On being rested

Orchids on display at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in December 2021.

As you might know, I’ve spent the last three months between jobs following my second COVID-era layoff. I’m starting up a new role on Monday, and it feels like a good moment to think about what these last few months of very little work have meant for me and for how we can get our teams what they need in even “these times.”

I should start by saying that I’m extremely fortunate that my cost of living was covered by unemployment insurance, and I have a pretty reliable financial safety net with no one else depending on me financially. So this is all in the context of a confidence that I’d be able to pay for housing and food even if I didn’t get hired for several months. Also, the job market felt radically different this time than in March of 2020: companies were reaching out to me, lots of jobs that aligned with my skill set were getting posted, more companies understood how to make a remote interview work (though let’s be honest – lots of places have still got a long way to go there). I had the support of a broader network and more friends who weren’t also unemployed.

Under that radically different job market is – yes – the Great Resignation, a catchall term that stands in for those who have left the workforce because work can’t support their families or their dignity; those who can no longer work because COVID made it impossible; and a staggering death toll that we continue to gloss over. But under it is also the Great Unionization (are we calling it that yet?): victories of workers coming into their collective power, demanding better working conditions and management who can take a longer, more sustainable view of what makes a company AND the people who comprise it thrive.

So that radically different feeling, coupled with vaccinations, meant that while there was and is plenty to be broadly anxious about in the world, I could let go of much of the personal anxiety that characterized April and May of 2020 for me. I could be confident that I would be okay. I could let myself read books and give more volunteer time and look at art and take on a couple of interesting freelance projects.

Now, three months into that space, I finally don’t feel like I’m under the thumb of burnout that was pressing for so long and that frankly couldn’t be lifted during the early months of the pandemic, no matter how many novels I inhaled. I feel, at some level, ready to return to finding and solving new problems, ready to be a practicing manager again without worrying that I will constantly need to protect my team from my own feelings.

It took all this to get here. It took three months of relative security and confidence that I would be okay, with most of my time being able to be spent on things that energize me.

That’s all very swell for me as an individual, but it’s also so far from the norm right now as to be almost laughable. Like the lesson here is “have enough money.” Very useful information, Hands.

So the obvious next question for readers of this blog is: how can we, as leaders of companies and teams, systematize the benefits of the kind of experience I’ve had over the last few months? How can we normalize and support people taking sabbaticals from everyday work where the focus isn’t caretaking or producing? While we are actively working, how can we make sure there is room in our lives for the things that energize us, if work isn’t serving that purpose? (And let’s face it: it’s a rare job that doesn’t take more energy than it gives.) How can we set goals that match our capacity to sustain the effort they require?

The answer to most of these questions will require a lot of listening: listening to your teams, listening to what your own feelings are telling you (because feelings are not facts, but they are data!), listening to workers in and outside your particular industry, who face different kinds of identity-based challenges, and being brave enough to make changes that serve the long term even if it means not making that short-term goal.

My wish for all of us for 2022, fellow managers, is that we continue to listen and act and listen again.

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