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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

My Ex-Employer Failed Me When I Burnt Out. Here’s What I Actually Needed.

cutout image of Chloe Brooks sitting down placed against a white arch on a blue background with a navy star intersecting the arch
Bailey Zelena; Courtesy of Chloe Brooks

This is the story of a frog. A frog in a pot who didn’t see the simmering bubbles until it was too late.

Actually, it’s the story of how I burnt out to the point of utter uselessness at my first job after college. There are no frogs in this story whatsoever. But to this day, whenever someone uses that analogy of the poor amphibian obliviously boiling away, I remember hustling myself sick at that toxic marketing agency.

I joined the company the September after I graduated journalism school at Arizona State, ghostwriting SEO blog posts for the agency’s clients. It was almost too easy—the assignments were short and the writing was formulaic, but I loved getting to learn something new each day.

The company was young and growing quickly, and in October, the CEO leased a new, larger office across town. The move effectively doubled my commute—I now spent two hours each way on public transportation.

Only two months in, I received my first promotion in a double whammy of new responsibilities. I was now the copy manager, in charge of a copywriter and our growing roster of blogging clients. I was also the office manager, with my own key and credit card.

The promotion didn’t come with a pay increase, and I didn’t ask for one. I didn’t know I was supposed to, or maybe I thought it was too soon. I was excited and happy to stretch into a new challenge, and if things had stayed this way, I might never have written this essay.

But by spring the burner had crept up to a steady medium-high.

I needed therapy. Instead, I was given a gym pass.

In March, I was promoted again, this time to the hybrid position of “Marketing/Content Manager.” I also retained my office manager role. This time I fought for a raise, but when granted, it came contingent on arbitrary marketing goals. I started stressing, unable to separate my own performance from that of the accounts I managed.

And there was another layer of stress I was coping with, too, completely unrelated to my job. A state away in California, my mom was dying of cancer, her condition deteriorating each month. In April, I flew home to be with her for emergency surgery. In May, I surprised her for what would be her last Mother’s Day and was present as her doctors began discussing palliative care. I spent the flight back from that visit weeping into my pinot grigio.

In hindsight, I needed therapy to help me navigate both the new pressures I faced at work and the traumatic changes in my family. I don’t remember whether the company health plan covered mental health services—if it did, it wasn’t normalized or encouraged. In this company, with a CEO whose background was in fitness training, “wellness” mostly referred to its physical aspects.

This became all the more pronounced when the company rebranded as a fitness marketing agency that spring. My direct supervisor and I now had to visit gyms across our metro several times per week, on our own time, capitalizing on free first visits to sneakily pitch the company’s services. This gave me a major case of the icks and forced me into an endless loop of intense hot yoga, spin, and bootcamp classes. One early-morning HIIT class left me vomiting from exertion.

I needed the chance to relax. Instead, I was trapped in a chronic stress cycle.

It’s difficult to write about this period of my life because my memories of it are fuzzy and few. And I was so consumed with overwork that I no longer journaled or blogged for myself. In recovery, years later, I would learn that this memory gap is a hallmark of the chronic stress that is burnout.

All it takes to activate your body’s stress response is a feeling that your safety or stability is threatened—whether you’re running from a hungry lion for dear life, or sweating through another barre class to close a deal when all you wanted to do was write.

First, your body produces the “stress hormones” adrenaline and cortisol, triggering your fight or flight instinct. Your amygdala takes over from your prefrontal cortex, heightening threat perception and anxiety, and suppressing complex thought, decision-making, and short-term memory.

You’re primed to survive imminent danger for a short period of time. Once the threat has passed, everything is supposed to return to normal, completing the stress cycle. High alert was never meant to be your base temperature. But the more your stress response activates, the more difficult it is to return to normal, until eventually, you can’t.

The extra blood flow to your amygdala atrophies the areas of your brain that control your executive functions (prefrontal cortex), learning and memory (hippocampus), and coordination and movement (basal ganglia). Everything feels like a threat, so you’re more anxious, defensive, and irritable. You can’t think clearly anymore, so you feel scatterbrained and irrational. It’s harder to focus, harder to remember, harder to learn. Morale and willpower are extremely low. You’re clumsy and on edge. You’re trapped in fight-or-flight mode.

When my startle response became a running joke in the office, I was mortified. I didn’t want to be the girl who jumped and screamed whenever the phone rang or someone spoke to me. But my nervous system was so dysregulated I physically couldn’t control myself. I was covered in new bruises from running into door frames and tripping on my own feet. Once, I fell to my knees in the office, skinning them like a five-year-old on the playground.

Then one morning, I woke up unable to put weight on the right side of my body. I couldn’t roll over in bed without support. Attempting to stand caused excruciating pain in my hip and lower back. It felt muscular. It felt skeletal. It felt broken.

