Taking a break from our typical interview format, here is the story of our founder, Kristen, in her own words.
I realized something had to give when I was hiding under my covers, crying and on the verge of a mental breakdown in the early morning darkness one weekend. How had I gotten here? I was endlessly scrolling on my phone trying to figure out how I could take a paid break from work that wouldn’t cut into my vacation time—not like I felt like I could take it anyway. I couldn’t face another Monday. Another week of going through the motions. Another week of working with a toxic person who seemed to have single-handedly ruined my life. I didn’t end up taking a break from work, I just kept going. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but I knew why I didn’t – I felt ashamed. Ashamed to take a break. Ashamed to admit defeat. Ashamed to ask for help. Ashamed that I couldn’t hack it in the real world.
Since 2012, my day job has been working on employee volunteer programs (aka corporate social responsibility) at EY. To say this was my dream job would be an understatement. In the fall of 2014, my manager left my team. This gave me the opportunity to step up, take more ownership and lead programs. At the same time, one of the programs was expanding globally. This meant I would be working with my counterparts across the pond, which, before it all took a turn for the worse, I was looking forward to. My new lay of the land turned out to be double the work. I was managing 4 employee programs (2 of which I was creating from scratch), some additional projects, as well as cleaning up the mess of the person in charge of this global program expansion. To boot, I received significantly less support – I only had 1/3rd of my replacement’s time.
Yes, my workload was a serious problem, but working with a toxic person was the straw breaking my back. He was the type of person who would yes you to death and take no action himself. Excellent salesman, but you never actually got the product. My day-to-day had become reactive, picking up the pieces of his empty promises so it wouldn’t reflect poorly on me or the program. I love planning and I’m 1000% type A – managing my workload flying by the seat of my pants was compounding my stress. I started to crack.
With the workload came more hours. I couldn’t seem to get my workouts in, I just wanted to sleep. Getting out of bed only meant another day of facing my reality. Eating healthy fell to the wayside too. I stress eat, so I was basically shoveling crap down my throat for the better part of each day (nothing like masking the real issue with a little food, right?). Not to mention other health issues I faced, like getting bronchitis twice in less than 6 months.
About 8 months into this, my friend Drew died. He was, and still is, the closest person to me that has passed away. So, in the midst of everything at work, I had to somehow navigate grieving, which I don’t think I managed to do. I missed his funeral. A few days after he passed, I was headed to Brazil for a once in a lifetime opportunity. I kept thinking I couldn’t get closure because I couldn’t attend his funeral. I thought for sure when I got back from Brazil that I’d have some kind of epic breakdown with ugly crying and snot everywhere…but it never came, it never happened. I’m a crier, I didn’t understand. Was I completely dead inside? I felt like I was.
It took me nearly a year before I said anything and raised the issue about my workload and this toxic person. I had weekly calls with the leader of my team to navigate what was now the complete shit storm of my job. It took me so long to raise the issue because it was her recommendation to globalize this program. Should I go against my boss? How did I know it wasn’t supposed to be like this? I’m sure I was having some gut feeling about right vs. wrong, but I was in so deep that I couldn’t tell if this was going wrong, or if I was just crazy.
In October 2015, I took a long weekend to visit my mom. Her parting words to me were, “I think you’re depressed,” to which I brushed off and channeled by best inner 15-year-old attitude and said “Whatever, I’m fine.” Clearly, I was not fine. I was crumbling.
It was at this same time that I had signed up for a three-month program focused on movement, meditation, journaling, healthy eating and connecting with other women called the Hot Happy Healthy (HHH) Sisterhood in NYC. I remember sharing about my unhealthy relationship with food on the intake call “interview”, but in reality I wasn’t ready to face what the real problem was.
The program helped me connect back to my body, clear the shit storm of negative energy and gain the confidence to FINALLY speak up – and keep speaking up – for myself. It helped me set healthy boundaries with work, do things that bring me joy and bring more balance into my life. My experience in the HHH was my inspiration for starting ARISE. When my friend was grieving, I knew self-care would help, because it helped me so much during this difficult time in my life.
It came to the point where my only options were to stick it out, move to a different role within EY, or leave the company. It was hard for me to come to terms with this. It was my dream job, but it was currently a nightmare. I was NOT going to willingly suffer and stay in a shitty situation. I was actively looking for another job. My toxic coworker ultimately left EY before I found anything. I like to think I made his life a bit miserable – as he had made mine – and that was his decision for leaving.
For two years, I worked with this toxic person. All the while, I was dealing with burnout and, of course, the death of a friend thrown in for good measure. I’m not sure if my situation at work or my pride would have killed me first. I’m so fortunate to have come across the self-care resources I did, when I needed them the most. Although I’m still stubborn AF, I’m no longer ashamed to take a break, admit defeat or ask for what I need. My cracks are repaired, but the scars will forever be a reminder to put myself first.
If you’re cracking or crumbling, know that you aren’t alone and you have options. I urge you to consider these tips:
> Put yourself first – I clearly lost touch with myself and things that lit me up. As I said, I felt dead inside. What brings you joy? What fills you up? What makes you feel care-free? Do that, and then do more of that. What are your non-negotiables? Be sure to schedule them in your calendar; don’t break these appointments with yourself. My non-negotiables are meditation and movement, which I try to get in every day. Not sure where to start? Consider an ARISE box.
> Have the courage to have the difficult conversations – It took me forever to speak up, to the detriment of my health and my personal relationships. Who wants to hear Kristen bitch yet again about her situation? Not me. Once I did speak up, it felt like progress was being made, even if it was baby steps, and I wasn’t as alone in my hell. More often than not, your boss probably doesn’t know the reality of the situation and how much you’re suffering. Mine didn’t. My team now has open conversations about workload. It’s not usually fixed with a magic wand, but it starts the dialogue.
> Set boundaries – WTF happened to the 9-5? More like 7-7 with 24/7 connection. It is draining. Set boundaries for your work day. As long as you get your work done, do you really need to be online? I removed my work email from my phone and it has been a game changer. How stressed do you get when you see a new email notification? What is the “emergency” this time? Level set that in your job there probably aren’t real “emergencies.” Is someone dying? Not likely; if they are, why aren’t they dialing 911?.
> Accept you might be ready for a change – I did not like the three options my boss proposed to me. I wanted the toxic person fired; its not like he was doing job anyway. As it turns out, it’s pretty difficult to fire someone, especially when it depends on the laws of said country that the person lives and works in. It took me weeks to come to terms with looking for a new job and all the unknowns that came with that. As I said earlier, this was my dream job. But maybe it was my dream job in 2012, not in 2016. Maybe this was just a stepping stone for something better? While I still currently work on the same team at EY, this whole shit storm was the catalyst for starting ARISE. I would say this is THE BEST responsibility; for that, I’m forever grateful to be able to support those in need of a little self-care to deal with their own shit storms.
> Take time off – You have options, whether it is vacation, sick days, or short term leave. Explore your options and what’s best for you. Maybe it is a mental health day or maybe it is a short term leave for a month. Take the time you need to recover from the burnout – and grieve, if that’s mixed in for you too. Don’t forget to unplug and fully disconnect. You’re not any good to your employer if you can’t function. In fact, they lose money. Your health suffers and the quality of your work suffers, too. Resting is progress – so you’ll be more productive. And to all you Americans out there, take your damn vacation! I’ll be using all of mine.