After Burnout I Was Unemployed For Six Months. It Was The Best Thing To Ever Happen To Me.

Taking a step back was the hardest but best thing I’ve ever done. It’s probably saved me from a mental breakdown, writes Vicky Jessop
Courtesy of Vicky Jessop

At the end of last year, I realised I needed a change. And when I say change, I realised that I needed to quit my job.

They don’t call it millennial burnout for nothing. Too scared to leave the world of education and do anything that might even vaguely be described as ‘adulting’, I jumped straight into an ill-advised Masters after leaving university, and stuck at it for three weeks before realising that there was nothing I wanted to do less than study for another year.

What to do instead? Travelling was out of the question. I saw how well my friends were doing, smoothly transitioning from their degrees to well-paid grad jobs in London (paying, it seemed to me, unbelievable sums) and knew what I ‘had’ to do. I couldn’t afford to fall behind; instead, I spent a frantic three months applying for jobs whilst working at my local cafe. Call it an overdeveloped sense of FOMO, call it whatever you want – all I knew was that I didn’t want to get left behind. After all, I had a degree. Surely I had to put it to some use?

So I did. After weeks of panic, I clinched a role: working in marketing, in London. I was ecstatic. That was the dream, right?

Almost two years later, I realised it wasn’t.

“I knew three months in the role wasn't for me, but I was too scared to start job-hunting again so soon... what if I wasn't good enough to find anything better?”

Perhaps it should have been obvious from the start that the job wasn’t for me. I knew that three months in, but I was too scared to start job-hunting again so soon into the role. What if employers would blacklist me for doing so? What if (thought to myself in the wee hours of the morning) I just wasn’t good enough to find anything better?

All these expectations – all the pressure I was putting on myself – mixed together to form a toxic cocktail. A slow decline in morale meant that my standard of work started to slip. Personal life got in the way. Everything began to pile up, and I started comparing myself to my friends. Thoughts started chasing each other around my head when I lay in bed, trying to sleep. How well were they doing? Why wasn’t I earning as much as they were?

Panic set in. I spent most of my free time desperately finding and applying to positions I didn’t want; the boss called me in and told me, very gently, that he was here if I needed anything, but that I needed to apply myself more. Pull my socks up and get on with it.

I agreed, and in my head, set a new goal: the date I was going to resign.

A break, I reasoned, would give me much needed time. Time to breathe; time to reassess my priorities. Time to find out what I really wanted to do with my life. And some much-needed time to recharge my batteries. I’d started having panic attacks. Who knew how much longer I could have stayed where I was?

Just before Christmas, I walked out of the world of work and into the world of unemployment.

Courtesy of Vicky Jessop

It’s been an eye-opener. I had next to no money and was living out of my savings, but I had that time I wanted. Those first mornings waking up and watching my flatmates leave for work, knowing I had nothing planned for my day, that was strange. But, slowly, it became normal.

And suddenly unemployment didn’t seem that scary any more.

Now I could find out more about what I actually wanted to do. I’d been so obsessed with getting a job and living the London dream that I hadn’t actually stopped to consider what I wanted to do. Now, I could apply for internships, I could do those internships, and I could fit them around any shift work that I managed to pick up: as a receptionist, as a waiter, as anything that paid.

I found out that I liked to write; so I started a blog. I read and read and read, and eventually realised that publishing might be a good career avenue to explore. I had several memorable moments working as a journalist and met quite a few childhood heroes. They were checkpoints on my CV, yes, but they were also moments that helped me realise what I enjoyed doing; what I might want to do with my life.

I could also travel. People say that taking a gap year is the best time to do that, but I’d beg to differ. I was nowhere near brave enough to travel around Europe – or, indeed, anywhere – at the age of eighteen, let alone solo. In the past six months, I’ve managed to tick off a few bucket-list destinations, and spend time with my family. And forcing myself to take a step back has given me some much-needed perspective. It’s helped me realise something that I’m still just coming to terms with: I didn’t have to compare myself to my friends in order to consider myself successful. That’s been the hardest lesson of all.

“Six months on, I’m sitting down and starting to apply for jobs again. Older? Yes. Wiser? Most definitely.”

Now, six months on, I’m sitting down and starting to apply for jobs again. Older? Yes. Wiser? Most definitely. It’s easy to obsess about setting foot on and progressing up the career ladder when you leave university: get a job, start grafting. We’re told from the moment we start school that success means money, and we live in a country with a competitive job market, so it’s no surprise that so many millennials suffer from burnout. In fact, 74% of us say we’re so stressed that it’s difficult to cope. Taking a step back and sideways out of that was the hardest, but best, thing I’ve ever done. It’s probably also helped me avoid a mental breakdown.

And now? Who knows what job I’ll get, but I do know two things: it’ll be something I want to do. It’s okay if that’s different to what my friends are doing.

And I’ll be better off for it.

Vicky Jessop is a blogger and journalist

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