Something was jammed or compacted, according to the chiropractor who carefully questioned me about my workday, lifestyle, and sleep habits, nodding attentively the whole time. “Wow, that’s a lot,” he said gently, and chalked up my injury to too many hours in a cheap Ikea chair plus too many strenuous HIIT workouts.

It took several weekly appointments for my back to heal. As the massage roller table worked its way up and down my spine, I tried and failed to work out how I’d gotten here.

Chloe Brooks and her mom on Mother's Day 2016
Mother's Day 2016
| Courtesy of Chloe Brooks

I needed a reasonable amount of work. Instead, my list of responsibilities just kept growing and growing.

It’s easy to trace now. What I lack in personal journals, I make up for in copious work notes chronicling an unrelenting expansion of responsibility:

  • My March promotion meant that on top of managing our copywriter, I now owed my bosses a weekly blog post, a weekly email newsletter, and daily posting and engagement on four social media platforms.
  • In April, we launched a weekly podcast, adding show notes, another newsletter, and another set of social media accounts.
  • In May, the CEO decided we should get into guest blogging. Now I had to research and pitch publications, write those extra articles, and recruit and edit guest bloggers for our own site—while always having a backup post ready in case someone fell through.
  • In July, I was assigned to attend daily “sales/marketing huddle” meetings, which really and truly should have been emails.
  • In August, the CEO decided to build an online learning center for our customers, and it was my job to research and recommend course-building platforms.
  • That launched in September, adding a third weekly newsletter to my plate.
  • And by October, our videographer was too overworked to edit the short clips I needed for social media, so I had to learn how to do it myself.

I needed to be treated as equal to my coworkers. Instead, my gender determined my workload.

As my assigned duties grew, I also became the default dumping ground for miscellaneous tasks:

  • I was the only one to wash the 20 dirty coffee cups and moldy French press that crowded the kitchen for days after we hosted a small event.
  • I cleaned out the communal fridge for months, until one Friday I put my foot down and declared it a rotating task.
  • I was asked to recruit and vet candidates, sometimes for roles I’d never heard of (what even is a comptroller?!).
  • I was tasked with onboarding all new hires, even though we had an HR department. I found our onboarding documents needed extensive updates, so I did that, too.
  • I was put in charge of the CEO’s calendar and scheduling.
  • I was asked to take notes in meetings where I wasn’t an attendee.
  • It was my job to shop for the office Christmas tree and ornaments, which I did on my lunch break, and to take everything down in January.

Unbeknownst to me, I’d fallen into a well-documented trap for professional women. Research has found that women are asked to volunteer for “non-promotable tasks”—like office housework, event planning, and supporting colleagues—44% more often than men are, and when asked, women are 49% more likely than men to say yes.

The personalized gifts the CEO gave us, each bearing an office nickname, should have been a big clue—mine read, “Team Mom.”

As my workload exploded in all directions, signs of stress began showing up almost immediately. I couldn’t see a difference yet, but my boyfriend did. “When we are together sometimes you seem disinterested or like there’s other things going on,” he messaged me in April.

“I’ve had a hard time staying present in conversations lately,” I replied. “I think I have a shorter attention span and I think it’s because I’m exhausted all the time now.” My poor, shrunken prefrontal cortex just couldn’t quite connect the next dot: I was exhausted all the time because I was working all the time.

I needed to feel as though my concerns were heard and valued. Instead, I got a lecture on the benefits of stress.

I wasn’t the only one having a hard time. Our target numbers kept climbing even when we didn’t hit them for a month, then two.

Once, an account manager spoke up about the unrealistic goals set for us. In response, the CEO gave an impromptu and tone-deaf lecture on the benefits of stress (he also took issue with the word “realistic”).

If I spend even a beat in this memory, I start to re-experience the blinding, crushing feeling of standing there in a circle with my coworkers, desperately trying not to be the only one in tears as my stomach dropped to my toes and my chest refused to inflate. By then, I knew I was struggling professionally, but the person responsible for my paycheck and my workload had just stood in front of me and essentially said, “It’s not that bad. Get over it.”

Even now, just flipping through my old work notebooks makes my palms sweat and my mouth go dry and my blood pound in my ears. I’ve cried nearly every day that I’ve worked on this piece as it revealed memories I’d buried out of self-preservation. I’m grieving, processing trauma that I was too busy surviving to feel.

But I feel it now. I feel incandescently angry for Past Chloe, who stood there patiently waiting for the boss to finish gaslighting his entire staff so she could get back to work.

screenshot of a tweet from Chloe Brooks that reads, “Boss: Your makeup looks nice today, did you do something different with it?” Me: “Yeah, I put it on.” dated August 19, 2016, set against a blue background with a navy star at the bottom right corner
Bailey Zelena; Courtesy of Chloe Brooks

I still needed a lighter workload. Instead, I was pushed into freelancing on top of my full-time role.

