When I was younger and still in school my mom and I would take mental health days once every month or two. Instead of going to school or work, we would spend the day out together doing things we enjoyed and exploring new and inspiring places. I got my work as a student done, and nobody bit her head off at work. To this day I feel like those breaks and those boundaries and experiences really helped me figure out what was important. I never felt like those days were bad, and I certainly never felt guilty for taking them. They refreshed me in much the same way a bright inspirational strike of writing motivation does. I worked hard in the time between mental health days because I had something to look back on and forward to that was positive and healthy and all around fantastic for my brain, my emotional state, and my relationship with my mom. Now, in a job where breaks like you get in school are virtually nonexistent, I miss those days and can feel the difference in myself and her when we don’t have them. The trouble, in part, is that we’re both good at what we do and have a lot more demands on us now than we did when I was in school.
Enjoying your job doesn’t always save you from getting burnt out on it. Neither does being good at it. The idea of “do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” is idealistic. It may be true for some, but on the whole it seems little more than a pipe dream. Where I work right now, I watch people who are good at their jobs and love what they do get so stressed out it feels like their brains are melting under the pressure of deadlines and workloads. Because they are good, they get more responsibilities. With more responsibility comes more pressure, and less of a feeling like taking a break is a good thing. I know several people who leave work at a reasonable hour and/or go home on the weekends feeling guilty because they have so much to do they feel like any time not spent trying to catch up is a bad thing. But then when they do work the endless grinding hours, they feel guilty for not spending time away from it. It’s a solid no-win situation.
I am fortunate enough to be fairly low-level in that I don’t have an immense amount of constant pressure on me to get things done under constant deadlines. I can leave work and go home to spend my time doing what I love without feeling someone is going to bite my head off. It’s part of why I have the job I do. I’m good at it, get recognized for my work, and can leave and still have at least part of the day left for myself. It pays the bills, usually without burning me out mentally and short-circuiting my creative brain.
There are lots of different kinds of stress. There’s the kind we can benefit from that keeps our brains and our drives to do the things we care about in good working condition. For me, this is usually the stress of a writing deadline, if only because it motivates the muse to come and strike me with a new angle or idea I hadn’t thought of before. As yet, I don’t write professionally. That is, I don’t get paid and don’t have really hard and fast deadlines imposed on me by other people. That’s what the day job is for. All my writing deadlines are self-imposed. I’ve been working particularly hard to stick to them because the act of writing and having people read and interact with what I have to say fulfills me in a way little else does. Nothing makes me feel more myself than making and talking about art of any kind. But sometimes even the pressure of a mountain of ideas, none of them particularly fully formed, can press my brain to the point of blankness. The longer I go without writing, the guiltier I feel about it. Then, flash, an idea or piece of art that makes me feel something so deeply I have to release it comes along, and a weight is lifted. I feel like a whole new person. Less depressed, more engaged with the world around me. That’s the cycle of writing. And that’s the — mostly — good stress.
The more detrimental kind is what I see most often in the day job, particularly with people in higher positions who have a lot of responsibility and not a lot of quality help. Because they have to take on roles that go outside the scope of their job description, and because they do this work well, they get buried under pressure from outside and in to push themselves until they complete the work of multiple people in a relatively short period of time all by themselves. The most paradoxical phenomenon I’ve seen is the rewarding of your longevity with the company with more leave time (which is probably standard) but feeling like you can’t use the leave time because there’s so much to do and not enough people to do it. Or having to give up leave time because too much unused has built up and must be forfeited. The healthy work-life balance everyone is told to strive for is virtually unachievable under the pressure to be successful at work.
It’s one thing for me, living in an apartment with minimal expenses in my 20s with time enough to pursue my own interests and not a lot of high stakes pressure on me to say, “take a break from work, leave it here” and another thing altogether for it to happen. I’m watching people I care about crack at the edges under corporate pressure and the only way to relieve it is to do the thing. The decision to leave work at work, to enforce the boundary between work and home or creative life is a personal one, yes, but it helps to have some support from the outside. To say all companies of any kind need to enforce a policy for mental health days so their employees can take breaks without feeling like the world is going to end while they’re away or when they return is little more than a shout into the unfeeling void of capitalist society, but it’s the truth. Healthy and successful employees come from environments where they are taken care of and listened to, not where they’re pushed to the brink of exhaustion at every turn.