*I’m including a friendly greeting to the human being who stopped me in the stairwell of my building a month ago. “Hey, I recognize your tattoo! You’re the woman who wrote the blog about going on leave and everything being the same when you returned! I didn’t realize you work here!” They were curious about what happened next. Happy reading, friend.
A wall clock with dead batteries. A layer of dust on the desk and keyboard. A mug with a moldy coffee ring at the bottom. A computer that needs rebooting and hours of updates. The detritus of a work day scattered about: lists, post-its, a marked up manuscript, a printed research article open to the figures section. A desk calendar with March 2020 at the top. A time capsule of the last day of my Before Times work life. That’s what I saw when I returned to my office in August 2021 after working remotely for almost a year and a half.
Although my desk was frozen in The Before Times, I had changed
First, I acknowledge the privileges I have with an office desk job, flexibility, saved time off, health insurance, stable internet, and a lot of other advantages that bring measures of comfort, stability, access, and livability that many other people and groups do not have. At the same time, I have been a witness and advocate for many people who needed assistance with their access to life-sustenance during the pandemic. I am committed to learn and live a life that amplifies their voices and experiences and holds the rest of us accountable.
As I adapted to full-time remote work for 18 months, I came to value autonomy, agency, and choice in the flow of my day. I became more attuned to matching my energy and preferences to different tasks like email, event planning, project collaboration, writing, and Zooms. I became familiar with the natural and built-environment rhythms of my neighborhood as I watched it from my home-office window and as I took walks during lunch or in the late afternoon. I became more willing to adjust my work-family-leisure harmony to what I needed and wanted in order to be with my human being-ness humanely. I could see more clearly how these shifts were necessary for my capacity to serve in my role, to be present with people’s fears, trauma, and dreams, and to help them find their way. Those are nostalgic elements of that remote-work time of my life (there were substantial difficulties, too). They are also reflections of important lessons about choice I wanted to carry with me in the return to in-person work and school in August 2021.
And yet, the work culture did not evolve during the pandemic to align with my lessons. The pace of work increased in a way that felt like trying to make up for lost time. I felt like that hamster being spun around the hamster wheel while their friend spins it furiously. As an academic community, we were living in both the past and future while shallow breathing in the present. I barely kept that new pace up while trying to navigate disrupted schedules because of COVID exposure and school closures.
Being back in the old contexts, relationships, and cultural detritus of work, I immediately relapsed into the maladaptive, frantic, people-pleasing, overwork patterns. About ten months after returning to in-person work at this “return to normal+” pace, I took a mental health leave related to burnout, exhaustion, accumulated and unresolved grief, and complex PTSD. During that leave, I spent most of my time learning to calm my body, to be attuned to my needs, to enjoy solitude and quiet, and to start nurturing my creative self. I learned how to value my time and energy. I learned that I and my experience are important. It was a joy, a privilege, and a challenge.
And yet again
I should have made a plan for returning to work, both in August 2021 and again in June 2022. Guess what? The work culture hadn’t co-evolved during my leave to align with these lessons. A close friend had warned me that work would be exactly the same when I got back, and it’s possible nothing would have changed (their brutal honesty and real talk is both painful and treasured to me). While I had found new values and ways of being during my leave that were important to me, productivity mindsets were still the dominant force. The work detritus tried to bury me again.
However, with this return to work, I had a sharp reaction that felt like the shock of jumping into freezing water. I made it two days before having a panic attack in the shower on the third day. I took another week and a half working remotely. My spirit (subconscious, gut, intuition, whatever you want to call it) was reminding me that my experience mattered and that this wasn’t the experience I wanted to be having. This way of life I was consenting to wasn’t sustainable for me, wasn’t bringing me joy, and wasn’t supporting how I wanted to be in service to others.
Lessons about making work work for me
During those additional 10 days, I got clearer on what I needed as adaptations and accommodations to be able to meet work responsibilities while also taking care of my wellness and wellbeing in that moment. I also started connecting more intentionally with people who are making similar adjustments and commitments.
I wish I had made ANY plan, and especially a humane plan, for my return to work. As the title of Sarah Jaffe’s book says, “Work Won’t Love You Back.” I offer that wisdom to you. I wish I had thought with intention, deliberation, and commitment about:
- what I wanted my work-home-leisure harmony to look like AND FEEL LIKE,
- what concrete things needed to be in place in order to walk in the direction of that harmony, and
- who to communicate with and how about the boundaries I was making for myself, the needs I had of others, and my expectations for their interactions with me.
I wanted to protect and nurture my inner creativity and learn to live with PTSD in a way that minimized destabilizing moments. I found the Job Accommodation Network site helpful in identifying adaptations and accommodations to make life work for me at that moment. Looking under PTSD, the following limitations really hit home for me:
- Stress Intolerance
I initially tried working through institutional systems with our equity office. I wanted legitimacy, legal protection, and institutional resources. People in the disability community already know what I learned myself: it takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy, reminders and nudging, form filling and tracking, reading carefully and corrections, patience and directness, and clarifying and clarifying some more.
Right now, I have made many adaptations myself. That is a multi-faceted privilege I call myself out on – to live generally unaware of the felt experience of the magnitude of that labor, to have the energy and know-how to try, and to be able to make adjustments myself that require little to nothing institutionally. Those things should not factor into the experience making work work for people.
I moved my office away from the front door and reception area of the suite. I also work a flexible schedule that balances remote and in-person work. Because my work and home lives have elements of urgency and disruption to them, I need the balance of consistency and predictability in my schedule, closest relationships, and space. I need solitude in my daily routine. I need to be outside in nature often (my office on campus has no windows). I need direct experiences with graduate students; I volunteered to teach a graduate-level workshop series this summer on course design with two friends-colleagues as a confidence-boosting experience in therapeutic relationships. It was everything I hoped for and more.
I’m trying to amplify the things that do work for me – rest, being in nature, taking glass classes, painting, exercising, and projects that bring me joy. Those changes represent some of the many supports in my new foundation for a creative life. I wish a life of abundance, rest, and care was the default way of life for all of us.