In January last year I was excluded from my Gmail account. I had no access to my business emails for more than ten days.
What would you do if it happened to you?
Mumbling a little, a few frustrated calls for technical support and maybe to fix it, maybe?
Not me. I had a complete and total collapse. I remember the nausea, the anger.
In the morning it happened, when I frantically put different passwords into my iPhone in an attempt to access my inbox, I actually started hyperventilating. My husband tried to reason with me – and received the full power of my wrath in return.
Ruby Warrington (above): ‘In January last year I was excluded from my Gmail account. I had no access to my work e-mails for more than ten days … I had a complete and total collapse. I remember the nausea, the anger ‘
I have my own media company and my e-mails were an integral part of my livelihood. It was a “catastrophe”.
I spent a lot of time in the coming days with the Google help desk trying to regain access.
They remained calm and polite, but I was intrusive and tended to be aggressive.
The way I responded was completely disproportionate, I can see that now. But at the time – although I didn’t know it – I was in the grip of an addiction, which I believe often hides in full view and can have serious consequences for our health.
I’m talking about a work addiction.
Fortunately, I accepted more … and then I put on my seat belt
Two years ago I wrote in The Mail on Sunday about how I had stopped drinking. I was not an alcoholic, or at least not what you would think you would be. I would have a few glasses three or four nights a week social, and an occasional burst at the weekend.
On one occasion I woke up with blood in my hair, fell and hit my head the night before. Instead of going to A&E, I was just stumbling into bed.
Then there was time, when I drove home from a party in Ibiza with two glasses of wine, I came inches from a quick collision that would have been my fault.
Every time I was shaken heavily.
As a younger woman I did not consider my experiences as something unusual. However, gradually I realized that my relationship with alcohol was not healthy. I spent most of my free time on tipsy or slightly hung up.
Ruby noticed how wonderful she felt after long periods of total abstinence. She then went freelance and wrote a book about her experiences with alcohol. She now wonders if the real reason she drank was to stop working
My alcohol intake never affected my work performance, but after entering a dream job as editor of a glossy magazine, I had my first experience with burnout.
In an effort to constantly do better, I took on more and more responsibilities and noticed that I was finally falling under pressure.
I had digestive problems, insomnia and slight fatigue. I was often troubled – even at the office.
I started to question the impact of alcohol on me and in the coming months and years I experimented with ever longer periods of total abstinence from alcohol. I soon realized how wonderful I felt.
I had fewer stomach problems, more energy, clarity and focus.
I went freelance and wrote a book, Sober Curious, about all this – I also traveled all over the world, gave lectures on the subject.
When I read back that first article I wrote for this newspaper, I gave all sorts of reasons not to drink. Among them was that as an independent writer I had to ‘always’ be ‘on’. I reasoned I didn’t have time to have a hangover.
But now I wonder if the real reason I drank, sometimes exaggerated, was because it was the only way to get rid of the work – without the escape hatch, the work quickly took over my life.
Respond to business emails in bed
So how do you get 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 committed to work. By making yourself an “indispensable” member of the team, you can create a sense of satisfaction and belonging. And there is 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 out of ten Britons check their work emails while on vacation – a quarter say they do this “very often.”
I have read numerous similar investigations that show that a large number of people are regularly “obsessed” hours after work with their work and answer emails even in bed.
I wonder if the real reason I drank, sometimes exaggerated, was because it was the only way to get rid of work – without the escape hatch, work began to take over my life quickly
It is not a healthy state of affairs.
Data published by the Office for National Statistics revealed that last year, 17.5 million days of illness were taken by employees who cited mental illness – including stress, depression, and anxiety.
Experts have come up with terms such as “micro-stress” and “anticipatory stress” to describe the fear caused by constant contact, via e-mail, with the office.
Whatever you call it, long-term stress is known to increase the risk of insomnia, weight gain and health problems.
And a large study by the Mental Health Foundation showed that nearly three-quarters of adults felt so stressed last year that they could not have made it.
A third said they felt suicidal due to stress, and one in seven had harmed themselves.
Even the World Health Organization has added “burnout” to its diagnosis manual.
It describes “feelings of exhaustion or exhaustion” in combination with negativity, cynicism and “reduced professional efficiency” due to “chronic stress in the workplace”.
I nodded in agreement with all this when I read it.
Pushing so hard made me proud
I first learned to equate work with my self-esteem at a very young age. My younger brother suffered from serious health problems and my mother gave him, understandably, a lot of attention.
Then I discovered at about five o’clock that getting a gold star at school might strike me.
I was a true A student and when I told a teacher at the university that I had been working on an essay all night, I was praised for my dedication.
“In the real world there are no things like swots – only professional people,” the professor said.