Things really hit a boil in June, when my copywriter was fired for poor performance. To avoid rehiring for a role he wanted to phase out, the CEO pushed me into taking the job on a freelance basis, somehow convincing me that an additional full-time role would be an easy side hustle. But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be called a hustle.

I was officially overworked now, even from my skewed perspective. I stayed later and later at the office, making all kinds of excuses to justify the time—just 30 minutes here to wrap up, just an hour there to miss traffic. Work bled into everything, infecting my relationships and turning them sour.

“I need help,” I messaged my best friend, a J-school classmate, recruiting her into my reluctant freelance arrangement. “I’m so overwhelmed, please take some of it.” Our silly, easygoing conversations took on a tense, transactional tone. “I’m buckling down on a chunk of [blogs] tonight,” I messaged her, fishing for an update at 9:57 p.m. one night, eroding her boundaries the way I was used to my boss eroding mine.

I started leaving my house at all hours of the night to get work done, afraid that proximity to my bed would tempt me into the slumber I desperately needed and put me even further behind deadline.

“It just feels like all you do is work anymore,” my boyfriend messaged in July at nearly 10 p.m. “It just stinks.” Burnt out and irritable, I responded defensively, justifying my overwork before coaxing him to accompany me to the 24-hour coffee bar, where I spent the next two hours plodding bleary-eyed through contract blogs.

“How’s your night?” he asked in August. At 11:14 p.m., I replied, “So busy. Taking a dinner break now … and then I’m writing more. Ugh.”

In September, I wrote in my meeting notes, “Step it up one more notch—accountability for little things so [CEO] can focus on big things.”

Somehow, I was surprised when I started missing deadlines. So were my bosses, who pulled me aside for one-on-ones to adjust my workload. But the tasks they reassigned barely made a dent, and now I felt singled out.

I needed a quiet space to focus on work. Instead, I was told to wear earphones.

It was becoming impossible to think in the office.

The new hires I’d onboarded all year were now a sizable—and noisy—team straining at the seams of our open floor plan. Half were constantly on the phone with clients or leads. And the agency’s new emphasis on video content meant our videographer was filming someone in the green screen corner nearly every day.

Perhaps to mask the din, the CEO decided there should always be music playing in the background. I think you can guess whose laptop it typically streamed from.

And then there was Voxer. The CEO started using the walkie-talkie app as a way to communicate with staff more easily while driving or working out, but it evolved into his main form of contact for us. The result was an extra layer of distraction and noise as people played and recorded messages.

It didn’t help that I’m a visual learner, so this method of communication made it even harder for my burnt-out brain to absorb info.

“Just put in earphones,” the CEO said when I mentioned the noise level.

He suggested over-ear headphones that were more easily visible than the in-ear buds I already used, and instructed me not to take them off when someone spoke to me. Instead, I was to lift one side just slightly to signal to the speaker that I was too busy to talk. I was too easily distracted into side conversations, he said. But now I felt shut off from the rest of the team, unable to participate in the friendly banter that characterized our office culture.

I needed the option to work remotely. Instead, I was told to read a productivity book.

The office consisted of a foyer with a desk and two club chairs, one private office, one conference room, a small kitchen, and a bullpen where the team sat elbow to elbow at Ikea Linnmon desks.

The private office was reserved for s, and the conference room was increasingly booked up with internal meetings. I scurried with my laptop from room to room as they became vacant, frenziedly drafting as many paragraphs as I could before someone kicked me out again. Once, I sought sanctuary in the hall outside our office suite, where I blissfully worked cross-legged until the CEO made me come back inside.

Finally, I broke down and asked to work from home one day a week, which I was convinced was all I needed to get back on track. The company occasionally had offsite days, working en masse from casinos, hotel lobbies, and coworkers’ poolsides as the CEO deemed fit. “We’re a mobile company—we can work on the road if need be,” I’d scribbled in my notes at one meeting.

But my request was met with a resounding “No.” We were a team, and teams worked together. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this didn’t help me feel like a valued part of it.

Instead, the CEO gave me another assignment: Spend the first hour of every workday reading the productivity book The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. That’s five hours less to tackle all the other work on my plate.

Overwhelmingly, the message I got was that I just needed to get better at time management. One of the company’s core values was “we own,” but my boss took no ownership of the numerous roles’ worth of work I was drowning in.

screenshot of a quote from a book that says, “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” set against a navy background with a yellow star. Below the screenshot are the words, “The one thing I should have done was quit that job.”
Bailey Zelena; Courtesy of Chloe Brooks

I needed a leave of absence. Instead, I was fired.

