After an IV infusion in December, followed by three weeks bouncing around four countries, my physical health fell apart in January. After I returned to Geneva, I spent the majority of my non-working hours in bed or on the couch, comatose. It took two weeks to start feeling “normal” again; unfortunately, “normal” for me means living with chronic fatigue and waking up with cold symptoms every morning, so it was only a middling improvement.
During this month, I paused my weekly guqin and French classes to give myself some breathing room, both physically and financially. I also did not cook much and ate mostly pre-made meals from grocery stores.
All of this has given me a lot of time to think. And to feel. I reflected on where I was going in life and what I really wanted to get out of it. And to be honest, I’m facing a lot of unanswered questions at this point.
Much like 2021, 2023 is another one of those “big changes” years for me. This is a year in which I could potentially change jobs, change apartments, and even change countries.
When I joined my current organization in 2021, it was under a unique scheme in which I am required to undergo a rotational exercise and be “reassigned” to a different role after two years. Technically, since I started my job just after the cutoff deadline for the annual rotational exercise, I don’t have to rotate until 2024. I could stay in the same role for one more year if I wanted to.
I really grappled with this decision for many months. On the one hand, my boss and his boss are really great people, and the departmental culture is open and easygoing. I don’t take that for granted, especially after all the toxic workplaces I’ve been through. But on the other hand, my job isn’t what I want to do. I want to go back to working on substantive issues like climate change, and I want to work with communities and civil society. I want to dive into new things and gain valuable knowledge in specific topics, such as when I worked on Indigenous land rights.
So the decision was: do I stay another year in my comfortable job where I know and like everyone that I work with, where I know exactly how to do every element of my job, and where I rarely have to do any overtime? Or do I take the plunge and make myself available for a new role, where I could end up with a terrible manager and a terrible work culture and maybe even have to move to another country and ultimately feel just as dissatisfied, but in different ways?
Because moving to another country is always on the table. I am 95% certain that I want to stay in Geneva. I love this city; I’ve built a life here and made lots of friends. But at the end of the day, if there aren’t any suitable opportunities for me here, then I will have no choice but to go. Even if Geneva has come to feel like Home, with a capital H.
And if I end up staying in Geneva, then I’d need to move out of my current place. The winters here are soul-draining. Weeks upon weeks of grey skies and depressing drizzle from November to March every year. Having but a single window in my living room — one that’s the size of a painting — doesn’t help, nor does a view that consists solely of grey concrete apartments. But it’s hard enough finding a new apartment in Geneva, much less one that offers a balcony and a pleasant view. To get that, I’d have to leave the city and move out into a smaller village along the lake. Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to do that. But it comes at the cost of trading my bus commute for a long train commute, and potentially missing out on opportunities to see friends.
The decision to participate in the rotation was the one domino that would set everything in motion. So I thought about it non-stop for months and months. And this week, I finally handed in my decision. I applied to take part in the rotation this year.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this: I am not someone who’s afraid of change. In the ten years of my career, I’ve never stayed in a job for longer than 2.5 years. I moved to DC by myself at age 21 to start my first job. And a few years later, I was equally willing and excited to start my life over in Switzerland, a country that I had never been to. I’ve dealt with plenty of crappy jobs and crappy managers. Whenever I’ve felt “stuck” and unhappy with my situation, I’ve always been able to get myself out. I’ll always be able to do that.
And I was going to have to do the rotation anyway. So why delay it? I don’t like uncertainty and waiting. The less time I spend in limbo, the better.
So now the next step is to wait to see if the request to participate will be approved. That will probably come in February. If it’s approved, I’ll get my new assignment around May. If not, I’ll be happy to stick around for another year.
But there is something else that’s even more important: after talking with two dear friends earlier in January, I was inspired to approach management and ask for an extended leave without pay from work.
There’s nothing wrong with me, per se. Having chronic fatigue doesn’t qualify me for taking medical leave. And I’m not severely depressed or struggling with some other mental health issue. There’s a very simple reason that I’m asking for leave without pay, and it’s that I’m tired.
Tired of the nine to five. Tired of the commute. Tired of working nonstop for the last ten years, including when I was also in grad school full-time, because if I didn’t have a job, then I could not eat, and I could not pay my rent. The three jobs I had when I lived in DC, I made $36K, $28K, and $55K respectively. I couldn’t even take a break from working when I went through something extremely traumatic in early 2019 and had a near breakdown. Because I couldn’t afford to lose even one paycheck.
Now that I’m lucky enough to have a good, stable job that pays well, I’ve been able to save and build a small safety net. For the first time in my life, I can afford to take a break.
Ideally, I’d like to take three months off. The way I see it, it could be sandwiched right between leaving my current job and starting the new assignment, which would minimize disruption to both. Maybe I would travel a bit, but mostly I would like to just stay at home and do creative things. Playing the guqin. Painting. Writing. Studying German and Russian. And I would want to sleep in every day. Just take it really easy.
That’s in an ideal world. In the real world, this is an unorthodox proposal that would need to be escalated many levels with a lot of pushback, because there’s no “compelling” justification for it. I’m not sick, nor having a baby, nor dealing with some complex family issue. Why would I need to take all this time off? It doesn’t make sense to most people (my immediate manager’s initial reaction was very supportive, though, for which I’m grateful). So I have the feeling this, too, will be in limbo for a long time.
So 2023, whenever you’re ready. Let’s get this show on the road.
Some nice memories from January. Despite the physical difficulties, it was a really lovely, restful month with lots of nourishing conversations.
I hate that taking work career/breaks is frowned upon. We’re not robots and if people can and want to, should be able to take breaks to rest, do and try other things and enjoy life. I am currently on my adult gap year and don’t regret it at all- infact one of the best years of my life I think!
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That is AMAZING to hear. Congratulations on your gap year!
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I hope you hear back about your leave application quickly!
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I was a little stumped when you said that chronic fatigue means you’re not qualified for medical leave? Didn’t WHO say that burnout is a medical condition? But I’m glad you embarked on a time of rest. I did the same, strangely, during the pandemic. I quit a job without another lined up – during the lockdown. HAH. Talk about insanity. But the break was what I needed and I’m glad I took it. Like you I have not stopped working for two decades straight.
Hope you’re feeling better now.
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Kudos to you for taking a break! Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I don’t personally know anyone who’s gotten to take a break from work due to burnout, unfortunately – usually it has to be something that requires surgery. Plus there is still the stigma of disclosing mental illness in the workplace and being thought of as less stable or competent.