When I left my job with no backup plan in July, I had no idea I was joining an exodus of more than 4 million Americans who had enough at work. Once I discovered this trend, I devoured articles in search of a rationale for my rash decision.
Stories about this mass departure suggest each of us has our own discrete reasons. For me, the reasons feel like a muddied watercolor, with shades of longing for well-being and autonomy bleeding into a grey malaise and existential dread: What does any of this matter when my loved ones or I could die tomorrow?
Now that I'm free from full-time work, my once-murky canvas reveals a startling image. For years, my work life functioned like an unconscious addiction.
I grew up around people addicted to different substances and behaviors. My family opted out of the phone book. Drug arrests ruined holidays. Rehab visits were common. The shame and poverty that resulted demanded hard work at a frenzied pace to counter. From that dynamic, I learned to anticipate needs and fulfill them. I learned that survival depended on doing, that the collective's needs had to be more important than the individual's.
And, like fellow Millennials, I seek purpose in the choices I make. For me, that's meant 11 years working in the nonprofit sector. Throughout my career, I relished the "other duties as needed" modus operandi. The frenetic energy of stress and determination animated me — and, I believed, proved my commitment to the mission. Like any addict, I would do anything to feed the monkey on my back.
Years ago, while working for a Buddhist retreat center, I supported the on-site weekend workshops once a month. These rotating weekend shifts included commercial-grade dishwashing, composting, dusting, mopping, and more tasks that fell outside of my primary job description. And on an early morning shift during a silent retreat, "other duties" reached a new level. As I set the dining hall for breakfast, a woman approached me with her head down. In silence, she passed me a note that read: "Second floor ladies' room is backed up. All three toilets. ☹"
With a respectful nod and a chest full of valor, I made my way to the scene. Plunger in hand, I went to work. Waste sloshed on my shoes, and I gagged throughout the ordeal. Each toilet, in time, released with a victorious GALUMPH. When I returned to the office Monday, I recounted the story to my colleagues, at once sheepish and proud.
"It was my shift, what else could I have done?" I said. "I'll always do my best for this place!"
I can't speak for all 4 million of my comrades who have quit their jobs during the pandemic, but for those in the nonprofit sector, pre-existing conditions compounded the stressors of COVID-19. Before 2020, half of nonprofit workers were already burned out. As defined by the World Health Organization, burnout includes "feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance for one's job, and reduced professional efficacy." In fundraising, competing pressures lead to even higher burnout rates, and in turn, a revolving door — the average tenure is just 16 months.
By March 2020, I had worked in nonprofits and fundraising for a decade. When I began working from home that month, any boundaries I had disappeared. If I woke with anxiety at 3 a.m., I could effectively compose emails on my smartphone. I no longer lost time to my commute — I worked through that time instead. When the initial Zoom tsunami began, I skipped meals to attend every offering on our crisis response.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
With no intended irony, I encouraged my colleagues to practice self-care, to sign off when needed, while anxiously biting my lips until they bled. On one of those early Zoom calls, a colleague observed that I looked exhausted.
"Bah, this is nothing compared to the 600-person sit-down dinner gala I worked," I said. "I slept on the floor of my office many a night before that."
She was stunned, silent. To fill the air, I continued.
"Or, you remember, that time at the Garden Party where I was schmoozing all afternoon on a broken knee. Sure, the pain was searing, but I burn for the cause."
In one quip, I'd glorified self-harm, minimized its consequences, and rejected the concern she offered.
"Jackie, all I'm saying is that you've gotten good at making a living," she said. "But have you made a life?"
How else could I have said it? I craved the phone notifications from my work email. I refreshed my inbox to get the hit of being needed. I escaped my own obsessive and anxious thoughts by focusing on something transcendent — our organization's mission. I jonesed for my socially accepted and respected addiction.
In the pre-pandemic rhythms of my day-to-day, this self-negating behavior was normal. But in time, working remotely changed my perspective. Away from the shared office, I noticed that I liked owning my time. I savored the freedom from daily panic attacks over what to wear, and thrived in my private workspace. I loved the comfort and safety of being at home, rather than merely sleeping there.
I also noticed the relief I felt at being away from office dynamics. Given statistics and experiences around workplaces and lack of opportunity, micro-aggressions, racism, lack of boundaries and sexual harassment, it's no wonder that millions are opting out. For those still on the clock, resistance to brick-and-mortar business-as-usual is growing. It's now fully expected that more people will leave as companies are pressuring workers to return to the physical office.
Now that we've had time to sober up, how many will choose to perpetuate their suffering? How many will haggle with their happiness in the name of acceptance, accolades or acknowledgment?
As a child immersed in 12-step teachings, I learned the roots of addiction disease lay in emptiness, escape and longing. While chemistry plays a role, the underlying causes need fullness, not decoration, as my mother wisely says.
There was no sudden rock bottom for me; no car wreck or flash of awakening after pawning a family member's jewelry. My realization took years of accumulated harm and a global pandemic.
No rehabs will hold or heal me. But I am using this time off as a self-guided sabbatical. Drawing on my mother's wisdom, I'm working at nourishing the emptiness rather than filling it with busyness. Each day I set aside time to read, write and be in nature. Once I shore up my foundations, I'll reset the balance of making a living with making a life.
Reading through the groundswell of articles about our motives, I am heartened not to be alone. Despite addiction's isolation, I'm now surrounded by millions who also want something else.
Perhaps a few more of them are coming clean, too. I hope after reflecting on our habits and needs we will all re-emerge, ready to paint a new landscape that centers our well-being.