers came to encourage me to stay.

I declined with nothing else lined up, a rare risk in my life. Since leaving, I have felt myself slowly become “more me” again. Some days I require a lot of sleep in order to feel whole again and it’s difficult to do much else. But I’m getting fitter and my life is becoming colourful, thanks to fresh air, daytime cinema and reconnecting with friends.

I have learned to be more careful in work situations. I may never again earn a six-figure salary, but I will certainly not allow a company to run my life.

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