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My Time Off Saved Me From Career Exhaustion

My Time Off Saved Me From Career Exhaustion

It had been eighteen months since I took a true vacation and left my house to travel for an extended period. Sure, I took all my PTO in 2020, but the time off was not the same due to the pandemic. This summer, I visited my family on the east coast, whom I had not seen in-person since December of 2019. The family hugs were filled with happy tears, and I finally met my newest nephew who was born a month before COVID quarantine restrictions over a year ago.

As a career and leadership coach, I preach incessantly about the power of time off to refresh, recharge, and restore mentally and physically. What I didn’t fully realize before my recent vacation was that I was career exhausted. Let me preface by saying, I faithfully honor my eight-hour nightly sleep requirement. I maintain a regular workout schedule that has given me sanity and strength this last year, but this was not enough.

I love my career and my work gives me meaning and purpose, but I was so engaged in the work that I didn’t realize I had become mentally drained and fatigued. Working twelve-hour days had been normalized with remote work, and the back-to-back Zoom meetings without transition time were taking a toll on my focus. I didn’t realize the extent of my career exhaustion until I was on vacation a few weeks ago.

[Related: Seven Business Takeaways From a Roman Holiday]

Brink of burnout.

I’m a big fan of Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, a board-certified internal medicine physician, work-life integration researcher, and the author the best-selling book, Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity. She was a guest on my podcast – Your Working Life – and I embarked upon my vacation with her seven types of rest in mind.

The road trip to see family gave me a lot of time to think about the new work abnormal I enabled over the last eighteen months. I share with vulnerability that I was on the brink of career burnout. My new work routine was a perpetual fast-moving treadmill I chose not to get off.

Like Paula Davis, CEO of The Stress and Resilience Institute says, “You can’t yoga your way out of burnout.” I knew my career health and happiness was in my own hands and it was time to make some changes.

Replenishing my creative cup.

I have been starving for live theatre, concerts, and artistic experiences, since so many venues have been shuttered during the pandemic. We intentionally planned some creative activities to feed my artistic soul and reawaken my curiosity while on vacation.

Visits to the Barnes Foundation Art Museum and Grounds for Sculpture refilled my creative cup and allowed me to stimulate my brain and recalibrate. Being aware of all five senses as I took in new surroundings and experiences - I felt like a light bulb that was partially in the socket but not turned all the way to illuminate was finally back in place and shining brightly.

The power of emotional rest.

Until I stepped away from work, I didn’t realize my overwhelm and how much I needed the emotional rest to give my brain something else to focus on other than work. My work routine had become so ingrained, I lost sight of my life while engaging only in my career.

The vacation reflection time gave me a renewed sense of clarity, energy, and the accountability to design a new work routine moving forward.

[Related: Five Ways to Boost Your Career Goals This Summer]

Returning to gratitude.

It would be easy to fall back into my old routine post-vacation, so I am focusing on the happiness advantage, as written about by Shawn Achor in his book, The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life.

Shawn Achor is one of the world's leading experts on the connection between happiness, success, and potential. My daily routine now includes these easy-to-implement action steps to train my brain to be more positive.

  • Three Gratitudes: Share three things for which you are grateful about work or life daily.
  • Journaling: Jot down one positive experience daily.
  • Random Act of Kindness: Pay the positivity forward.

Intentionally positive.

The pandemic journey has been tough on everyone, and I suspect that my career exhaustion experience relates to many. As I look to the future, I will certainly honor the various types of rest my mind, body, and spirit needs to thrive. I’m also focusing on positivity and abundance and not what is lacking or missing in life or career.

The “it will get better when…” philosophy is not sustainable or energizing. Focus on being enough and celebrate being imperfect. Honor where you are now and enjoy the present.

We live in a culture where happiness has been pushed over the cognitive horizon. We set goals, achieve the goals, and then raise the goal post higher and demand a new level of success. While I’m certainly not advocating for mediocrity, I urge us all to celebrate our wins, honor the work we are doing, and give ourselves permission to step away regularly.

Creating new habits.

One of the first things I did after vacation was plot my calendar for mini-breaks and longer PTO stints to honor my needs for replenishing throughout the next year.

Taking a break has become newsworthy. I enjoyed this article by Stacey Lindsay about Reframing Our Outlook on Taking Breaks where she showcases the work of Dr. Frank Lipman. Dr. Frank Lipman views breaks as an essential part of health. The key is to reframe how we look at pulling back:

When you take a break, or as he calls it ‘deliberate rest,’ it’s important to realize you’re not doing nothing. Rather you are actually giving yourself a chance to rebuild and return to balance.

The 1,400-mile roundtrip car ride to see my family this summer provided me the time for much needed self-reflection. I have come back from the brink of career exhaustion, and I look forward to regularly scheduled time off to enjoy my career so I can love my life.

I lost sight of the power to change that I had all along, but relinquished temporarily. I celebrate that teachable moment as a win.

[Related: Seven Ways to Use the Summer to Advance Your Career]


Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Vice President of Career Coaching and Employer Connections for the Ivy Tech Community College system and contributes to Thrive Global, Ellevate Network, Medium, and The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana. Her online video series about career and life empowerment for women is on YouTube. She hosts the three-time award winning podcast, Your Working Life, on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. Her TEDxWOMEN talk about reframing failure and defining success on your own terms is available on YouTube.

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