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time off relax health

I’m excited to bring you this interview with Emma! I met Emma in the Slow FI Enthusiasts Facebook group. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but Emma and I started chatting on Facebook Messenger about the possibility of her taking a medical leave.  

Given my personal experience with taking a medical leave (and my HR experience), I was happy to help.

I took a 6-month medical leave in 2018 after I started to experience severe anxiety and panic attacks. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back, I realize that I did not need to let things get so bad. Had I taken action earlier, it would have been so much easier to recover. This is part of the reason I’m so open about my mental health journey. I want to empower others to take action before they get to the point I did.  

When Emma shared that she was requesting a 1-month medical leave last fall, I was ecstatic. 

Since then, we’ve kept in touch. When I learned that she reduced her work schedule after returning to work, I knew I wanted to feature her in a Slow FI interview.  

Let’s jump in! 

1. Tell me a little bit about you. 

Hi. I’m Emma. I am a government employee by day and a life coach by night. I live with my partner and five chickens in Oregon.

woman bike tour

At the core of all that I do, I love contributing to my community, investing in my personal growth and well-being, being a loving family member and friend, and adventuring. For the last two years, I’ve been a cooped up extrovert working remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

2. What deliberate decision have you made to slow down and improve your life? Why did you decide to make this decision?

During the summer of 2021, my health was declining. I was experiencing increased digestive and mental health problems. When I had to leave a friend’s birthday party early because I felt awful, I decided enough was enough. It was time to take the situation seriously and seek help. 

In the fall of 2021, I took a month-long medical leave from work. The FMLA leave was paid for by accrued sick time hours. It was, by far, the best thing I did that year.

I am incredibly grateful for the inspiration from the FI community, support from a few key friends, as well as a chat with you (Jess) that helped me to take this courageous action. 

As a “hyper-achiever” who always wants to contribute and do my best, it took a lot of courage to acknowledge my situation and say I needed to pause and slow down. First, I had to personally overcome the societal stigma around mental health. Then, I worked with a doctor to submit a request via my employer’s leave process.

Although it was scary to navigate the unknowns of the leave process, I am so glad that I did. During the month away from work, I got a health diagnosis, learned about my condition, and was able to start strategic treatment. 

My life’s path changed course as I took time away from work to rest. I supported my body’s needs and leaned into the things I love in life outside of my day job. I also reconnected with the Academy for Coaching Excellence, where I had previously taken a couple of life-changing courses. 

Slowing down gave me the space to gain more clarity. With that clarity, I realized that I can live a life I truly love by spending my time, money, and other forms of energy in more effective ways.

3. How did the decision to take a medical leave of absence from work impact your quality of life? 

When I returned to work, it was clear to me that I needed to submit a request to work four days a week. 

Being a transportation planner is a dream job for me. I get to help bring about the healthy, thriving, and equitable world I dream of one crosswalk and bike lane at a time. However, my job is only enjoyable when my body can support me. 

Interrupting the “go-go-go” approach to life enabled me to improve my health and experience more energy on a daily basis. Now, I experience joy and fulfillment more often instead of being caught up in mental distress that has physical repercussions.

My leave and reduced work schedule also provided me with more time to focus on what I love to do, including personal growth and learning.  

During my leave, I realized that I wanted to continue my life coaching training and become a certified coach. I love supporting others, especially changemakers who share my vision for building an equitable and thriving world. 

I have also been supporting people with money mentoring for a year and a half and love seeing the transformations my clients experience with their relationships with money. It is energizing and lights me up to see people gain confidence with their finances and use their dollars in alignment with their values. Coaching and money mentoring allow me to support people while providing more time flexibility and geographic freedom. 

4. In your opinion, what things in your life contribute most to your happiness and contentment? How much do you think is a result of external circumstances versus some sort of internal state or mindset? 

It is a combination of both. Having resources to cover the basics for survival is critical. My parents’ funding of my education is one of the many privileges that has contributed to external circumstances that have made my path easier than many. 

After the basics are covered, though, my happiness and contentment stem from having a growth mindset and aligning my life with my purpose and values. 

