On Going Part-time: Working less is best, but it comes at a price.

Once upon a time, my generation – I’m one of those much maligned baby boomers born in the 50s – were promised that one day in the future, we would all work a three day week. We would earn just as much money, and have a better lifestyle with lots of holidays and our own houses. We women would – and did, at least those women who worked then – retire at sixty and continue to enjoy a good life. We believed that, we believed in the dream of living a better life than our parents, the Silent Generation, born and growing up in times of poverty and terrible wars, who had seen and experienced things that we, thankfully and hopefully, never will. Who had given their lives and health for those of us who came later. No more, they said, never again, and so we grew up in hope, if not in wealth. We were always poor, and I do mean poor, but – to be clichéd – I remember being happy and well looked after.

Anyway, that’s history, and this isn’t a history lesson. This is – I don’t know – a mix of hope and fear. Hope because since choosing to work part time, I feel more in control of my life. Fear because those dreams of the future have not come to pass and I look toward a time where I may well be poor again. Because like so many generations, we were also lied to. People are working harder than ever, for less security, less pay. Less satisfaction, more stress. I won’t go into how we academics have not had a significant pay rise in years, but our salaries have in effect decreased as the cost of living has risen. Many younger professionals are on short term contracts, living precariously from position to position, unstable lives, not daring to complain in case they are seen as ‘difficult’. But this is not about that either, except to say that it’s an immoral way to treat people who are trying to build a career for themselves.

This is about me having had enough of the constant bombardment of ridiculous bureaucracy, stress and poor mental health, which anyone who has read previous posts will know about. This is about me taking the step to work part time and the liberation I feel having done so. I now work four days a week. That feels hard won, to be honest. Again, anyone who has read my blog will know that I’ve battled hard to get this far. I’ve had to compromise in ways that have damaged my recovery, and that I’m still trying to come to terms with. But, I feel I am coming to terms now. And when I signed my contract to work four instead of five days, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I could breathe again, and despite the impact on my earnings (my take home pay was less than I’d calculated – a bit of a shock and I’m still taking that in), I wish I’d done it sooner. I can now have a day where I don’t look at emails, where I don’t have to feel guilty for not being in the office. Where I don’t have to worry so much about being inadequate, something I’m always having to work on.

Some people have been sceptical of my doing this. Colleagues who know how conscientious I am have said, ‘Oh, but you’ll be fitting in five days’ work into four,’ and, ‘But I bet you’ll still…’ But I won’t. I’ll be fitting four days’ work into four. And I won’t work on the fifth. Because I won’t get paid for it, and because I’ve learned that looking after myself is a priority, and I no longer believe that the harder you work, the more rewards there’ll be. Because sometimes, there just aren’t. Sometimes you work hard and you burn out and are worse off. I won’t do that to myself any more. I’m older now, feel as though I need to start winding down from that ‘be competitive all the time’ mindset, to start to please myself rather than constantly trying to please others in ways that are detrimental to my wellbeing. It’s taken me sixty-two years to learn that lesson. Apparently I’m a slow learner!

Is my new resolve selfish? Well yes it is, but sometimes we need to be selfish. That does not mean that I will slack off at my job. Of course not. I love the teaching, and I really look forward to seeing my students and helping them to want to learn. That’s why I do what I do. That’s the only reason, other than the hard fact that I have to earn a living, of course. I believe passionately in education. But I have to say now, I don’t believe in a system that damages people. And I know too many people – including myself – who have been damaged by it.

That’s a rant. I didn’t want this to be a rant, but maybe it was inevitable given the reasons why I decided that enough was enough and that I had to cut my working hours. I’m lucky that I can afford to do so. I don’t have a mortgage and can pay my bills. Next year my partner will be moving in and can share the load. I’m really grateful for all the privileges I have; I wholeheartedly acknowledge them. I’ll always have a roof over my head, for example. But as I get older, I worry about how I’ll heat my house, because my pension will, contrary to popular belief about academics’ pensions being huge, be very small because I didn’t start to pay into a pension scheme until I was older. So I have to take my life in my own hands and, somehow, turn it around.

