Work-life muddle?

Once upon a time, in a life far away, people finished their working day at around 5pm.  They would switch off their computer terminals, lock their filing cabinets, and the last one to leave would click off the office lights and close the door. For many of these lucky, faraway people, their work worries would also be switched off until the next day.

Remember those days? Nostalgia always casts a pink glow,and it’s true that even then we had sleepless nights sometimes – but my point is that in those days, it was far easier to let it be and focus on something else – like leisure and family. Because you simply didn’t have access to all your work emails and documents through your smartphone or company-issue tablet, you were not expected to be multi-tasking until bedtime, as people often are now.

Communications have improved beyond anything our grandparents could have imagined. Access to information is instantaneous, and this has literally changed our world. The fundamental impact this has had on our lives is on a scale not seen since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.

How to cope? Is it a coincidence that so many people of every age are suffering from anxiety, depression and other stress-related illnesses? Last year, the HSE reported that stress, depression or anxiety accounted for Stress cat10.4 million lost work days. The overall total,  including days lost through injury, was 27 million. It has to be bad for business – and it’s very bad for people. There’s no point in trying to lay all the blame on the smartphone either (after all, the printing press got a lot of stick too and that made no difference!) Understaffing, workplace bullying, threat of redundancy and poor management all have a part to play in creating and maintaining this epidemic.

As individuals, though, we’re largely responsible for our own wellbeing. It seems we’re willing to hand over millions a year in gym memberships and branded low-calorie foods in order to feel better. My suggestion is that, in today’s world – whatever it takes – we must be equally serious about the practice of just switching off.

Resolution Revolution

In Scotland, following the traditional Hogmanay,  many people celebrate the first day of the New Year by inviting friends and family to share an enormous dinner of steak pie. At some point, the conversation turns to the topic of New Year Resolutions.

This year, I noticed how negative the resolutions tended to be; the result of post-Hogmanay blues, perhaps? Or the general lowness of spirits caused by the recession and rain of 2012? People talked in terms of losing (weight), doing less (swearing) and wishing to give up (smoking/working).

I wondered out loud what happens to these resolutions if you turn them around: everyone was mellow enough by then to let me challenge them – very gently, of course. It turned out that the woman who said she wanted to give up work (not yet a possibility for her) really wanted to spend more time with her partner. Having recently returned from a short festive stay in the Cairngorms, she was happy to consider how the couple could schedule regular weekend trips away over the next twelve months. It was interesting to see how her demeanour changed when she considered this positive, achievable option.

Another friend, retired but sometimes overwhelmed by her family and community responsibilities, wanted very much to read “more”. A good start on a positive resolution, but a little vague. I asked her, will you do that? She brightened and said: “Tuesday mornings. I’ll just sit down and read on Tuesday mornings”.

The conversation moved on and the port bottle was fast emptying. I decided that, after all, I wasn’t there to coach the assembled company but it had given me pause for thought. How easy it is to set a goal that is already doomed to failure: ” I want to stop working but I can’t afford it” – “I want to read good books but I don’t have time”.

If instead we turn our thinking round, make positive plans and follow through (“I’ll make those calls on Monday and take myself off to a quiet place for reading on Tuesday…”), life can be sweeter than before.

Practise on the small resolutions and then move on to the big ones. Who knows what could happen.