As a result of working on my mindset, I took actions that improved my physical and mental health. This included letting go of fears around requesting leave, switching to a 4-day work week, and starting my own business. Doing so has opened up more possibilities to adventure and contribute to my community in new ways. And, I can do all of this in a way that supports my health and wellbeing. 

bikes volunteer fun

In the next few years, I hope to go on a bike tour with friends that includes stopping at several beautiful wineries. I also plan to volunteer more with Friends of Trees to plant trees and Free Bikes 4 Kidz to distribute donated, refurbished bikes to kids most in need in my community. Being healthy, which was made possible by both internal mindset shifts and external circumstances, makes these joyful activities possible.

When I see a gap between my current reality and where I’d like to be, I get curious and focus on what steps I might take to close the gap. For instance, when I saw that my body was in no condition to be able to drink wine, let alone climb up hills on my bike to the beautiful wineries I dream of going to, I got curious. I reached out to doctors, got testing done, and tried different actions in my life to help improve my health so one day I can experience my dream winery bike tour.

Having this internal mindset focused on growth and curiosity allows me to shape my external circumstances. When I take actions in physical reality that align with my deepest values and intentions for my life, I experience fulfillment. When I act in ways that do not align with what is most meaningful to me, I am not nearly as happy or content. Knowing what is most important to me enables me to align the work I do with my purpose and channel my money and time towards what matters most. 

5. How did your decisions to take a medical leave and reduce your hours impact your financial goals or timelines? 

Fortunately, very little due to my accrued paid time off and benefits working in local government. Thanks, union!

My one-month FMLA leave from work was paid. I used sick paid time off hours I accrued over the first six years working at my job. If I did not have the accrued paid time off, I could have explored a couple of other options including enrolling in a sick time-sharing program available to employees at my work. I had also previously signed up for short-term disability insurance as another safety net.

I thought that I was going to have to take a 20% pay cut to reduce to 0.8 FTE to have a 4-day, 32-hour workweek after returning from leave. However, given my tendency to save, I had accrued many hours of paid time off. Not traveling very much during the pandemic also helped me accrue vacation hours. 

Even though I approached the request with a goal of 0.8 FTE, I realized that I could keep my full-time position and instead use my paid time off to take one day per week off. If at some later date I have used all of my paid time off, I may revisit the 0.8 FTE request. 

Ultimately, I got one day per week of time back, I kept my full-time salary, and I have better health. Win, win, win!

Additionally, as I grow my coaching business and progress through certification levels, I will be increasing my income. As someone who has always been a W-2 employee, I am really enjoying the direct connection between the work I put into my business and the money that I make. I am incredibly grateful that I was willing to move past the self-limiting belief of “I am not a business owner.”

6. What enabled you to take a medical leave and reduce your hours (i.e. what financial or social context helped)?

The decision to take leave and slow down stemmed from my determination to prioritize my health. I had strong encouragement and direct support from three specific friends. One of these friends passed away in her mid-30s in December 2021 due to her own health declining. I am forever grateful to her for her encouragement to take time off work and put my health first. Her wisdom lives on through me.

I also had reached Coast FI around the time that I submitted the reduced work schedule request. Coast FI is when you’ve already saved enough for traditional retirement. What you have will grow, so all you need to do is cover your cost of living until that time.

Because of this, I decided that my health was more important than my job. If I ended up needing to leave my job, I was okay with that even though it was not my preference.

My partner and I have relatively low living expenses due to intentional budgeting and lifestyle design choices, such as living together, splitting costs, and not having kids. This helped me see that I could take a 20% pay cut and it would only impact my investing rate. Since I had already reached Coast FI, any additional investments meant I could retire earlier, donate more, or take self-paid sabbaticals. 

Lastly, I’ve been fortunate to own our home since I was 23, which has kept housing costs the same or less over time due to refinancing.

7. Were there things in your life you adapted so you could continue to work toward your goals?

Three main things come to mind. One, I’m using my accrued paid time off to focus on my health instead of maintaining it for a larger payout at some later date. Two, I’m pursuing training as a life coach so that I can transition away from full-time employment while having my business cover my living expenses.

healthy homegrown food

Three, I prioritize eating and sleeping well, meditation, and moving my body. I want to have a loving relationship with my body that will hopefully support me in the decades to come.