I have ideas. Last week I attended a very inspirational talk about how we might change the ways we look at students, about how we teach them and, most important of all, how we relate to them. Everything I’ve ever thought, everything I’ve ever said, and been told I was wrong to say it, was echoed there in those talks, and now I want to try harder to help make changes to a system that values procedure over people, instead of the other way round. It will be really hard – how do you turn around an oil tanker with a tug? – but it will give me something to work towards, and I hope – if I’m allowed to start talking change – it will make my last couple of years before retirement more positive. Alternatively, I can drop my hours even more, and concentrate on my writing.

This is my horoscope for today (I’m a Pisces and use the ‘Co-Star Personalized Astrology’ app):

‘The rebel in you is on fire. Focus on larger truths. When you open yourself up to the world, every book and every person you meet, becomes a component of your                                learning process.’

This rings true to me. I haven’t decided my future yet – maybe it will be a mixture of both of the above – but finally I can see a glimmer of light, a rebellion against what has gone before, an opening up of doors and choices, and I’m slowly heading toward it.

World Mental Health Day

So it’s World Mental Health Day, and I’m watching a video made by a colleague for their students, explaining how they themselves live with anxiety/depressive disorder. It struck me as an act of bravery – the university as an institution would no doubt frown upon this act as being ‘unprofessional’ and ‘too personal’. I put these words in quote marks because I can imagine them being spoken by managers – and maybe by other colleagues too – who see our function are purely providing a service which does not involve too much personal involvement. And I can understand that. As lecturers, we are not counsellors. We cannot give advice, as such, because we are not trained to do so. We are, on a pastoral level, there to direct students to support services who can advise. But we can listen, and we must listen. If you feel listened to, if you feel that you can talk to someone without judgement, without bias, but with empathy and understanding, then surely you’re more likely to be able to build a bond of trust with that person. Perhaps, through that bond of trust a person who otherwise would not have sought help, will. Empathetic listening will, just possibly, save a life. And that is why I feel my colleague has made a big step over a line that the institution may see as something we maybe shouldn’t cross. But if we can help, maybe save a life, then that is worthwhile. And it’s why I believe that everyone in professions like ours should be helped to learn that most valuable skill.

For myself, someone who also lives with anxiety/depressive disorder – note I don’t say ‘suffering’, because although I do suffer, in periods of non-suffering, I’m still living with the condition – I am also open with my students. I mean, I don’t announce in class, ‘Oh hi, I’m Lesley and I have mental health issues!’ because that would be totally inappropriate, but if a student comes to me to discuss an issue, then – again, if appropriate – as well as listening mindfully, I can also reassure them that they’re not alone. That I have, in some way, experienced what they might be experiencing, or at least can understand their pain.

Empathy.

Despite this, I have wondered – sometimes worried – if I am too open (examples would be keeping and sharing this blog with anyone who wants to read it, having honest discussions with students on other occasions, posting on Twitter and Facebook) but watching my colleague’s video – a true and honest account of their own condition – has helped me to understand that actually, I’m a human being sharing my humanity, my story, and my experience and understanding. And in a time where as a society, we’re trying to raise awareness about mental health in the contexts of maintaining good mental health and helping others and ourselves to cope when we’re having issues, surely I need to be part of that on-going conversation. It would be wrong of me, immoral of me, a person who communicates for a living, not to participate in that conversation. And so I will.

I will say openly now that I’m struggling quite a bit. It’s an adjustment to a stressful time at work, which hopefully will begin to settle soon. And I’m trying to remember to use the techniques I learned in therapy sessions. Reminding myself that the world isn’t going to fall in if I don’t do something perfectly. Learning not to catastrophise. To make the most of the moments of peace that I do manage to find. It’s really hard now, but I feel I’m recovering a little quicker than I was before. And I’m going part-time too, to address the work-life balance.

