Stress Leave: Money Woes Shouldn’t Add to it



Home on a Friday morning in December, I’m wondering how my career came to this.  I was on a medical leave from work due to stress.

I looked down at the doctor’s note in my hand.  “Indefinitely”, she wrote.

Thoughts like “what if everyone thinks I can’t hack it?”, “Will I ever be promoted again after this?”, “If I can’t do this, I’m not trained in anything else!” whirled in my head.

My career had always been important to me.  I took pride in all that I’ve achieved to get here.  Now I risked losing it.

How Did I Get Here?

I asked myself.  Honestly, I had no idea I was burning out at all.  From all my media readings, I had achieved work-life balance. I took care of myself. I went to potlucks and Happy-Hours with friends.  My social network was strong with people I could share secret hopes and fears.  I played with my niece at every opportunity.  I took long luxurious bubble baths and did my nails.

Still cracks started forming.  Small things fell through at first, I would forget small things.  Lunch packed but left on the counter. A forgotten promise to call my mom.  Going to the grocery store but forgetting my wallet.  Nothing serious.

Then I had to start catching my breath whenever looked at my Outlook calendar.  I would keep it on the “today” view so I couldn’t see the rest of my week. I was living meeting to meeting. Even the thought of opening up my calendar on Sunday nights gave me anxiety.  I dismissed this too.  “It’s a busy season, it’ll pass.  I just need to get through it.”

Soon, I was jerking awake every night at 3.30am, heart-pounding, my mind racing about something I had forgotten to take care of during the day.  I’d lay in bed, breathing deeply to calm the fluttering in my chest.  But I knew I wouldn’t fall back asleep that night.  All I could do was “rest my body”.

Before I knew it, the cracks became chasms. I was preparing for every week with the mentality that the week was a battle. I finished every Friday with tasks on a long to-do list defeated but spent the weekend unable to get up from the couch.

The Day I Went on Stress Leave

It all ended on a Thursday.  After almost 6 months of not sleeping a full night and a particularly difficult client meeting, and despite my sheer willpower, a tear slipped down my cheek.

Then another.  And another.  I no longer had control. I was on the subway home crying in earnest.  A middle-aged woman sitting next to me said: “It’s going to be okay”.  I sobbed even harder.

I sobbed through the night and started again as soon I woke up to dress for work.

That was it,  I had to go on stress leave.

Tahiti: It’s a Magical Place

Burn out

A lot of people think that once on stress leave, you’re just bumming around, watching Netflix all day.  Some of my friends, well-meaning as they were, said it was the perfect time to take an extended trip to a sunny locale.  Like stress-leave was one long vacation.

But it is far from a magical place.

It is filled all the internal struggles to deal with.  I think many people who burn out are like me: Type A.  High-strung and high achieving.  For me, stress leave meant failure.  I had failed.  Would I be able to return to work?  Would I even be able to work at all?

Without answers, I still had to put my life back together.  On the road to burnout, I had let a lot fall by the wayside.  Starts off as non-essentials, but as the grind wore me down, it turned to essentials.  The first thing I did on leave? Laundry.  Over the next 2 days, I only did laundry.  8 full loads of laundry that had been lying in heaps on my floor.

Also, I had to wean myself off the 4 to 5 cups of coffee that propped me up every day.

I was catching up and recovering from months of not sleeping a full night.  It was a full 12 days before I trained my body to be able to sleep through the night again.  12 days before my subconscious could let go of the fear of “I forgot”.  I could finally let go of that mental to-do list.

Safety Net: Emergency Funds

Of all the issues I was dealing with, I’m grateful I didn’t have to worry about money. I turned to my emergency fund.  Whatever was happening with my career, at least I could cover my expense for 6 months.

I focused on getting better. Some days were harder than others, but I was grateful that I had the buffer that allowed me to figure it out.

I started out writing this article about self-care. I had a list of suggestions like ‘saying no more often’, ‘exercise’, ‘set boundaries’ Tried and true advice.

