How I Cope is an on-going blog series where colleagues from across the sector – and at different stages of their career – share their experiences of self-care and wellbeing.
Mental health and balancing work and life is increasingly recognised as essential to our happiness and ability to make the most of our talents. By encouraging greater awareness and exchanging tips and helpful advice, How I Cope aims to create a space for us to support each other, and the health of our sector in general.
Here, Hannah Mason, founder of The Content Managers, argues that we need a change of perspective.
Work . Life . Balance
Do we need a change of order - a new perspective? Shouldn't it be life-work balance? The definition of work-life balance is 'the division of one's time and focus between working and family or leisure activities.'
The mere fact that we put the importance of work before the quality of life creates tension that we can easily avoid. We all have challenges and stressors but how we find ways to cope with these can either enhance our experiences or damage our mental and physical health.
I'm a single mother with two children, one of whom has just finished his teenage years and the other is in the middle of hers. Now they are older I have more 'me' space and can choose to dedicate all my time to work if I want to. When they were younger and I was doing everything - the school run, shopping, cleaning, mentoring, entertaining and bringing in the bacon - it was a different story.
Coupled with this I am neurodivergent. I have dyslexia and PTSD. So I literally think differently to most people, all the time - at great speed. Getting my mind to stop thinking is the trick. This can be said of many people and can be the cause of much stress at work. There is unlimited access to information, an abundance of possibility at our fingertips through our smart-phones and tablets. We communicate with people 24/7 across the world and compare our lives with the 'perfect' lives of people we will never meet. How then do we quieten our minds and slow down?
I open my eyes each morning, think about work, the bills I need to pay, the people I need to contact and as I reach for my mobile phone to silence the alarm, I glance at the emails that have come into my personal and work accounts, the WhatsApp messages left overnight and the urgent items on my to-do list. I'm not even vertical yet! Sound familiar?
I work in the arts because I am passionate about creativity being essential to human existence. We are sentient cultural beings who communicate with expression, words and sounds. There is satisfaction in sharing creativity and seeing audience reaction to the work. Some of us are perfectionists, and in our drive to produce the best, we can lose our sense of self. Most arts organisations require multi-taskers - people who can stretch across departments. From marketers who fundraise to CEO's who clean the loo we are used to chipping in and taking on more than the job description. Starting at 9 and downing tools at 5 is practically unheard of. So, how can we make our pressured, fast paced work-lives more manageable?
1. Flexible working has been my saviour for over 20 years. Most arts organisations have a flexible working policy so talk to HR or your line-manager about yours. Having caring responsibilities makes managing your 9 to 5 a headache and leaves you torn between competing priorities. Working flexibly means that when the kids sleep I can work for a couple of hours, so I don't feel guilty about spending quality time with them and quality time at the computer. Equally, I'm not worried about work that isn't done because I know I can fit it in. This has been possible because I have had task-driven leadership.
2. I lean into technology. Connectivity has never been easier and there is no reason to be tied to a desk or an office in a particular city. WUNDERLIST [*Wunderlist has since been discontinued. See a link to alternatives below] is a free tool that you can sync on your phone, tablet and desktop so that everyone in the team knows what been covered and what is outstanding. I list actions and share them with managers and clients. If you want to get a meatier project management tool there are free programmes that let you set up workspaces such as Slack, Trello and my favourite, Podio. Or you can buy subscription software such as Monday.com and Asana starting at about £8 a month.
3. Change your attitude. Try not to over-complicate things. I use the power of 3. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list, limit your list to 3 tasks and only add to the list when it dips under 3. That way you can isolate the things that are causing you the most stress or are the most important.
Even after getting your life-work balance sorted, things can come up that unbalance everything. That sounds pessimistic but it is realistic. Work, life or both will throw things up that will unbalance everything. Accepting that it is never a complete but an evolving picture will help. Think of the famous Leonardo da Vinci quote "Art is never finished, only abandoned". Whilst I'm not saying abandon your balance I am saying stop trying to control it and adapt to the changes.
4. Finally, for more balance, make time for yourself. Put things that make you happy on the to-do list and do at least one of them every day. It can be lo-tech like walking the dog or having a bubble bath. Or you can use your tech again by using a mindfulness or meditation tool such as Headspace or Calm. If you are going to have your phone on the bedside table, you can try apps to help you regulate your sleep patterns. A lack of sleep can add to feelings of anxiety and hopelessness. A couple of examples are Sleep Cycle, Pillow and Sleep Timer.
I use Insight Timer to sooth the day's troubles away. If meditation and mindfulness is not for you, get inspiration from an audio book, a podcast or a Ted talk. Breaking up the day by stepping away from work and changing pace or focus will give you the energy you need to have a more productive day, evening and night.
Life-work balance is an art in itself - one that takes practice, failure, self-awareness, self-forgiveness and compassion. Be kind to yourself and give yourself credit for everything you do - not just the successful things.
Hannah Mason, The Content Managers, an agency that support artists and creative businesses to represent themselves successfully and authentically.
If you are interested in contributing to the How I Cope series, please contact us. We welcome anonymous submissions, as well as named.
* Wunderlist was discontinued in May 2020. Here's a list of alternatives put together by Chamber of Commerce, a digital resource for small businesses and entrepreneurs: 11 Best Wunderlist Alternatives