By November, just over a year after joining the company, I was a complete wreck.

One day, I woke up very, very late and promptly had a mental breakdown. There was absolutely no way I could get to work on time now, even with the car I’d bought (I couldn’t afford it, but it cut my daily commute from four hours to one). Even though it would put me more behind, I called in one of my four annual sick days, Postmated myself a latte, and spent the day feeling like an overcooked noodle.

Days later, as my now-fiancé and I were returning home from taking our engagement photos, I got the call from my dad I’d dreaded for four years. My mom’s condition was extremely critical. They weren’t sure she would make it through the night, and I needed to come home immediately.

I made the 12-hour drive alone, sobbing my way across the desert clammy-palmed. I cried my way out of a ticket, the state trooper who clocked me at 110 mph taking pity but warning that my family didn’t need two deaths today. In the end, it didn’t matter how fast I drove—she was gone hours before I finally arrived.

I told the CEO, and my direct supervisor reached out for access to my work files. At some point, they contacted me again: Policy only allowed three bereavement days, so I needed to use vacation time if I wanted to be paid for the rest of that awful week.

My first day back was full of meetings, with both clients and staff, all about how behind I was now. It was also my birthday, which I forgot until that afternoon—and I love my birthday. I ended the night on a sidewalk outside a bar, stumbling drunk, sobbing to my friends that the world was falling apart.

In December, we won a local “best place to work” award. I’d assigned everyone a daily task to vote, and our videographer had collected glowing testimonials touting our amazing culture of fun, support, and accountability. Later that week, I left work at 1:30 p.m. because I couldn't write through my tears.

On the way home from visiting my fiancé’s family for the holidays, I had my first panic attack. “Please let’s just not go back,” I begged him, but we were on the tarmac, seatbelts already buckled. We were obviously going back, and all I could do was sob with dread over returning to the office the next day.

I started having suicidal ideations during my morning commutes, intrusive thoughts urging me to slam my car into the center barrier or drive off the highway at 90 mph. I didn’t really want to die—I just wanted out.

In mid-January, I called out sick again. I didn’t know how to tell my boss I simply couldn’t make myself get out of bed. “Luckily,” I also had a fever.

Even then, sick in bed, I faced a barrage of notifications. The CEO Voxered to investigate my sick day. My direct supervisor emailed for access to work files. When I didn’t answer that email, the CEO called again, waking me. Finally, late that afternoon, one of them messaged to ask how I was feeling and to inform me that I needed to come into the office tomorrow no matter what.

I think I knew then, on some level, what was coming. Still, I was shocked the next morning when my direct supervisor messaged me as soon as I logged on. Could I join her and another manager in the conference room?

She sent the rest of the team for a coffee run, and then she tearfully fired me. The CEO had requested we video call him together once she had done his dirty work. He answered in the car on his drive in, and I listened numbly as he reiterated the firing he couldn't be bothered to show up for.

Still feverish, I packed up my desk and let my direct supervisor help me to my car. The whole thing took less than 20 minutes.

I was supposed to keep the cycle going. Instead, I’m breaking it.

As I was writing this essay, my best friend asked how long it took after being fired for me to finally get my brain back. “Two and a half years,” I told her, counting forward to what I consider the beginning of my burnout recovery journey. But the truth is I will never have my old brain back. This experience fundamentally changed the way I exist in the world.

I’ve spent years divorcing myself from the influence of this CEO and the hustle culture he propagated. It’s taken several more bad-fit freelance projects (including some for him), another major burnout from mimicking the only business model I knew, months of working with a business coach, and unquantifiable levels of mindset work for me to escape.

Hustle culture is burnout culture. And burnout is systemic. It’s rooted in capitalism and classism, in racism and misogyny, in individualism and ableism.

And while no one can be held solely responsible for the system within which we find ourselves, the fact is that some people bear more responsibility because of the power and authority they wield. Like CEOs who promote their companies as shining examples of people-first company culture without offering tangible support. Because all the holiday go-kart parties and professional chair massages in the world mean nothing when your employees are falling ill just trying to do their jobs.

“What would [CEO] do?” I used to ask myself as a freelancer in a tense situation, modeling my processes, policies, and pricing after his. I still ask myself that question, but now I choose the opposite tack.

Today, I am anti-burnout in every way I know how to be. I hold firm on my work boundaries. I prioritize rest. I complete my stress cycle. I ask for help when I need it, and I call out negative self-talk wherever I go.

I may have managed to jump out of that pot, but it isn’t the only one on the stove. So I’m reminding myself and putting up a warning sign for others: Caution, contents may be hot.