It’s no secret that the employment market as we once knew it – a job for life, company benefits, security and peace of mind – is over.
Degrees have become to be seen as debt rather than a passport to the upper tier of white-collar jobs, and apprenticeships are sometimes seen as a route to cheap subsidised labour (despite some excellent programmes that don’t treat their apprentices like this). If we consider the way zero-hour contracts, time-logging apps, and more depressingly the new ‘angled toilet’ concept aimed at reducing time spent away from work, are changing our work culture then it’s not surprising that workers feel under an inappropriate degree of pressure from all corners.
With automation building up steam too, it begs the question: will there be an effective solution to managing burnout against productivity, or will the answer be to let the machines take over? Let’s hope not the latter, for our income’s sakes.
Couple the above with the fact we are encouraged to worship at the temple of corporate branding with products that indicate lifestyle status, and we fall over ourselves to stay abreast of costly two-year upgrade cycles, things look bleak for worker wellbeing. I will cite my interview with a large tech company as a retail advisor in 2010 when they said to their prospective employees: “We don’t sell products; we sell lifestyle choices.”
The gig economy, change in employer responsibilities to worker’s wellbeing, and social/aspirational pressures that can play a role to validate our internal self-image, drive some of us deeper into overworking, overspending and increasing the demand we place on ourselves.
Have you considered what this perpetual ‘rat & pellet’ lifestyle is doing to your mental health? What about the things in life you attach your identity to, such as career, where you live, partner, choice of car, choice of clothing? These are strong catalysts to the growing mental health crisis facing the workforce.
Some of us may fall into the carrot and stick of aspirational consumerism; some may have dreams of a business empire working a 9-5 followed by a 5-9 side hustle. The reality is, the cost of living is not often not matched by a National Living Wage (that isn’t a living wage), zero-hour culture. Especially for freelancers, the curse of a branded life means success brings more work, rather than an increased ability to balance that work with a personal life.
The old myth about ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ is no longer relevant. It would be possible with social mechanisms like a functioning welfare state and public resources like libraries and free education, but all of these are under threat or have been cut due to austerity. The glass ceiling remains, not only thicker but different in its composition and subsequent effect on employment mobility.
Late-stage capitalism is distorting what work means to us, the employer, and the business owner, and is ultimately distorting ourselves. It depends on infinite resources and capacity for growth. However, if we consider that recently Iceland decided to prioritise ‘well-being’ above GDP in its budget, that could point to a tangible problem in the way we view productivity at a state level. Even though Scotland’s First Minister joined in to promote this idea, don’t expect that to catch on in the UK any time soon!
Graft is glorified when really, we are running to stand still. What can be an answer to avoid burnout and meltdown? Aside from completely changing our economic model, approach to work and a rejection of the minimum input/maximum output model – too much for any one of us to implement by ourselves – I’d suggest starting small!
Try a time audit
How are you using your time, both in and out of work? Do you take your job home with you? Are you paid by the hour, and what is expected of you outside of your paid hours (take note teachers!)?
The key question here is: what time is left for you?
Start a diary
It might sound unimaginative, but this is one of the virtues of keeping a diary because aside from being able to track our time, we are able to track our days, moods and overall experiences. We can identify if we are giving ourselves time to recharge, explore our interests, and where (if possible) we can adjust our commitments to gain a better work-life balance. It’s important to consider the societal context we discussed above, and not blame yourself if your work doesn’t allow ample personal time; but if you can find a corner for yourself, carve it out.
Looking after all aspects of your health
How is your physical health? This is the simplest way to also look after our mental health; endorphins are a powerful thing. Does your work have a gym or healthcare subsidy? What about emailing HR to ask about a workplace yoga class twice a week? Something that was game-changing for me was learning Transcendental Meditation after suffering a burnout that forced me to leave my career. In sitting quietly for two sessions (they say 20 minutes, but usually, I’d manage between five and ten) each day, I found that I was able to allow my brain to ‘detox’ from the information of the day after work to aid my personal time or to prepare for the day ahead (and sometimes skip the morning coffees) if I did it before breakfast.
Further to this, how much time are you allowing for your own hobbies and interests? Activities you find enriching, rest and leisure time is not wasted time and arguably can make you more productive at work, as you are redressing the balance.
The key issue here is time. In the absence of control over our material wealth, time is all we have. How are you spending it?
Some immediate recommendations:
- Take out a subscription to a meditation app such as Headspace, Calm or the widely praised Insight Timer and begin embedding meditation practice in your day.
- Check out Play It Away: a workaholic’s cure for anxiety by Charlie Hoehn. This book was really helpful for me when taking an audit of how my work life was affecting my inner well-being.
- If you fancy it, why not trying something new in the coming year? You could learn a new skill, join a class or plan a trip to somewhere you’ve never been – even if it’s just the next street over. Simple things to create a positive focus can make the world of difference.