Writing for Wellness: Occupational Wellness

I got my first job when I was about fifteen. I had always been eager to work and earn my own money because even though I had parents who provided very well for me, they were adamant about not just giving me money and about teaching me its value. I was always a child that would do chores for allowance, wrap Christmas presents, or take odd jobs to make a quick $20. So, the summer after my freshman year of high school, with my working papers in hand, I landed a job at a local bakery where my father shopped weekly.  

At first, I was excited and proud to have a job! I was making my own money ($7.25 NYS minimum wage), I had responsibilities at this establishment, and I got to interact with customers. However, within a month or so, I realized that working at this establishment might not be for me. Immediately I experienced a workplace and supervisory practices that ranged from uncomfortable to racist and abusive. After I quit, my former employer harassed me by phone until my dad intercepted one of the calls and told them to stop. This workplace went out of business within a couple of years. After having such an atrocious baptism into the workforce at the tender age of fifteen, I stopped working and didn’t take another job until I was eighteen and had graduated from high school. I started out working in retail, and within a month of doing so, received an opportunity to work as an intern/clerical aide for a local politician. Once I had secured this opportunity, I did all that I could to show how talented and motivated that I was and ended up being invited to return for four consecutive summers while I earned my bachelor’s degree.  

While working in local government, I earned tons of experience, which opened many other opportunities. I was also lucky to have come into a position that allowed me an extreme level of flexibility regarding my work-life balance. My job was only an 8-minute drive from home, I got an hour-long lunch break, and I left work at exactly 4:45 every day. My coworkers became my second family, often taking me on adventures and errands with them during lunch, and we would have lunch parties to celebrate birthdays and holidays. I got to attend an array of high-end, community, and political events, meet people that I had previously only seen on television, and I was paid at a higher rate than other hourly municipal employees who had been there for years. Though it was earned and well-deserved, I was spoiled at this workplace. It was my first “real” job, and it truly was one of the greatest experiences I could have ever asked for. Though it was far from perfect, it provided me with experience, a strong resume, and savings that helped support me through college.    

In college, I didn’t work during my freshman year but worked each year after that at an on-campus job. This job also integrated perfectly into my personal life since I was able to do school work while sitting at a desk in the Campus Recreation office. Later, I was chosen to manage the employees in the role that I had held for 2 years. Since it was a university, I was surrounded by peers, made tons of work-friends, had good relationships with the professional staff, and had a flexible schedule that could change whenever I wanted. I suppose one could say I was also pretty spoiled at this job.  

The day after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I began working at a small local law firm. Yes, quite literally, less than 24 hours after throwing my cap into the sky, I put on a suit and began working as a paralegal/legal assistant at a law firm. At first, I was only supposed to be part-time, coming in 3 days a week; this offer was changed to a full-time salaried offer within 2 weeks. I had been offered a competitive salary (which was all I cared about when I accepted the position) and was excited to gain legal experience to help me decide whether I wanted to pursue law school. Additionally, it was a 5-10-minute walk away from my apartment, I frequently got to deliver papers to the courthouses, and was happy to have chances to get outside during the summer.   

My first few weeks or so at this law firm were fine, but my rose-tinted lenses wore off quickly. By the end of my first month, work-life balance had been thrown out the window. The hours were unreasonable (and frequently uncompensated), the office chaotic, the work sometimes menial, and the personalities extremely challenging, to say the least (think Miranda Priestly). I felt misled, misused, and constantly apprehensive.  

In addition to several other experiences at that law firm, I was under so much stress in my work and personal life that I suffered an Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) flare-up that was so severe that I was unable to keep food in my body for 3 weeks and rapidly lost 13lbs. What I desperately needed at that time was a break, and my body was literally crying out for it. Unfortunately, I was working in an environment where I was afraid to ask for time off; the time I was taking for doctors’ appointments was counted and used as leverage for unpaid overtime, and I found myself physically and psychologically at a breaking point. 

By my seventh week working at the law firm, I had begun applying for new jobs and attending interviews. I was desperate to get out of that firm and applied to so many jobs that it got hard to keep track. That is when I received an email from Lisa at Policy Research Associates—she had seen my resume. Though the position I had applied for wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do with my degree, I had tons of relevant experience and she believed that I would be a valuable fit for the position given my background and potential use in other areas. Of course, I immediately searched up PRA, and in addition to morally aligning with the work that this company did, I found articles and blog posts about wellness! This was a concept that almost seemed foreign at the law firm.  

Needless to say, I was beyond excited for my interview, and when I received a call from Pam Robbins the next week, I was ecstatic to take the position. In my interview with Pam and Lisa, I had asked them questions about their stance on employee wellness, work-life balance, and workplace environment. Coming out of such a hostile work environment had been traumatic for me, and my health suffered greatly in that time. Upon arriving at PRA, my premier goal was to ensure that my new job would be a place where I could heal, thrive, and truly explore what I wanted to do with my career rather than building resentment towards an unhealthy occupational environment. 

In my time at PRA (which will be 2 years by the time I return to grad school this fall), I’ve discovered not only the value of a healthy workplace but just how important occupational wellness truly is. For most of us, we often do not realize just how toxic or unhealthy our relationship to our occupation is until it is too late, and we are drained, burnt out, sick, or resentful. My experiences at the bakery and the law firm led me to discover what I did not want to do with my life—an invaluable realization. Aside from empowering me to stand up for myself and leave unhealthy environments when they no longer serve me, the bakery taught me just how challenging food service occupations are, and I gained a new level of appreciation and patience for others in the field. Though I hold very few fond memories of the law firm, I was able to try out the legal field full-time and discover that my passions were better suited changing laws through policy work.  

PRA has also taught me how a truly healthy workplace can function. It is possible to work in a place that treats you with dignity and respect, supports you in balancing work with the rest of your life, and actually cares about your wellness. At PRA, we have so many resources, policies, benefits, and even an entire committee dedicated to employee wellness. Though we may be a busy bunch, I’ve been afforded great flexibility and space to care for my personal existence while working at PRA. There are challenges that I have navigated in my time here that I truly cannot imagine having to handle while working somewhere that did not support my wellbeing. Furthermore, PRA has helped me refine my aspirations and decide what to pursue my master’s degree in! I am eternally grateful to have experienced PRA, as it will shape my approach to balancing my occupational wellness with all of the other dimensions of my life for the rest of my life.