How Disconnecting Can Help You to Better Connect

Early this year, I was in a really dark place. My father had passed away a few months before, and I actually thought I was handling it well — until I wasn’t. I wasn’t even exactly sure what “grieving” meant. All I knew was that it took time and could hit you months, sometimes years after. Not only can grief hit you, but the other thing death brings up is all the unanswered questions of your own life. And, trust me, there were a lot of questions circulating in my mind, taking residence, like unknown visitors who had overstayed their welcome. Many of life’s twists and turns that I thought I had dealt with and put behind me, suddenly swept me up like a tornado. Suffice it to say, I didn’t feel grounded in the least bit. As Socrates says, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. And I suddenly felt this need to be still and really examine my life with a fine-toothed comb, but wasn’t quite sure how or when.

I remember going back to work two weeks after my father’s death and felt ready to jump back in. I longed for structure, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the ongoing chatter in my mind. Working as a physical therapist in the cardiac surgery ICU, I not only have to be physically able to assist patients to mobilize amidst ventilators, lines, and tubes — but more importantly, I need to be mentally and emotionally present to fully assess all aspects of their recovery — their motivations, coping strategies, and fears, as I work on their functional abilities. I knew how important this was, as I had remembered being with my dad at his hospital bedside and could always sense whether a staff member was engaged, dismissive, or worst of all, apathetic in his care. Neuroanatomist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor introduced herself to all of us in her book, “Stroke of Insight” where she discussed how important it was to take responsibility for the energy one brings into a room. For her, this became evident after she had a stroke which affected the left side of her brain, and, although she couldn’t speak, she could conjugate messages through the right side of brain — the more intuitive/perceptive side. This allowed her to perceive, in great detail, the level at which people connected with her. I knew I did not want to come to work feeling disconnected from my patients or coworkers.

You don’t have to work in healthcare to know the importance of engagement and measurable outcomes in an organization. But how can any of us be truly engaged, if we are not fostering all facets of our well-being — especially after a traumatic life change? For me, it was the sudden death of my father, but really it can be anything that causes us unrelenting emotional stress in the moment — a divorce, an ill family member, relationship issues, etc. Most of us think that unless we have a physical injury that keeps us from performing our jobs, we should be able to push through life’s stressors and continue to be at the top of our game at work. In fact, people often use this as a badge of honor. But are we really at the top of our game?

Not tending to ongoing emotional stress (which will inevitably lead to physical stress) can have tremendous consequences for an organization. Statista reports that stress and burnout have three major symptoms which are widely recognized: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced performance. According to the 2013 Gallop report, lack of employee engagement has been directly linked to increased absenteeism, presenteeism, and lower levels of performance and overall productivity. Basically, if we don’t take care of our well-being, this will undoubtedly affect the bottom line of any organization.

Employers are starting to buy into this concept, as there has definitely been a burgeoning of employer-based wellness programs across the US over the last decade. In 2014, the CDC published the Worksite Health ScoreCard (HSC), “a tool designed to help employers assess whether they have implemented evidence-based health promotion interventions or strategies in their workplaces to prevent heart disease, stroke, and related conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.” Even so, there are only 13 questions total out of 125 on that scorecard that address stress and depression.

Like many organizations, I received a paid 3-day bereavement leave that is, by most employer standards, defined as a “compassionate leave.” This is not something that is mandated by law. In the United States, the U.S. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family-related matters — typically, this is used for maternity leave. Other than that, there is only the “personal leave” which is granted at the discretion of an organization.

I tried to balance work with going back to my yoga classes, running, cooking, socializing with friends — all the things I usually loved and needed in order to keep me sane. Except I continued to feel drained — mentally, physically, emotionally. I desperately felt the need to take a break — to sit with the void that I felt so deeply. But how could I just leave my job and take a sabbatical? I brewed on this for a few months, all while knowing I wasn’t feeling 100%. Instead, I was running on an empty tank, barely keeping up. I wasn’t sleeping well, felt exhausted all the time, and rightfully so, was probably depressed.