Self-care advice like ‘putting yourself first’ can only be enacted if you have the tools to do that. What I learned about self-care is that you create your own backup plan

With the backup plan, you can say ‘no’ to that extra project at work. Sure, your brain is screaming that you’ll get fired, but you can stand your ground because you have the buffer.

Imagine if I had continued to live paycheck to paycheck like I had when I was in my 20’s. I saved the bare minimum, I was happy to plot my next purchase with whatever was leftover from my paycheck.

How could I have gone on a leave if I were still that person? Either I would have had to soldier through at the expense of my mental and physical health. Or I would’ve had to rack up debt. For those of us who’ve experienced debt, we already know how stressful that is.

After Stress Leave: Where I Am Now

Managing Stress

I happy to tell you that I was able to go back to work and resume my career.  Not exactly as I left it. It’s on a different trajectory now.   I had changed too much and risked too much for it to remain status quo.  I relate to myself and to my work differently now. In turn, I have redesigned many components of my work and life to ensure I never go back.

I’m grateful that I had the safety net of my emergency fund.  I thought a rainy day would be a recession.  Or a truly rainy day such as a pipe bursting and flooding my condo.

My rainy day turned out to be internal.

I have taken the advice of setting boundaries, saying “no” more often and putting myself first.  These don’t come naturally to me and I’ve had to learn these skills.  The hardest to learn was how to ask for help.

It’s still a work-in-progress.  I’m still not perfect at it.  Sometimes I catch myself slipping into old habits.  But as I approach the 2 year anniversary of that defining day, I’m optimistic.

And that’s an emotion I hadn’t felt for a long time.

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32 thoughts on “Stress Leave: Money Woes Shouldn’t Add to it”

  1. What a powerful story. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. Goes to show why the pursuit of FI is for everyone, regardless of situation, because you don’t know what’s next. So glad you had the finds that meant you could take care of yourself first, because that’s the real, best kind of self care.

    1. Thank you for the support, Angela. Yes, FI is for everyone because it encompasses so much! And I think a lot of people misunderstand what “self-care” actually means.

  2. This was a nice twist on why it’s so important to have an emergency fund. You simply never know what might come up and it’s best to be prepared so money worries don’t add to whatever you’re dealing with.

    As for your stress leave, I’m happy to hear that you were able to take the necessary time off, recoup, and make some changes that have helped you moving forward. I’m a teacher and have been overwhelmed on more than one occasion, usually when work and personal life struggles hit at once. I’ve learned to let things go that I can’t control, and to leave work at work. Those two changes have helped me immensely. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thank you for being so brave and sharing your personal story. Putting yourself out there can be difficult and scary, but you should be so proud of what you’ve written, and the journey that brought you here. Trying to balance a successful career while dealing with stress and anxiety can be an uphill battle. Sometimes you need to take a step back, to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.

  4. This is amazing. Thank you for sharing! It’s hard to take a break from a career, eapecially since society tells us our identity is our job. I also feel so much pressure to always be 200% at work and be constantly advancing and getting a raise and promotion.
    It’s definitely burnt me out and I’m learning it’s ok to take it easier. This was such a powerful story, thanks for being open.

  5. Thanks for sharing this – I can relate to many of these moments and have had to *pause* many times in my career to keep it from going over the edge. Itsj cost me some important moments with my spouse too. I ust lost one of my best employees to a similar issue, the combination of work plus financial stress was too much for him. He couldn’t even take medical leave, he had to outright quit in order to access 401k funds to clear up both.

    We must pay attention to both mental and physical health and no job is worth your health or life.

    1. Oh, so sorry to hear about your experiences too. But it was also validating. That this happens a lot more than we realize or acknowledge.
      So important to remember: No job is worth your life.

  6. First off I want to send you a giant hug through the internet. This was a brave share and I hope you feel it’s worth it. I do. I think it will make a difference and it’s an important story to share. We definitely have an attitude that working hard and being busy is a sign of success. It’s not, internally we might know that but it’s a hard thing to actually accept. I’m so glad you were able to do that and take the time you needed to reset and move forward with a healthier mindset. Taking care of your mental health should always come first.

