Recently, I’ve learned to use two phrases. I can’t, and I won’t.
“I can’t” means I am unable to any longer. “I won’t” means I choose to protect myself from reaching this point again.
So now, hear me out: I can’t, and I won’t, accept burnout anymore.
For one week starting today, I am taking a break from The Michigan Daily. I’ll be stepping back from the entirety of my job’s responsibilities, deleting all of my social media and staying away from any contact related to The Daily.
This is not a decision I make lightly. I wouldn’t be doing this unless absolutely necessary, because since my first day here I’ve cared about The Daily more than for myself.
But after almost going to the hospital when leaving The Daily’s office alone late Monday night, I refuse to keep allowing severe panic attacks as part of my day-to-day routine. I refuse to keep losing more hair, weight and blood and as nearly as much sleep.
Yesterday, I told a friend my work at The Daily is ever-so-rapidly destroying my physical, mental and emotional health, not to mention my interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships or my dedication to my academics. He replied this destroying can lead to a “violent and deeply entrenched burnout.”
I was comforted when he said this, because I now finally have language for what has been happening to me. Violence.
You may scoff at that and call me dramatic, call me weak. But I’ve disparaged myself more times than you ever will.
Or perhaps you’ll share this and call me inspirational, call me brave. It won’t change the fact that my job is unsustainable and no longer possible in its current form.
At the end of the day every day, what I really am is tired. So tired.
I take home $150 a month* to work roughly 70 hours a week, apparently an outlier even among other college newspaper editor-in-chiefs. On top of being a part-time student, a daughter, sister, partner, roommate and friend. Lately, the kind of workload I’ve shouldered dozens of dozens of times before makes me crack. I’ve deemed myself lazy, soft, less capable than all of the leaders who’ve come before. My best friend reminds me I’m doing this during an unprecedented pandemic. I counter that The Daily was around during the 1918 Spanish flu.
But it’s not just the pandemic that’s exacerbated the difficulties of my role. It’s The Daily’s 130-year-old problems with racism, sexism, classism and ableism that affect me intimately and near constantly. It’s running “the only daily newspaper in the county” and being prepared to be called into duty at any moment in case of breaking news for almost two school years now with no days off, not even on the University of Michigan’s “well-being break.” It’s not ever escaping the uncomfortable reality, no matter how much I want to, that I’m presumably the first woman of color to lead this organization. It’s my desperation to prove myself despite my achievements and qualifications after hearing some say there have been too many women editor-in-chiefs and after being told multiple times to my face I am where I am because of “diversity.”
I know The Daily’s problems, and it’s not that I haven’t tried to fix them. In fact, I’ve done nothing but try. I ran for this position in hopes of making The Daily more accessible; those who work here know that’s essentially my buzzword. I’ve delegated all the responsibility possible that I can think of without overwhelming someone else; created new structures, processes and positions to make sure my adjustments last. A week and a half ago, I initiated a conversation on burnout among editors, and we’ve been practicing setting boundaries. I’ve been heartened to see improvement, slow but steady. But institutional and cultural change takes time, and my health can’t wait any longer. Honestly, in our heavily decentralized organization of 450 people at its peak, assuming the lion’s share of this burden only makes it worse, because I hurt when I see The Daily hurt someone else.
I usually doubt my every decision, but I’m confident in taking this step back. Because as I’m writing this, for the first time in 48 hours, I’m no longer worried about falling into a panic attack at any moment. For the first time in several days, I finally feel at peace.
I was most hesitant to write this because I truly don’t want to scare others from joining or remaining at The Daily. Because despite it all, at this very moment, I can sincerely say that I love and care deeply about this place.
More than any other organization, The Daily has changed the trajectory of my life and shapes who I am and want to be. It gives me identity and purpose, pride and joy, resonance and perspective, community and solidarity and memories and lifelong friends. Even on my toughest days, I’m honored to run a platform that houses stories that may otherwise not have a prominently public space.
And that’s why quitting The Daily is the last thing I’ll do. Because for now, and even now, this place is worth staying for.
So I will be back, and when I am, I won’t know what’s next. But I will be more able to work with my staff to reimagine a better way.
*The Editor-in-Chief salary is about $300 per month. While running for Editor-in-Chief, Claire pledged to donate half of her salary each month to The Daily’s work-study fund.
Editor-in-Chief Claire Hao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org starting Sept. 30. Those from the University can contact Claire at her @umich.edu email also beginning next week.
For a list of who to contact this week instead, see michigandaily.com/about.