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, Ruth Puckering, Interim Executive Director, Hull Truck Theatre takes us through her tried and tested coping strategies.
Invited to write an article about How I Cope, my first thought is, cope with what? I’m working in an industry I love, currently thriving in an opportunity for career development in my home-city theatre. I work in a creative, fast-paced, challenging and rewarding environment. Surely I am living the dream?
On a day-to-day basis I have responsibility for the financial and operational running of the theatre, and the leadership of the staff team. Without reciting the job description, that includes ultimate responsibility for and oversight of the business side of things – Finance, Administration, Communications and Box Office, Development and Fundraising, Front of House – and importantly, ensuring that the company remains financially secure and legally compliant.
The job requires long hours, often with back-to-back meetings, which mean my own to do list gets squeezed. There’s very little wiggle room for not being at my best, any one day might jump from working on budgets to meeting a stakeholder, from catching up the senior team to checking the payroll, from writing a funding bid to discussing possible show titles for the next season - you get the picture. And then someone will tell me the toilets are broken ahead of the evening performance...
All the while, the unread email count is ticking up in the hundreds.
And then there’s trying to maintain a ‘good work-life balance’ - that catch-all phrase that supposedly includes relationships with my fiancé, family and friends, fitness, fun, food and sleep. In reality this also includes doing the food shop, housework, getting the car MOT’d, replying to the group WhatsApp to confirm you’re still alive; all that lovely life admin. And what about the glorious joy of time spent doing absolutely nothing?!
Most people seem to face similar challenges - juggling multiple demands alongside the self-imposed pressure to do it all brilliantly. Like most people I sometimes feel stressed out, tired and under pressure, which affects my mood and ability to deliver effectively. So, How I Cope. The first thing for me to acknowledge is that my coping levels vary, and that’s ok.
If the issue I’m facing is a short-term thing, then my instinct is to give it more – get up earlier, work longer, harder to get it done, but this approach has a shelf life and leads to the stress and tiredness simply escalating if it goes on too long. Cue a crash and cold sores.
For a more sustainable, longer-term approach I try to work in certain habits, behaviours and priorities, such as regular exercise, a good diet and sufficient sleep - none of which are rocket science. On top of the basics I use rigid diary control and endless to do lists to maximise and protect my time.
I have found that the trick to exercise is to do an activity that I find fun, and to involve someone else so that I can’t cancel on myself at the last minute when I’m feeling tired. In my case I have a horse, and the couple of hours that I spend with Murphy on an evening or weekend don’t feel like an effort because it’s what I most enjoy doing. The fact that I’m getting fresh air and exercise is a bonus. That animals are so sensitive to moods is very helpful – at the end of a busy day I have to leave my stress and tension in the car when I arrive at the yard, or I will transmit it straight to Murphy. By the time I’m getting back in to go home, those anxieties have either disappeared entirely or shrunk to something that can be dealt with in the morning. I am a more relaxed and happier person when I’ve spent time at the stables, which is something from which everyone around me benefits.
I have mentioned meticulous diary planning and time management. This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I achieve loads, but I am often over ambitious with what I think I can fit in, which leaves me feeling like I’ve failed, even if there are just two unticked items on the end of a long list. Assuming that I have been reasonable with my self-expectations, planning ahead makes me feel in control of my day.
For example, if I am at work I would rarely say, ‘Let’s catch up at some point tomorrow.’ I prefer to make a firm plan and put a 2pm half hour meeting into Outlook. This helps me to quickly see the shape of my day and I’ll also block time out of my diary as an appointment if there’s a task I need to focus on. Outside of work the diary planning helps to make sure I have time for friends, to go out for dinner, to the theatre or cinema.
Something else I learned on a leadership training course was to analyse my time and see where I can insert a little more joy. Who doesn’t want more joy! This was a great exercise to do and two lasting legacies remain. Firstly, when I am on my daily commute, instead of raging against the bumper-to-bumper traffic, I listen to audio books borrowed from the library. I am currently listening to Sorcery by Terry Pratchett, and look forward to my drive.
Secondly, the walk from my car to the theatre takes ten minutes and coincides exactly with the time when my friend Laura emerges from the Tube to walk to the hospital where she works in London. Every morning, we chat about what lies ahead in our days and stay connected to the detail of each other’s lives. I am a terrible morning person, but building in these two things as firm habits mean I arrive at work happy, and better ready to cope.
Whatever I am coping with, I try to retain perspective and ask myself if a problem will matter in five years’ time. If not, which is mostly the case, then chances are I am over thinking things now. If I am truly down the rabbit hole and not coping at all, this is when I need my trusted inner circle of friends, family and colleagues to remind me how it looks from the outside. Turning to the most relevant person and asking for help, advice or just to listen makes all the difference. More often than not, the first step is to slow down and break the situation into manageable chunks, usually before identifying things that can wait or be jettisoned from the to do list altogether.
None of this is making me sound like a ground breaking coping guru, but I’ve built a system around myself to prop me up when things are challenging. What’s also helpful is that every six months or so I take a step back to reflect on whether my life feels like it’s running well. This can be a reminder to press reset and get habits and priorities back on track.
Ruth Puckering, Interim Executive Director, Hull Truck Theatre
If you are interested in contributing to the How I Cope series, please contact us. We welcome anonymous submissions, as well as named.