In January last year I got locked out of my Gmail account. I had no access to any of my work emails, for more than ten days.
What would you do, if it happened to you?
A bit of muttering, a few frustrated calls to technical support and leave them to sort it out, maybe?
Not me. I had a complete and utter meltdown. I remember the nausea, the fury.
On the morning it happened, as I frantically punched different passwords into my iPhone in an attempt to access my inbox, I actually began hyperventilating. My husband tried to reason with me – and received the full force of my wrath in return.
Ruby Warrington (above): ‘In January last year I got locked out of my Gmail account. I had no access to any of my work emails, for more than ten days… I had a complete and utter meltdown. I remember the nausea, the fury’
I run my own media business and my emails were integral to my livelihood. It was a ‘catastrophe’.
I spent the next few days frenziedly dialling the Google help desk to try to regain access.
They remained calm and polite, but I was pushy, verging on downright aggressive.
The way I reacted was completely out of proportion, I see that now. But at the time – although I didn’t know it – I was in the grip of an addiction, one that I believe is often hiding in plain sight and can have dire consequences to our health.
I’m talking about an addiction to work.
I happily took on more… and then I buckled
Two years ago, I wrote in The Mail on Sunday about how I’d stopped drinking. I wasn’t an alcoholic – or at least, not what you’d imagine one to be. I’d have a couple of glasses three or four nights a week socially, and the occasional weekend blowout.
On one occasion I woke up with blood in my hair, having fallen and hit my head the night before. Instead of going to A&E, I had just stumbled into bed.
Then there was the time, driving home from a party in Ibiza having had two glasses of wine, I came inches from a high-speed collision that would have been my fault.
Each time, I was badly shaken.
As a younger woman I didn’t consider my experiences to be anything out of the ordinary. Gradually, though, I came to realise my relationship with alcohol wasn’t healthy. Most of my free time was spent either tipsy or mildly hung-over.
Ruby noticed how great she felt after long periods of total abstinence. She then went freelance and wrote a book about her experiences with alcohol. She now wonders whether the real reason she drank was to switch off from work
My alcohol intake never interfered with my performance at work but after landing a dream job as features editor of a glossy magazine, I had my first experience of burnout.
In an attempt to constantly do better, I took on more and more responsibilities and finally found myself buckling under the pressure.
I had digestive problems, insomnia and low-level fatigue. I was often tearful – even in the office.
I began to question the impact of alcohol on me and, over the next months and years, I experimented with longer and longer periods of total abstinence from booze. Soon I began to notice how great I felt.
I had fewer stomach troubles, more energy, clarity, and focus.
I went freelance and wrote a book, Sober Curious, about it all – I also toured the world, giving talks on the subject.
Reading back over that first article I wrote for this newspaper, I gave all sort of reasons for not drinking. Among them was that, as a self-employed writer, ‘I now needed to be “on” all the time’. I reasoned that I didn’t have time to have a hangover.
But now I wonder if the real reason I was drinking, sometimes excessively, was because it was the only way I could switch off from work– without that escape hatch, work quickly began to take over my life.
Replying to work emails in bed
So how do you end up a workaholic? After all, we live in a society where successful people are driven and ambitious.
Working late and being available at the weekend is seen as being committed to the job. Making yourself an ‘indispensable’ member of the team can bring a sense of satisfaction and belonging. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do a good job.
But today, smartphones, emails and social media have blurred the boundaries between work and home. A YouGov survey found that six in ten Britons check their work emails while on holiday – a quarter saying they do so ‘very often’.
I’ve read countless similar research that shows huge numbers of people regularly ‘obsess’ over their work, after hours, replying to emails even while in bed.
It isn’t a healthy state of affairs.
Data published by the Office for National Statistics revealed that 17.5 million sick days were taken last year by workers who cited mental health conditions – including stress, depression and anxiety.
Experts have come up with terms such as ‘micro-stresses’ and ‘anticipatory stress’ to describe the anxiety that arises from being in constant contact, via email, with the office.
Whatever you call it, it’s well-known that stress, in the long term, raises the risk of insomnia, weight gain and heart-health problems.
And a major survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that almost three-quarters of adults had felt so stressed last year that they’d ‘been unable to cope’.
A third said they had felt suicidal, due to stress, and one in seven had self-harmed.
Even the World Health Organisation has added ‘burnout’ to its diagnostic manual.
It describes ‘feelings of depletion or exhaustion’ coupled with negativity, cynicism and ‘reduced professional efficiency’ as a result of ‘chronic workplace stress’.
I nodded in agreement to all of this when I read it.
Pushing so hard made me proud
I first learned to equate work with my self-worth at a very young age. My younger brother suffered from serious health problems and my mum, understandably, gave him a lot of attention.
Then I discovered, at about five, that getting a gold star in school could make them notice me.
I was a straight-A student, and at university when I told a tutor I’d worked all night on an essay, I was praised for my dedication.
