Fair warning, this blog post features plenty of instances in which I, a millennial woman, will describe the ways in which I consistently fail to set appropriate boundaries at work. If you’re in any way irked by that sort of thing, by all means, give this one a miss. If however, you relate to this problem and find it all too familiar, you’re in for a treat because I’m about to share some important lessons – and also indulge in some more general oversharing.
At the start of 2019 I was living in an expensive flat in central London and I had just been made redundant from my job as UK and US Editor at a start up. I was treating my body pretty recklessly, forgoing exercise and early starts in favour of partying and late nights. I was also in an open relationship at that time, which in hindsight, wasn’t doing wonders for my wellbeing.
Naturally, when a swell of freelance work flooded my calendar in February of this year, I was jazzed to be working again. I adopted a more sensible bedtime and hastily restructured my life around my new contracts. But I made the mistake of throwing myself into my work headfirst, going all in without taking a breath. I often do this because a) I genuinely love what I do and b) because I tend to be an optimist. I’m also very impulsive, which sometimes serves me well but also… well, there are negative associations with that word for a reason.
It soon became clear to me that I had taken on way too much, that I was working far more than my contracted hours and that I was saying ‘yes’ to absolutely everything when really, I shouldn’t have been. You can be really incredible at your job, the best in the business, but if you don’t set healthy boundaries, your mental health can and will suffer and then frankly, you ain’t shit.
And that was it for me. A high-functioning anxious person pushing herself to her limits, I began having panic attacks again. Side note: I hadn’t had a panic attack in roughly a year. At first, I couldn’t understand what had brought them on – things were going well, I was busy, I was working and I really love working. But as I began to unpick the situation I realised I was burning out. It’s happened before and the signs don’t lie. So I did three things – I walked away from a job I was enjoying, I sought out a therapist and began a course of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and I left London and headed for the Cotswolds.
YOLO Retreats had invited me up to stay at Bruern Cottages – a collection of honey-coloured Georgian farmhouses near Chipping Norton. It was here that I planned to unplug for a few days sans city noise, light pollution and the stresses of my job, do some exercise and find a little peace. Obviously it helped that I was in the hands of professionals – my Tabata HIIT and yoga sessions were hosted by wellness icons and seasoned professionals James Golden and Hayley Hunt and my meals were part of a bespoke menu created by Charlotte, the in-house executive chef. For downtime, gorgeous Daylesford Farm was only a short drive away and there was a pool, atrium and gorgeous blossoming gardens that echoed Ian McEwan novels and white tea dresses. In short, it was all very lovely.
I know what you’re thinking… You shouldn’t allow yourself to get so burnt out that you need a health retreat to recover. But hear me out on this. We’re conditioned to live in a work and leisure-focussed culture of extremes and often, it doesn’t seem immediately obvious that we have a choice whether or not to partake in this.
When we attend school as children, the overwhelming narrative is that if you don’t try your hardest all the time, you’ll fail and you won’t enjoy the same privileges as the kids that are giving 100% at all times. But no one can give 100% at all times and if we believe that everyone else is doing so, we risk pushing ourselves way too hard and paying the price with our physical and mental health being impacted. As adults, we work all year round, rewarding ourselves with weekends away and two-week holidays to sunnier climes, but this isn’t really what a healthy work/life relationship looks like, let’s be honest.
Yes, a few days away from my desk was exactly what I needed, but it also freed up the mental space I needed to assess how hard I was working, my behavioural patterns and what was really feasible. The thing that really struck me during my stay in The Cotswolds, as I looked over my wholesome itinerary for the next 24 hours was that I have a choice. Sure, as a freelancer I have to work to earn money in order to survive, read: mostly to entertain London’s extortionate prices, but I have a choice in how far I allow the culture of extremes to influence me.
My friends often crack jokes about how one week I’ll be running myself into the ground working 14 hour days without a break and other weeks I’ll stay in bed until midday at least two days on the trot – this is not indicative of a healthy balance and it’s certainly not an overstatement either. A lack of boundaries leads to burn out and poor mental health, not to mention a sound undoing of any sleep training I once benefitted from as a babe in arms.
Whilst hanging with YOLO I slept pretty soundly, in a lush four poster bed, pleasantly wiped out after a full day of HIIT, yoga, running around in warm spring rain, chilling and helping myself to second helpings of the lushest food. Once I got back to London I attempted to be much more mindful of the fine balance between work and rest. I took on new contracts, kept communications open and was clear about what I was capable of delivering.
No one else is going to step in and say ‘no’ or ‘enough’ for you. You have to be able to say it yourself, and if you need to do a little soul searching, spend a little time figuring out your priorities or take a break before summoning the strength to do so, might I recommend a restorative retreat in the English countryside.