My honest answer to “How are you?”

How many times have I served the “I’m fine” line to colleagues and friends knowing how far from true it was? For the first time in months, I’d like to answer “How are you?” honestly.

With the New Year in 2017 I started a brand new job as a UX designer at Spektrix. New beginning, I was very excited. The company was great, everyone was friendly and passionate about their job. I perceived a lot of warmth and care from the environment, I felt welcome. To this day I still have a very bright, sunny memory of my first months. It was a very positive change for me.

The job itself also felt great. I was working closely with the engineering team, our product analyst and our visual designer to improve a new user interface they had started building for the company’s core product. There was a lot to do, but I was excited to have challenges to go after. My interest in UX was at its peak and I got to experiment with newly learned tools and techniques everyday. It felt like a very productive time, I was exactly where I wanted to be.

And then things stalled. For me at least.

As a reaction to business priorities, the focus of the engineering was moved away from building this new UI to other more pressing and valuable improvements to our products. It was a good change for the company but I found myself without much to do. For a while I continued to explore improvements for the new UI. But it quickly became obvious it wouldn’t be a priority for a while.

The new priorities did require a bit of help from me, but I struggled to keep my focus. I wasn’t engaged. It took me a few weeks to realise I had an issue.

But it eventually became very clear to me: I had no visibility over the company’s priorities and goals, and therefore I couldn’t find purpose for my work. With no direction, I felt useless and lost. And seeing how the engineering team was doing I was sure I wasn’t the only one with that feeling.

So I decided to go after that problem. In the following months I went from raising my concerns to the team and senior management, to putting in place a better prioritisation process for our product development, and set for myself the ambitious mission to change product management in the company for the best. I ended up naturally taking up the role of Product Manager in the company before the end of 2017.

Going on that mission felt great at first. It dissipated my feeling of unease and gave me a purpose. My work became more challenging and meaningful. This whole journey would need its own blog post, so I won’t go into any details.

What I can say though, is that it was far from easy. Like anyone else trying to make change happen, I ran into many roadblocks and experienced setbacks. Often when I thought we were making good progress, I was proved otherwise by the team or management going back to old habits and ways of working. One step forward, two steps backward.

But every time I felt defeated, disappointed, frustrated, I doubled down on my goals. I kept going, changed strategy, tried a new angle, worked harder, moved an inch closer to my goals.

Since I started, my goals have grown more and more ambitious as challenges in the company arise and become more complex. As a consequence, my role has evolved radically. I’ve taken on more and more responsibilities. And I still use the same tactic to put me back on track whenever I’m down: refocus on my purpose to keep going.

The problem is that the trick is wearing off and I might be feeling down a lot more often than I should be.

I’ve been aware of my discomfort for a while, but so far I’ve resisted from acknowledging it as a problem that requires attention and care. Actually, I’ve become so good at pumping myself up when I’m low, that I get into a sort of “high” for a couple days afterwards. And I tend to forget I was ever feeling bad. Until I dive again a few days later. These last few days, this roller coaster ride has impacted my work and life so much that I can’t really ignore it any more.

During bad days, I feel like I’m moving underwater. Every task takes twice the effort it requires, I struggle to focus on anything. At times, I’m completely numb, unable to proceed information or make decisions. Result: I’m doing half of what I could normally do with a lot more pain, and it fills me with frustration and guilt.

In the evenings, I’m getting home mentally exhausted. I’m having a hard time enjoying my time outside of work. I’m increasingly absent and bored, I get irritated about the smallest things. Which means I’m probably not great with my partner right now.

Cause or consequence? Isolation has also become a burden. I spend my day at work engaging with a myriad of people: engineers, client-facing team members, senior management, etc. But I’m missing meaningful human connections. The worse I feel, the further away I drift from other people.

Burnout? Nervous breakdown? Depression? It would be easy to use one of these words to describe my situation but they sound huge to me, and conjure a lot of implications I’m not ready to embrace.

Burnout would suggest I am overloaded with work.

That might be one part of the problem, but I know there are other, more complex, factors involved. And they’re not (all) work-related.

I have thought about this workload aspect a lot though. Could I be doing more work than I can handle? Should I take a step down and give up some of my responsibilities? Let someone else step in? I went through a lot of hard-to-accept implications about my performance, which might have kept me from acknowledging the problem earlier in fear of consequences for my role.

I also questioned whether the pressure was coming from the company. Without doubt, Spektrix is very busy at the moment. As we grow we have a lot of challenges to solve, for everyone in the business. But everyone is aware we won’t get everything done at once, and we’re all working together with that key understanding. We work hard, but we take care of our people.

Truth is I love my job. And where I am. Spektrix, my team… I have found something I am good at and which gives me purpose. I have a clear vision for the changes I’m trying to bring to life. I am deeply committed to making that vision true, and that means I have high expectations for my role.

And even though I often remind myself that I’m doing a good job, I’ll always strive for more. So I sometimes feel guilty for not doing enough. And same thing happens with all the things I’m passionate about (drawing, painting…). I self pressure.

It’s funny how the things that fulfil you sometimes become the things that hurt you.

Today was Time to Talk Day, organised by the charity Time to Change. It’s meant to be a chance for everyone to talk more openly about mental health. I couldn’t have found a better time to write that post!

Today I also finally reached out to someone I trust and tried to explain how I feel. I realise that by keeping this issue to myself and letting it fester, I was be making a disservice to the people I care about. And to myself of course.

I wish I had spotted the problem 8 months ago for what it was, i.e. not dissatisfaction with my job but something more complex that needed attention. Although I can’t regret the turn my career has taken since then. Silver lining?

I don’t know what comes next, but acknowledging the situation, talking about it and breaking the isolation seemed like sensible first steps. I sincerely hope it will make a difference.

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