A lot of people have a job that negatively impacts their health to some extent. It might be mental health, or it might be physical health. Perhaps your stress levels are too high, perhaps you don’t sleep properly, perhaps you skip meals or buy junk food or have extremely low activity levels because of your job. If so, you need to make a change.
Employers may tell you ‘health comes first’. But often, it seems insincere: something that HR have told them to say so that they don’t get sued for neglecting occupational health.
Sometimes when people have said it, ‘health comes first’, I’ve believed that they really do think that health should come first. But does it? No. Not until you’re hospitalised (or threatening to leave your job) and they are forced to be accommodating or risk losing you permanently. Or, even if they believe it with every bone in their body, perhaps they just don’t have the resources or authority to actually make ‘health first’ a reality.
But whatever the situation, you should never let it get to the point where your health tangibly declines before you or your employer starts valuing it.
It’s 100% true that if you do not make time for better health now, you will have to make time for illness later.
So, with this in mind, I quit my job.
It’s been 3 months since I handed in my notice. A month and a half since my official last day as a contracted employee.
I spent the last two years working for a major marketing agency. I loved where I worked. I loved the company. I loved my colleagues. I loved my clients. I loved the projects that I worked on. I loved the recognition that I was doing a good job.
But I think I always knew that it was unsustainable in the long-term. Sometimes, there’d be a late finish. Like 2.30am on a Friday, the week before a campaign launch. Or you’d work 12 days in a row. Probably due to a major event, they'd be longer, more stressful days than ‘normal’ too. The end result of your efforts was always incredible, though. You'd be proud of what your team had achieved and you'd feel like your sacrifices were worth it.
But truly, it's not worth it. Nothing is worth the sacrifice of your long-term health.
For some people, we really are talking long-term. The side effects of an unhealthy lifestyle may not manifest significantly for months, years, or even decades. But if you have a chronic condition, especially one that is ‘life-limiting’ and requires daily treatment, like Cystic Fibrosis, there isn’t really much margin for error.
So, here’s a scenario:
I was due to leave work at 6pm, go and do a workout with a friend, and then go home to do all of my other prescribed treatments for CF; the tablets, inhalers, nebulisers, physiotherapy, food. But at 5.57pm, something came up at the office.
Immediately, I was flooded with anxiety. My heart was racing and I couldn’t think straight. For every few minutes that I was staying in the office, that was one less treatment I could do to keep myself alive. The logistical nightmare in my head was consuming me. I knew that for every minute I sat there at my laptop, my anxiety would get worse. And knowing that made my anxiety worse. I felt like I should have been focusing on the task at hand to get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible, but I just couldn’t.
My thoughts felt uncontrollable. I’d try and push them out of my mind to focus on my work. But in the same heartbeat I’d be desperately trying to focusing on thoughts, scrabbling for a solution. Constant internal conflict. And it was paralysing.
I’d be thinking about:
- Whether I still had time to the gym
- If I did, how much time? And what was the most effective workout I could do in that time? Would there be space? Would the equipment be free?
- If not, could I do something else? Perhaps I could go for a run when I got home? What was the weather like? Would it still be light?
- Some of my inhalers and nebulisers are best done before exercise, so if I go home first, I should do those. Which would be most beneficial? Do I have time?
- Am I any closer to leaving the office? Do I still have time to exercise at all?
- If I don’t exercise, should I do more physiotherapy? What type of physio will I find most effective today? Do I even have the energy? If I do it after eating, will it make me feel ill?
- Why do I feel shaky? When did I last eat? Shall I go and get a snack now or will is just postpone me getting home? Will I hit my calorie intake for today? If I don’t, will I have the energy to workout tomorrow? Will my weight drop? Will it affect my lung function?
- What shall I eat when I get home? Will it be quicker to get a takeaway? Will that takeaway make me feel sluggish? Will junk food cause inflammation that will worsen my health? Can I even afford to buy take out?
- If I cook, how long will it take? Do I have time to do my treatments while it’s cooking? How much time do I need to leave between them?
- If I only have time to do one, which one? Which do I find more effective? Which takes longest? Will I have the energy to wash and sterilise them when I’m done?