I’m looking towards a future that might be better than the past few years.

The charity Mind has some great ideas about talking to people who may be vulnerable, or people you may be worried about. The ‘Ask Twice’ campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/asktwice/) for example, is worth taking a look at. People often ask, ‘are you okay?’ to which the answer may well be ‘yeah, thanks’. And people often are okay. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they may feel they can’t open up. Shame, fear, social stigma, not wanting to be a burden, and many more factors can stop us from expressing what we really want to say.

So today, on World Mental health Day, and then beyond, for those of who are able, let us join in the conversation about mental health issues. Let us use our humanity and develop compassion so that we are able to listen, learn to empathise, not just sympathise. Let us be open with people so that bit by bit, we can erode the stigma that’s still there.

Autumn is Coming: Turn, turn, turn.

I look out on a rain soaked garden, at the rain heavy clouds above, and try to keep a hold on my own turbulent emotions. I’m in a reflective mood, rather melancholy as I look back at the year that’s gone, aware of the anxiety building in me, afraid that this year will bring more stress, more stuff I can’t deal with. Another breakdown. Where is the serenity and joy I felt during my Italian break?

And yet. And yet…. I am here, and even within the anxiety that wants to overwhelm me (new academic year, new students to teach and impress, new responsibilities that I’m terrified of not being able to fulfill), I can see how much has changed. That despite it all, I have a lot to look forward to.

One day at a time. One day at a time. Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Both are much used phrases in recovery from addiction, but surely they can be used by people in any kind of recovery? Surely I can adopt them as mantras for my life. They’re certainly powerful reminders to me that I’ve allowed myself to fight against myself for too long, that the catastrophising and the second guessing habits my brain has adopted have been allowed to take over. CBT helped with that enormously when I was ill, and I’ve still I’ve largely got them under control. They’re still there, of course, along with the self doubt and imposter syndrome and all the other stuff that’s held me back. It’s a constant battle not to let them take over now. I think I will always be prone to mental health issues, and that’s okay. After decades of shame, I’ve learned not to be ashamed anymore. Because there are other voices too, now, that are helping me to keep them at bay.

So I look at what has been granted to me, or because I don’t particularly believe in a higher power, I look at the help I’ve received and the help I’ve allowed myself to accept, and realise there’s a lot to be grateful for. And it’s good.

Work has been chaotic this week. It’s been difficult, distressing and stressful, and to be honest, some of the ridiculous stuff that has happened because of poor communication (a pet peeve of mine, to say the least) and misunderstandings, you honestly couldn’t make it up. But I’ve realised, as I’ve looked on at the stupidity of it, that you have to laugh at it, and realise, that in the grand scheme of my life, it really doesn’t matter.

The world too is a difficult place these days. I guess it always has been but we live in the now, and the now is how we experience our lives; the problems we deal with are in the now, and that’s much harder for me to deal with. I look at climate change, species on the edge of extinction, our own species in chaos and conflict, with the obvious changes in our particular society and I often despair. I sincerely believe that our over-mediated, money-driven, success-pressured world is contributing to the poor mental health of people who may not even have been vulnerable to it under other circumstances.

But now, beyond my growing despair, is anger. White hot burning anger. Why are we so apparently intent on destroying everything? Why are the Far Right being allowed to trample over our democracy (whatever that means now), while common decency and politeness seem to have been forgotten, outdated and in danger of extinction themselves. Polarised and extreme opinions block reasoned discussion. You are either ‘right’ or you are ‘wrong’ and therefore ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for expressing whatever opinions you may hold in the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook, and so many of us no longer bother expressing them because if the opinions are even slightly different from those heard in those chambers, it’s like unleashing a pack of bloodthirsty baying hounds who will tear you apart for a dissenting word.

