The sober truth about quitting: I’m addicted to non-profit, high-stress work

When I left work without a backup plan in July, I had no idea I was participating in an exodus of more than 4 million Americans already have enough at the workplace. When I discovered this tendency, I devoured articles in search of a rationale for my rash decision.

These stories of mass departures show that each of us has our own reasons. To me, the reasons feel like an opaque watercolor, with shades of longing for happiness and autonomy flowing into a sort of gray malaise and existential fear: Which of these happens when my loved ones or I may die tomorrow?

Now that I don’t have to work full-time, my once murky picture shows an amazing picture. For years, my work life acted like an unconscious addiction.

I grew up around people who were addicted to different substances and behaviors. My family chooses not to use the phone book. The drug arrest ruined the holiday. Rehabilitation visits are common. The resulting shame and poverty required hard work at a frantic pace to cope. From that dynamic, I learned to anticipate needs and fulfill them. I learned that survival depends on work, that the needs of the group must be more important than the needs of the individual.

And, like you Millennials, I look for purpose in the choices I make. For me, that means 11 years in the nonprofit sector. Throughout my career, I have enjoyed the “other duties as needed” mode of operation. The frenzied energy of tension and determination fueled me – and, I believe, demonstrated my commitment to the mission. Like any addict, I would do anything to keep the monkey on my back.

Years ago, when I worked for a Buddhist retreat center, I assisted with on-site weekend seminars once a month. Rotating shifts this weekend include dishwashing, composting, dusting, commercial-grade mopping and more that are beyond my primary job description. And on an early morning shift in a silent retreat, “other duties” reached a new level. When I booked the dining room for breakfast, a woman approached me with her head bowed. In silence, she passed me a piece of paper that read: “The ladies room on the second floor has been moved back. All three toilets. ☹”

With a respectful nod and a brave chest, I headed to the scene. Plunger in hand, I go to work. The waste stuck to my shoes, and I was gagged during the ordeal. Each toilet was, at the right time, released with a winning GALUMPH. When I returned to the office on Monday, I told the story to my colleagues, both embarrassed and proud.

“It’s my shift, what else can I do?” I said. “I will always do my best for this place!”

I can’t speak for all of my 4 million teammates who have been laid off during the pandemic, but for those in the nonprofit sector, pre-existing conditions have created COVID stressors. -19. Before 2020, half of non-profit workers burned out. As defined by the World Health Organization, burnout includes “feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from work, and decreased occupational performance.” In fundraising, competitive pressure leads to an even higher burnout rate, and thus a revolving door – the average deadline is only 16 months.

By March 2020, I had been working in nonprofits and fundraising for a decade. When I started working from home that month, all my boundaries disappeared. If I wake up with anxiety at 3 a.m., I can effectively compose emails on my smartphone. I no longer lost time commuting to work – instead, I worked all the time. When the initial Zoom tsunami began, I skipped meals to attend all of our crisis response pitches.

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No irony intended, I encourage my colleagues to practice self-care, signing as needed, while nervously biting their lips until they bleed. On one of those initial Zoom calls, a colleague noticed that I looked tired.

“Bah, this is nothing compared to the 600-person sit-down dinner I did,” I said. “I slept on the floor of my office many nights before that.”

She was stunned, silent. To fill the air, I continued.

“Or, you remember, that time at the Garden Party, where I sat humming all afternoon with my broken knee. Sure, the pain was excruciating, but I burned for the cause.”

In a beautiful quote, I promoted self-harm, minimized its consequences, and dismissed the concern she raised.

“Jackie, all I’m saying is you’ve made a good living,” she said. “But did you create a life?”

How else can I say it? I crave phone notifications from my work email. I have refreshed my inbox to receive the necessary information. I freed myself from my own obsessive thoughts and worries by focusing on something transcendent—our organization’s mission. I forgave my addiction to be accepted and respected by society.

In my daily pre-pandemic rhythm, this self-negative behavior is normal. But over time, working remotely has changed my perspective. Away from the shared office, I’ve found that I enjoy being in control of my time. I enjoy the freedom from daily panic attacks about what to wear and thrive in my private workspace. I love the comfort and security of being at home, rather than just sleeping there.

I also notice the relief I feel away from the dynamics of the office. Give statistics and experience about the workplace and lack of opportunity, micro-invasion, racist, lack of boundaries and sex ring, it’s no surprise that millions of people opt out. For those still watching, resistance to traditional business as usual is growing. It is now completely predictable that a lot of people will leave because of companies force workers to return to the physical office.

Now that we have had time to sober up, how many will choose to prolong their suffering? How many people would bargain their happiness in the name of acceptance, approval, or recognition?

As a child immersed in the 12-step teachings, I learned that the root of addiction lies in emptiness, escape, and longing. While chemistry plays a role, the underlying causes need completeness, not decoration, as my mother wisely put it.

There is no sudden rocky bottom for me; no scuff marks or light awakening after picking up a family member’s jewelry. I recognize the harm that has accumulated over the years and the global pandemic.

No move will hold or heal me. But I’m using this break as a self-guided vacation. Drawing on my mother’s wisdom, I’m working to nurture emptiness rather than fill it with busyness. Every day I take time to read, write and be in nature. Once I’ve built my foundation, I’ll re-establish the balance of making a living with making a living.

Reading through our motivational articles, I feel comfortable not being alone. Despite the isolation of my addiction, I am currently surrounded by millions of people who also want something else.

Maybe a few of them are getting clean, too. I hope that after reflecting on our habits and needs, we will all reappear, ready to paint a new landscape at the center of our lives. The sober truth about quitting: I’m addicted to non-profit, high-stress work

Bobby Allyn

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