And when I started to establish my career as a journal journalist, I was secretly proud that I could work “harder” than anyone else.
In my early years of freelancing, I would never say no to a job, even if I had to work all weekend, or get up at 4 am to meet a deadline. I would refresh my email hundreds of times a day, playing it like a slot machine that would award prizes in the form of new commissions.
“I identified that I had used work to feel appreciated, and as if I had a reason to exist … Now, instead of filling my weekends with even more deadlines, I have rediscovered my childhood love for novels, the satisfaction of a good crossword and the feel-good factor of taking time to chat with a friend on the phone, “says Ruby
Instead of feeling empty, I got a huge buzz from myself constantly pushing harder.
Enter alcohol as a way to physically force me to close my laptop.
Even after I stopped drinking, I’d brag about publishing and promoting three books in as many years, simultaneously launching two podcasts, running my online magazine, organizing monthly events and retreats, and growing my Instagram account to more than 100,000 followers.
The problem was that I found it difficult to put down my laptop and just stop. When I did that, feelings of depression and hopelessness began to creep in.
Before I had my Gmail melting point, I had been juggling for so long that a small mistake was enough to send me over the edge.
It turned out that the IT person I paid to set up my e-mail had closed his business and left the country – without notifying me.
This meant that all six of my business email accounts had been suspended. And without any way to contact him, because all his data was in my email inbox, it took more than a week to get back online.
My career was not in ruins. The world had not stopped turning. But there was a problem. Me. And this time I couldn’t blame alcohol.
I realized that I was working to feel appreciated
My drinking taught me that the first step to becoming addicted to nothing is simply to stop doing the thing.
But it is clear that, since we have to work to make money, total abstinence is not possible when it comes to work addiction.
Fortunately, I was in a position where I could take a step back and examine my work addiction before it reached the breaking point.
I was forced to become “curious” about two important things: the emotional needs that work fulfilled for me, and why.
Data published by the Office for National Statistics revealed that last year, 17.5 million days of illness were taken by employees who cited mental illness – including stress, depression, and anxiety. (File image)
That is exactly the same approach that I applied when quitting alcohol. Getting to the core of our emotional attachment to what we are addicted to – with the help of a therapist or other mental health professional if needed – is the key to unleashing our hold on us.
In my case, I found that I had used work to feel appreciated and as if I had a reason to exist. Deep-rooted financial uncertainty as a result of growing up in a single-parent family where money was always scarce was also a factor.
Once I understood what fed my addiction, I was able to take steps to address these core issues.
This means that I must acknowledge that I need as much as daughter, wife, sister, and friend, and that I give these roles equal priority in my life.
So instead of saying ‘yes’ to every job or opportunity I get, I have learned to question my motives for taking on.
I even have a post-it on my desktop with the following three questions: “Does this fit in my calendar? Does it pay for what I need? Do I have the time and energy? I have to answer at least two yes before I accept something new.
There are now strict limits on my email and social media use – I remove Instagram from my phone every night and have banned myself from checking my inbox at the weekend.
My meltdown of Gmail has taught me that if there is a chance to find me, that will happen.
For example, during the ten days that I was excluded from my account, a Good Morning America producer tracked me down on Facebook to ask me to go to the show.
And finally I have been confronted with the guilt that comes with having an “unproductive” day.
Although society may tell us differently, I remind myself that doing nothing does not make me lazy.
Now, instead of filling my weekends with even more deadlines, I compared my childhood love for novels, the satisfaction of a good crossword, and the feel-good factor of taking time to chat with a friend on the phone to just rediscover online.
Not every wake-up minute has to be about proving myself and my value in the world.
Sometimes it’s enough to get used to it.
Sober Curious, by Ruby Warrington, is now available, published by HarperOne.
What to read, view and do
The Comparison Cure: How To Less “Them” And More “You”, by Lucy Sheridan
Perfect for obsessive social media who constantly compare their lives with their Facebook friends. Packed with practical tips and exercises to build confidence and self-esteem.
Orion Spring, £ 14.99
Lucy Sheridan’s book (left) is packed with practical tips and exercises to build confidence and self-esteem. Precisely, with 12 stones lost, chef Tom Kerridge helps 11 overweight volunteers through the same challenge
Lose weight and get fit with Tom Kerridge
Chef Tom Kerridge has lost 12 stones and helps 11 overweight volunteers through the same challenge. In addition to intensive exercises, there are low-calorie meals prepared by Tom.
Wednesday 8.30 p.m., BBC2
Visit the Bethlem Museum of the Mind
The museum in Kent documents the lives of the mentally ill throughout the centuries. A new exhibition focuses on women with psychiatric disorders and the striking artworks they created.
From Wednesday, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Beckenham, free.