So much to think about. And that’s only the half of it.
Finally, on this particular day at just gone 8pm, having managed not to cry, I left to go home.
I got home 50 minutes later. I sat on my living room floor and then came the tears. I called my mum. I cried. 40 minutes passed. Why am I still sitting on the floor in the dark? I realised that was ridiculous. So I cried. My boyfriend came home and told me to go to bed. That was all I wanted, to be honest. Sleep. And the reassurance that rest was what I needed most at that moment.
Food eaten? Zero. Workouts done? Zero. Treatments done? Zero. Energy remaining? You guessed it. Zero.
Although this didn’t happen every day, I was on edge every day, thinking that it might, and using up a lot of mental energy trying to anticipate and plan in case it did. Each time this happened, I felt frustrated and guilty that I’d missed treatments, workouts, food.... And then the next time it occurred, more frustration and guilt piled on top of that. I didn’t feel that I was ever fully able to recover mentally or physically.
It got too much. I was sobbing on the phone to my parents. Frequently going to bed without eating or doing any of my treatments because I was just mentally exhausted by the very thought of it. Rarely doing anything that I loved outside of my work.
One Friday, I had my regular Cystic Fibrosis clinic appointment scheduled. My clinic is out of London at a specialist centre closer to my parents house, so I’d drive to my parents and stay there the night before.
On this occasion, I had been at my parents’ house for 5-10 minutes before I caught sight of myself in the mirror and saw that my face and my white T-shirt were mascara stained from the sobbing I’d done a couple of hours beforehand as I left London. Of the 4 people in the house, no one had pointed it out to me. Because it wasn’t even surprising anymore.
And why had I been crying that time? I couldn’t find my headphones before leaving the house. Yep, it was those tiny things that were just tipping me over the edge. I was exhausted.
As it happens, it was at my appointment the next day, that Friday, that I decided to quit my job.
That appointment where I decided to quit my job
At each of my CF clinic appointments, this is what happens:
- I have my height and weight checked
- I do spirometry (lung function) tests to check how the volume and speed at which you can move air out of your lungs
- I see a dietician
- I see a physiotherapist
- And finally, I see a specialist Cystic Fibrosis consultant
My lung function tests have always been strong and something that I’ve been really proud of. They’ve been consistently above 100%.
What does that mean?
100% is average for someone in the general (non-CF) population of my age, gender, height and weight. So I was consistently above average. That’s great considering CF is a condition that really severely affects the lungs. Through most of my childhood and early adulthood, some of my results have even peaked above 120%.
When you have a chronic condition affecting the lungs, it’s expected that your results will fall over time as you incur lung damage. Thanks to consistent hard work, mine had stayed reasonably consistent and I felt reasonably invincible.
A big wake up call came for me a couple of years ago when, for the first time, one of my results dipped below 100%. It was an anomaly. Perhaps I’d been ill at the time. But then this year, it dipped below 100 once again, and then again. (Side note for anyone wondering: I did flag this to my managers at work, and explained the time-intensive protocol for turning things around).
So, back to this appointment. I wasn’t feeling confident. The stress of the last couple of months worried me because CF is a condition characterised by chronic inflammation, and stress causes inflammation.
First lung function test of 8. I hardly cleared 80%. Fuck.
Next one. Bit better, not by much. Fuck.*
Attempt 4. Half way. Still in the 80s. I announce to my mum and a slightly out-of-her-depth Respiratory Physiologist, ‘if I don’t hit 90%, I’m quitting my job on Monday’.
Attempt 8. 89%.
I felt really relieved. Upset for a lot of reasons, too. But above all, I knew that a big factor in my lung function decline was my lifestyle, and I’d just taken the first (terrifying) step towards fixing it. I actually felt kind of calm. For a while, I’d had the looming thought that at some point I might have to seriously start thinking about leaving my job. But when I saw that result, my gut instinct made the decision for me.
Can you feel my relief? I literally felt my shoulders relax as I wrote that.
But then, just as quickly as I had made that decision and started to feel in control of my life again, I was hit by a bus. Not literally.