‘In the real world, there are no such things as swots – only professional people,’ said the professor.
And as I set about establishing my career as a magazine journalist, I was secretly proud that I could work ‘harder’ than anybody else.
In my early years freelancing, I would never say no to a job, even if it meant working all weekend, or getting up at 4am to nail a deadline. I would refresh my email hundreds of times per day, playing it like a slot machine that would dish out prizes in the form of new commissions.
‘I identified that I’d been using work to feel valued, and like I had a reason to exist… Now, instead of filling my weekends with yet more deadlines, I’ve rediscovered my childhood love of novels, the satisfaction of a good crossword, and the feelgood factor of taking time to chat to a friend on the phone,’ says Ruby
Rather than feeling drained, I got a huge buzz from constantly pushing myself harder.
Enter alcohol as a way to physically force me to close my laptop.
Even after I stopped drinking, I’d boast about having published and promoted three books in as many years, while simultaneously launching two podcasts, running my online magazine, hosting monthly events and retreats, and growing my Instagram account to more than 100,000 followers.
The problem was, I found it difficult to put down my laptop and just stop. When I did, feelings of depression and hopelessness began to creep in.
Before I had my Gmail-meltdown moment, I’d been juggling so much, for so long, that one minor glitch was enough to send me over the edge.
It turned out the IT person I’d paid to set up my email had closed his company and left the country – without notifying me.
This meant that all six of my business email accounts had been suspended. And with no way to contact him, since all his details were in my email inbox, it took over a week to get back online.
My career wasn’t in tatters. The world hadn’t stopped turning. But there was a problem. Me. And this time I couldn’t blame alcohol.
I realised I worked to feel valued
My drinking taught me that the first step to becoming un-addicted to anything is to simply stop doing the thing.
But, obviously, since we have to work to earn money, total abstinence isn’t possible when it comes to work addiction.
Luckily for me, I was in a position where I could take a step back and examine my work addiction before it reached breaking point.
I was forced to get ‘curious’ about two key things: the emotional needs that work was fulfilling for me, and why.
Data published by the Office for National Statistics revealed that 17.5 million sick days were taken last year by workers who cited mental health conditions – including stress, depression and anxiety. (File image)
That’s exactly the same approach I applied to quitting alcohol. Getting to the heart of our emotional attachment to whatever we are addicted to – with the help of a therapist or other mental health professional if needed – is the key to loosening its hold on us.
In my case, I identified that I’d been using work to feel valued, and like I had a reason to exist. Deep-seated financial insecurity resulting from growing up in a single-parent household where money was always scarce was also a factor.
Once I got clear on what was fuelling my addiction, I could take steps to address these core issues.
This has meant recognising that I am equally needed as a daughter, wife, sister and friend, and giving equal priority to these roles in my life.
So rather than saying ‘yes’ to every job or opportunity I’m offered, I’ve learned to question my motives for taking it on.
I’ve even got a post-it on my desktop with the following three questions: ‘Does this fit with my agenda? Does it pay what I need? Do I have the time and energy?’ I have to answer yes to at least two before I take on something new.
There are now strict boundaries on my email and social media use – I delete Instagram from my phone each night, and have banned myself from checking my inbox at the weekend.
If anything, my Gmail meltdown taught me that if an opportunity is meant to find me, it will.
For example, during the ten days I was locked out of my account, a producer at Good Morning America tracked me down on Facebook to ask me to go on the show.
And finally, I’ve confronted the feelings of guilt that accompany having an ‘unproductive’ day.
While society might tell us otherwise, I remind myself that doing nothing doesn’t make me lazy.
Now, instead of filling my weekends with yet more deadlines, I’ve rediscovered my childhood love of novels, the satisfaction of a good crossword, and the feelgood factor of taking time to chat to a friend on the phone, versus just following them online.
Not every waking minute has to be about proving myself and my value in the world.
Sometimes, it’s enough to just be.
Sober Curious, by Ruby Warrington, is out now, published by HarperOne.
What to read, watch and do
The Comparison Cure: How To Be Less ‘Them’ And More ‘You’, by Lucy Sheridan
Perfect for social-media obsessives who are constantly comparing their lives to their Facebook friends. Packed with practical tips and exercises to build self-confidence and self-worth.
Orion Spring, £14.99
Lucy Sheridan’s book (left) is packed with practical tips and exercises to build self-confidence and self-worth. Right, having lost 12 stone, chef Tom Kerridge helps 11 overweight volunteers through the same challenge
Lose Weight And Get Fit With Tom Kerridge
Having lost 12 stone, chef Tom Kerridge helps 11 overweight volunteers through the same challenge. As well as intensive exercises, there are low-calorie meals cooked by Tom.
Wednesday, 8.30pm, BBC2
Visit Bethlem Museum of the Mind
The museum in Kent documents the lives of mentally ill people through the ages. A new exhibition focuses on women with psychiatric disturbances and the striking artwork they created.
From Wednesday, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Beckenham, free.