I don’t understand. But I want to do something. I want to take action. When the climate change protests were taking place, I felt ashamed that I wasn’t somewhere adding my voice. Instead I put out a tweet praising those who had gone out and been counted. It felt like cowardice. It still does. I want my voice to be heard. I want to revolt and be present, instead of listening to the voice inside me that says: you’ll have a panic attack if you join a march. That says: you’ll upset people if you’re openly rebelling. That says: what good will it do anyway when The Powers That Be are so… powerful?

I don’t know how to begin to do those things. I’ve never been a rebel. I’ve never wanted to be. But now…. Now I feel I want to start rebelling in some way. Maybe this writing is a start? Words are powerful. They are both weapons and defences. We use them against others, we use them against ourselves. Maybe this year is the year, after everything I’ve learned, after everything I’ve been through, I need to use them for others, and for myself.

Autumn is coming, and as the leaves turn, as the season changes, I understand that I should accept the changes that are happening in me, and learn to act with the bravery I want so much to embrace.

One day at a time…

Work, Mental Health and Me: A Bit of a Rant, and a Wish for the Future

So I’m getting ready to get up after a largely sleepless night spent ruminating, a constant cycle of never-ending negative thoughts, and which, over the past couple of years, has become centred around my job. I’ve alluded to this in previous posts, talked a little about the stress (actual and perceived) that my job in Higher Education entails. Over this time, I’ve come to dread getting up in the mornings. Increasingly my brain tells me: I can’t do this. I really can’t do this anymore. I’ve ignored the voice, because I’m worried that going off sick will be a terrible thing in terms of ‘abandoning’ my students, of leaving my colleagues to do my work. Of being a ‘bad’ employee – of my deteriorating mental health being a ‘black mark’ against my career. Of being thought weak and incapable. My suffering is less important, or so I feel, than allowing myself to be a ‘good’ employee and colleague, a ‘good’ lecturer. So what has actually brought me – and so many others, because there are so, so many others – to this point? Work benefits us, of course, if only to provide us with the income we need to sustain ourselves; it can give us a sense of wellbeing and purpose in our lives, but it can harm us too, especially if we are vulnerable, prone to the effects of ‘bad’ stress. Work in these days of ‘do more, be more, get more’, can harm us. And frequently does.

Modern Western capitalist culture is driving (has driven) us inexorably to poor work-life balances, with increasing levels of bad stress (because not all stress is bad, and a little stress has been shown to be a good thing because it stops us becoming complacent) and anxiety becoming the new normal. Even those without underlying mental health issues (in my experience, and from talking to colleagues, this is certainly true in HE institutions) are finding it detrimental to their wellbeing. For those of us who do have those issues, it can become impossible to cope, which was what happened to me. Not taking proper lunch breaks (eating at your desk while catching up with yet more apparently pointless admin), not even taking toilet breaks because of being ‘too busy’! Working more hours than you’re contracted for to ‘get the job done’, despite having a workload plan that allegedly maps out our work to that allotted time, has become a regular thing. People who ‘work hard’ or who are ‘very busy’ are held up as shining examples to the rest of us, who may feel shame for not doing the same. But ‘working hard’ no longer seems to mean what it once did, which is doing the job you’ve been contracted to do, in the hours you’re paid for. Now it means being ‘on’ 24/7, feeling obliged to check emails at godforsaken times of the day and night, at weekends, on holiday, constantly proving yourself, and sacrificing oneself on the altar of ‘professionalism’. Working those hours, essentially, for free.

My experience is of course in HE institutions (and I guess some are more guilty of this than others). Students have become cash cows, and we strive to give them a great ‘student experience’, a term that’s bandied about, although what that means is never really explained to us who are supposed to provide it. We even have Deans of Student Experience, a whole new level of management, some of whom may not see an actual student for days on end (cynical but…). Anyway, for me a good student experience means being part of a great course with experienced, engaged lecturers who are passionate about their subjects; along with support for health and other necessary issues such as finances and housing. Is that simplistic? Well yes, maybe it is. But it’s how I feel.