So, I did what most people wouldn’t think to do or couldn’t even fathom doing — I asked my boss if I could take a one-month leave from work. I must preface that with something you must know. You see, I am one of the rare individuals who actually really enjoys my job and loves my boss, too. And, perhaps, you can’t even begin to give yourself the permission to have a discussion like this with your boss unless you have a deeper connection to your work and the organization for which you work. I can completely understand that. But this conversation was hard, nonetheless. It was hard because of the story I was telling myself — “My boss will think I don’t value my job…..I will look like a slacker…..I will look unreliable and irresponsible…..I will look weak and overly emotional”, and, the worst — “Who do I think I am that I can even suggest an idea like this??” We know that the research shows that when we are burned out, it affects our creativity, productivity, and relationships with others. Furthermore, a lack of sleep contributes to poor decision making, narrow mindedness, and poor impulse control. I knew something had to give, and what I longed for was some time to disconnect — to disconnect from my job, from my surroundings, from social media, from life in the current state as I knew it.

And so I had the conversation. My boss listened attentively and then said to me that she valued me in the department and that my priority was to do what I needed to do in order to be well — mentally and emotionally. I recall conveying the guilt I felt about needing this leave, because, after all, everyone goes through life challenges and come right back to work and are able to function fine. And then she said something I won’t forget. She said, “How do you know they are functioning fine? Maybe they shouldn’t come right back to work, because they are not functioning at their best.” It got me thinking about how most employers do not think about mental or emotional well-being as something that is just as important, if not THE most important predictor of the bottom line. That unless you have a broken leg that keeps you from performing at a job that requires you to be on your feet, or unless you had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and are unable to use your laptop, emotional dissonance doesn’t really hold a top position on the disability front. I think the word “disability” gets a bad rap. In essence, it only means that you are unable to perform your job duties in the current state — that state could just as well be emotional, in lieu of physical. Thankfully, I have a boss who understood that and supported me.

And, so I took my one-month leave. I left San Francisco and took off to New York and spent the month in contemplation. To disconnect doesn’t necessarily mean one must move to India and join an ashram. But if that’s what works for you, do it! For me, I needed to be in a place where I felt surrounded, but could still be alone. And I was able to grieve. And I continued to grieve, the whole time I was there. I walked through the tree-lined streets of the West Village, I listened to audiobooks, I journaled, I cried, I meditated, I ran through Central Park, cried some more, I joined a yoga studio — and, yes, cried each time I got on my mat. But it was necessary, and cathartic. I got off of social media, limited my phone calls, and stayed present in the moment. It was a time for me to disconnect so that I could truly connect with the deeper stirring of my emotions, allowing them to come to the surface. Susan David, PhD, a renowned psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of the recently published book Emotional Agility, states that “our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions”. She talks about emotional agility as being in a state where we can navigate life’s ups and downs with an open, non-judgmental mind, holding our emotions until they are ready to move through us. And for me, the emotions did surface and they did move through me. The break allowed my mind to be still. And, this stillness allowed me to observe my thoughts without identifying with them, feel my emotions without entangling myself inside them, and give myself permission to be….just where I was. And this, surprisingly, created an opening for me to move forward, however slowly that was.

I came back to work feeling rested and recharged. As a result, I certainly felt more productive, able to think outside-of-the-box, and ready to take on other life challenges. I know I will continue to grieve the loss of my father for months and years to come, but the break allowed me time to restructure and reset my inner world, so that I had more to give to the outer world. Too often, we mistake burying our heads in work to solve the deeper problems we face. Emotional well-being for employees is an area that organizations should certainly put greater emphasis upon, supporting their employees and taking away the stigma of the “personal leave”. I see this starting to happen in the Silicon Valley where companies are now beginning to offer 1–2 month paid sabbaticals after 3 or 5 years of service. This is a great start, however we are still trailing behind our European counterparts that routinely value and encourage 8 weeks of “holiday” each year. I would like to believe we are inching closer to valuing the importance of emotional well-being and life balance.

Of course, to be emotionally “well” means that we all need to take responsibility for our wellness each day. It may mean having a daily practice to meditate, to pause and take a deep breath before that meeting or tough conversation with a colleague, or to commit to an exercise program to help clear our mind. And, of course, sometimes you just need to disconnect — fully and wholeheartedly, to eventually connect to your inner wisdom, strength, and wholeness.