8. How did your pursuit of FI help or hinder your decision to take a medical leave and reduce your hours?

Pursuing FI, and CoastFI specifically, made me see that I could save and invest ambitiously early in my career to ensure my long-term future was taken care of financially. When I saw I had reached CoastFI with the help of a cash-out refinance, it gave me more confidence to courageously take leave from work and request a reduced work schedule.

Learning about FI helped me see that it is possible to not have to work a full-time job for the rest of my life. This realization gave me space to dream of the life I would love to live if I could spend my time any way I wanted. 

garden peppers grow food

Because of FI, I’ve started experimenting with changes here and now! For instance, I’ve dreamed of spending more time in the garden growing my own food. Today, I spent my entire Saturday preparing our raised garden beds for this year. I look forward to focusing more on gardening this year to experiment with my desire to spend more time outside, moving my body, and harvesting and cooking nourishing food. 

9. How will you continue to design your life? 

I’ve already made a lot of lifestyle design choices that I benefit from. However, I know that I will want to continue adjusting over time as I continue to grow and evolve. 

Aspects of my current life that I would love to keep include quality time with my partner, enjoying hot cups of tea, reading, cooking, gardening, yoga, cycling, spending time with friends and family, and having daily coaching and gratitude practices with one of my best friends.

I envision leaving my government job at some point, supporting life coaching and money clients several days per week, and volunteering and traveling more. My partner and I are working towards having our own businesses cover our expenses and having more time flexibility. This would enable us to do longer trips, possibly work on organic farms (WWOOF), and do multi-week bike tours. I have had dreams of possibly running for office, donating a significant portion of my income to causes, doing more community organizing, or slow traveling. I’m particularly interested in creating systems that support equitable, thriving communities.

The question that guides my lifestyle design is, “What adjustments can I make now to better align my energies (money, time, physical vitality, relationships, creativity, and enjoyment) with my values?”

10. Why and when do you think someone might consider “downshifting?”

When the little voice in your head says, “Wouldn’t it be great if….?”

We all have so much wisdom inside of us. It’s important to listen past the doubts and worries that naturally arise when we’re up to something big and important in life. If you do not go for your goals and dreams that are exciting to you now, then when?

I’ve learned that living with purpose and intention matters more to fulfillment than how much money one has (after a certain point, of course). My attention has shifted to investing in my health and living a purposeful life more than focusing on reaching FI. 

11. What advice do you have for someone considering a similar decision?

Reach out for support. This could take the form of a professional life coach, therapist, or simply deepening relationships with friends and family. Share with them what your vision is and how they might be able to support you with making it a reality. 

I first had to think, “I could take a month of leave from work” before I could make it happen. Then, I asked for support. When we’re doing things that are new (and thus at some level a bit scary), it is incredibly helpful to do so with support.

Having this vision and acting on it led to 4-day work weeks and a new career path. 

Take small, sweet steps. Don’t try to see your full path ahead. Six months ago, I did not know what my life would look like now. By tuning in to what was important to me, I was able to take small, courageous actions that have led me down such a fulfilling path.

Thank you so much, Emma, for sharing your story with us! 

The first thing I want to say is how impressed I am that Emma took action before she got to the point of no return (or very hard recovery, as I did). She didn’t have to get to a place where she couldn’t physically or mentally take another step forward before requesting time off. By taking a month off, she was able to address her health challenges and prevent them from getting to a place where she’d need a more significant recovery time. I learned this the hard way, and I truly wish more people would do this.  

My favorite part about this interview is what Emma shares about her perspective on happiness and contentment. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this question: Is it external circumstances, an internal state, or a combination of both? 

From Emma’s perspective, it’s a combination of both. Once our external circumstances provide us with the basics, then our mindset plays a huge role. When we see gaps between our current reality and where we’d like to be, we can get curious about what steps could help us close the gap.  

Our mindset, then, helps us to shape our external circumstances. This is why it’s so important for us to listen to that small voice that says, “Wouldn’t it be great if…?” We disregard that voice too often rather than approaching it with curiosity.  

If you’d like to learn more about Emma, her FI journey, and her coaching program, you can reach out to her via emmacoaching.com

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