Of course this is all a result of the increased marketization and monetisation of HE, along with more and more TEF-driven government-driven, ultimately (and not just in my view) pointless bureaucracy to ‘prove’ we’re doing our jobs, when we should be actually doing them: Helping students, supporting them through their studies. Allowing them to be educated, which is what they, and we, are there for.

The pressure’s not just on us, but on young people, who are being told: ‘Do a degree, despite your instincts telling you it’s not for you, despite the debt you’ll incur. You’ll never amount to anything if you don’t do a degree.’ This, and the educational experiences that come before – the SATs process that begins at five years old, exam-driven high-pressured GCSE’s and A-Levels – are factors that lead to increasingly stressed out, anxiety-ridden young people, many of whom have to work throughout the course of their degrees because they can’t afford not to. A generation that needs support more than ever, when in some universities, student support is being cut to the bone, which is not only kind of heart-breaking, but in some cases, has led to loss of life. And yes, I’m angry about it. And another factor of cutting jobs, of course, means there’s more work for fewer staff, and the cycle continues, and if we complain we’re being unprofessional.

That was a long side-note, I’m aware, almost another post in itself, but it’s all contributed to the way I’ve been feeling, to my feeling that despite what we do – working harder, trying harder – it’s all become increasingly impossible to keep up with. And I’ve felt a sense of increasing futility.

So work and working towards work has become increasingly unhealthy, with increasingly damaging consequences, the toll on mental and physical health becoming more apparent. And you just have to Google ‘is modern work harmful?’ and you’ll find loads of articles backing this up. In fact the evidence is scary. To back myself up a little, this 2016 article by Anna Coote in the Guardian discusses the fetishisation of work: ‘The fetishisation of work is making us miserable. Let’s learn to live again’ is one of many I’ve read through.

Still, despite evidence, someone reading this may think – stop ranting, this is just how it is. We have to accept it. But why do we? Maybe I’m just idealistic – I’ve been accused of it before, like idealism and caring is some alien, unwanted thing – but is it idealistic to wish better, healthier futures for ourselves and others? Is it idealistic to hope that large institutions and businesses might become more mental-health aware? For example, provide training for managers which will help them to help support their staff. To provide wellbeing strategies that actually mean something. To foster atmospheres of empathy and understanding rather than being rigidly held to process and inflexible attitudes. To pay for training for mental health champions who staff can go to for support, so they can better support their students (MIND offer this training to workplaces, as an example). As a society, not just in HE, we need to look at our attitudes, to examine examine them closely. I’m not a politician, or the CEO of a big company, or any other kind of leader. I can’t legislate or be the instigator of much needed wide-ranging changes. But I can look at my own life and my own small role in the lives of others. I can begin to make the changes I need to make.

In the end, I went off sick from work for two months, having counselling, learning to meditate daily, just resting my exhausted mind. And yes, I’m stronger now, and have been back at work this week. But I’ve realised a lot of things about myself and my relationship to my job during that time. First, I’ve realised that I am not my job, and my job is just one facet of my life. That I’ve put too much pressure on myself to be perfect, to ‘prove’ myself. That things didn’t actually fall apart while I wasn’t there (of course they didn’t!). Not everything’s down to work, of course. My breakdown came from much deeper issues than that, and those things haven’t been resolved yet; maybe they never will be. But the pressure that’s heaped upon us, and that we all too often put on ourselves in order to justify our existence, exacerbated and magnified what was already there.

In The Empire Strokes back, Yoda said: “Do or do not, there is no try.” And in the context of the movie, it makes sense. But I will try, because I can’t fall apart again, and not just for my own sake either, but for that of others too.

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/26/fetishisation-work-miserable-long-hours-poor-pay