    1. Thanks for the hug, Sarah. It was hard to publish the post. I was afraid of how it might be interpreted. I was afraid to read the comments for days! (hence the delayed reply).

      But if I help just 1 other person, I’d be incredibly humbled.

  7. Thanks for writing this and being so open about it. I’m currently on medical leave I’d say for anxiety and panic attacks (sounds very similar to what you experienced). I am interviewing again and hoping to head back to work after the new year.

    I’m fortunate to have had both an emergency fund and disability benefits through my company (so I didn’t even have to dip into the emergency fund – but having it still gave me peace of mind).

    I can relate with what you say about feeling like a failure. My previous goals were to be the high-powered leader that made six-figures and paved the way for other women to take on leadership roles. Now, instead of career goals, I have life goals (which include career goals), but they revolve much more around being happy and healthy, not trying to fit my life into the box that I think is expected of me as a feminist. I’m pursuing part-time work so I can focus on passion projects on the side (I’ve used a lot of my time off to start The Fioneers).

    It’s great to hear other stories where others have experienced similar things.

    I wrote a similar post recently about how having F-You Money can provide such peace of mind in situations like this:

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Jessica – thank you for sharing your story with me. I agree with so much with what you said, including paving the way for other women in leadership. It is such a huge responsibility and I felt I had to carry it alone – and if I chose to go a different path, that I was letting all women down. So that sense of failure was from multiple facets.

      But of course, I agree with you, life goals which include career are much more holistic and balanced than just career goals. I also started the blog to tap into the passion which I was missing from my life.

  8. Thank you for sharing. We can make new rules. We don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done. You’ve shown that this is possible.

    1. Hi Sofia – thank you! Yes, we can make new rules. It’s scary, but the traditional & conventional really grinds us down. Especially females in male-dominated industries.

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  10. Wow, that sounds like it must have been an amazing place of self discovery, no matter how difficult it was in the moment! Thanks for being so raw and so honest.

    1. Thank you, Moriah. And yes, it was an amazing journey of self-discovery. It was hard, but SO. Worth. It.
      Thank you for stopping by and reading my story.
      You’ve inspired me to write a post about the self-discovery journey in a future blog post!

  11. What a brave and powerful post. So glad that you continue on your way to wellness and great points regarding many benefits of an emergency fund.

  12. Love this post! I was so glad to read that you have since gotten back to work and are doing well with the intentional “redesign”. I was in this place once. I ended up quitting one day, straight up. I always thought I’d never do something so risky. Turns out sometimes it just needs to happen. Recovery was quick for me, thankfully, and I was able to find work very soon after.

  13. Great article, thank you for sharing your story! My emergency fund turned out to be my new financial habits. I quit my job earlier this year to focus on self care and family, and it just wouldn’t have been possible had we not sorted our finances out. It’s not at all coincidental that I’d ‘discovered’ FI a little while before! 🙂

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  15. Thank you for writing this!

    I went on a stress leave from a very toxic and abusive job back in 2013, and honestly, reading this brought back so much of that experience. How I tried for almost a year to get a new job to avoid going on a leave, how broken I was… but more importantly, how much better I’m going now, thanks to taking that break.

    I’m so glad things worked out for you!

  16. Wow, I had a friend who took a stress leave. Similarly I remember him saying he just couldn’t do it anymore. This is such an important story for us type A personalities to tread. Thank for your bravery.

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  18. Caitlin Finnegan

    I also went on a medical leave for severe anxiety/depression. Those 5 weeks were a godsend.

    The other godsend? Short-term disability through my employer. Even though I had enough savings to cover my bills, I didn’t ultimately need to, as the monthly 65% non-taxable payout equaled my regular take-home pay for the same time period. The disability is also not reported as income.

    My employer takes a small deduction each check (~$3) to cover the disability premium, but it was so worth it. If this is an option for you, please take advantage of it. As OP said, not having to think about money as you try to save yourself is an incredible blessing!

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