It was time to see the consultant. Having reviewed my lung function results alongside a recent scan, he was recommending intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Aggressive ones that would feel as bad as chemotherapy. For up to 3 months. With 18 months of follow up treatments. There’s a good chance they’d make me feel unable to exercise, eat well or sleep properly - all of the things that have kept me well for 27 years. He suggested perhaps I might not want to leave my job because employment stability may be beneficial (and, let’s be honest, statutory sick pay would be handy).
See how this all started to just feel really shitty again?
So I cried at him. And a nurse. And someone else that came into the room. I can’t even remember who she was (but I remember she had great hair).
I don’t really remember what happened after that. Probably someone came to do some blood tests. I probably had prescription items to collect. But what I do remember, is that once I had that gut instinct to leave my job and focus on my health, the idea of staying actually felt worse. That’s how I knew I was making the right decision.
I will never ever go down without a fight. So the thought of working to the point that I end up in hospital (sick pay or no), was not an option.
I discussed it with my family and my doctors (though my mind was pretty much already made): if there’s even a chance that by quitting my job and focusing all of my energy on my health, I can avoid being pumped full of horrendous, debilitating chemicals, I’m going to fucking take it.
So that is what I did. I quit.
On Monday morning I spoke to HR. That day was so full of anxiety, but also full of hope.
There were people who cried when I handed in my notice. Me included. It was a shitty situation. But I had to stay strong, commit to my decision, and trust that it would work out for the best.
Well, it has.
I’m not out of the woods yet, but things are better.
In my first week away from an office, I worked out 8 times and I did all of my treatments. After 2 weeks, my lung function was back over 90%. A month later, it was up again. I'm still not at the 100% mark, but that’s what I’m aiming for next. Actually, if I’m aiming for something, let’s make it 110%.
I still might need that hideous treatment, though. I will have repeat lung function tests and a repeat scan in January and after that, after I’ve given it my best shot, if the doctors still recommend IVs, I’ll do it. Albeit probably a little reluctantly.
What am I doing now?
I knew that I needed a job that was a little more flexible. I love working and I love having a project. I work hard and passionately, but I also need the ability to work flexibly to keep my health in check. So, I’m doing what I love as a freelancer.
My first freelance role is as Chief Marketing Officer for an amazing company called Pactster who create online workouts specially designed for specific health conditions. One of those conditions is Cystic Fibrosis, so it perfectly suits my background in marketing, my passion for health, and my expert knowledge in that niche.
I’m also taking on other marketing consultancy work with small brands in the health and fitness sector, doing some freelance writing, finally taking my personal training course with No1 Fitness Education and I have a few other exciting things in the pipeline, too.
And of course, I’m back to blogging. After almost a year of being dormant (sorry! And also, thank you for your support during that time) I can’t wait to share with you a heap of insights on how to live healthier. There's lots lined up.
I am so excited for life right now. I have had so many bombs dropped, major changes of plan and new opportunities over the last few months, and I’m so lucky to have had unwavering support from the people around me.
It hasn’t always been easy as I’ve ventured into the unknown but I feel so calm about it. I have no idea what the next couple of months will hold but I can’t bloody wait.
- If you do not make time for better health now, you will have to make time for illness later. With this in mind, I quit my job with a major marketing agency to take control of my health
- I loved my job but the stress and long hours weren’t sustainable for me alongside managing Cystic Fibrosis. In the last few months, I was sobbing on the phone to my parents and frequently going to bed without eating or doing any of my medical treatments because I was mentally exhausted by thought of them
- I made the final decision to quit my job when my lung function declined. During the lung function tests at my CF clinic appointment I decided ‘if I don’t hit 90%, I’m quitting my job on Monday’. 89%
- Now, my health is on it’s way back up, and I’ve decided that the a more flexible lifestyle is my best shot at keeping it there. With amazing experience behind me and a whole lot of passion, I’m now working as a freelance marketing consultant and writer. I’m qualifying as a personal trainer, and my blog is back up and running. Say hello to nataliejohanna.com!
Disclaimer:I don’t usually swear this much. I actually feel kind of bad about it. But hey, I’m just being honest - that's what was going on in my head throughout a very turbulent few months. Profanities within my vocabulary have now subsided again.