No matter how great your employer or boss is – and I am lucky to work for a great organisation and a brilliantly understanding, flexible and progressive manager – your work-life balance is your responsibility. If you want to achieve the right set-up for you, then you have to make the choices that deliver it. If you wait for others to help you, it will be a very long wait.
Most of us don’t expect our next door neighbour to mow our lawn or our local Tesco to make sure we are eating enough greens, so why would we expect our colleagues to make sure we are not working too hard or making time for the things in our lives to keep us healthy and happy? You will often hear people say that nothing is more important than your health, so why do we leave such a big part of managing our health – how we balance work life and home life – in the hands of others?
If it matters that much, then we should own it; manage it; do it ourselves.
This was the main message I delivered yesterday in my session at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) Professional Services Conference (#LJMUPSC19). I talked with over 140 colleagues about how to achieve the right work-life balance for you by drawing on my own experience of getting it very badly wrong, which in the end led to my breakdown in 2014/15. I used photographs from the build up to my breakdown and the aftermath, which showed a man I hardly recognise, fading before my eyes.
This was a person who – despite trying hard to get his priorities right – was a slave to his emails; his blackberry; his mobile phone; his packed diary; the demands of his bosses and clients; his inability and unwillingness to say “no” to every request that came his way and a addiction to taking on more and more at work; more responsibilities; more work; more line management; more of everything. This was also a person who made small compromise after small compromise that eventually left him in hospital and unable to go to work without tears and the need for a sleep afterwards. Those compromises; stopping playing sport (I was too busy with work) or reading books and listening to music (I was working every night at home) or taking time to just sit and relax (I had no time) were coupled with unhealthy and unsustainable sleeping habits, working hours and the use of alcohol, especially at the weekends, to dull the stress and the pain.
I spent years stretching the elastic band of my mental health and my tolerance for pressure and stress until eventually it snapped. The time I have spent since 2015, with the help of therapists, GPs and a psychiatrist, have helped me hugely. I now have a much better understanding of what was going on in head and how important it is to get my my work-life balance right if I am to give myself the best chance to manage my depression and anxiety and to stay physically healthy and feel happy to contented each day.
My belief in the importance of managing your own work-life balance – not expecting your employer to do it for you – is not a solution to my mental health issues or anyone elses’ but I know my failure to get this balance right was the straw then broke the camel’s back and left my laying in hospital in shock and in tears.
I missed the warning signs of rashes, sweats, nausea, tears at work and the rest, because I was too focused on giving my best to my job rather than giving my best to me. Nobody at work told me to slow down or do less. Nobody at work said you’re putting on weight and not looking after yourself. Why would they? They have their own lives to lead and perhaps were too busy on keeping their own heads above water.
No, that responsibility was mine and mine alone. Corporate culture plays a part in helping or hindering the achievement of the right work-life balance but ultimately success for each of us will differ and only we can achieve it. We must all step up and have the conversation with our bosses and colleagues about how we want to work; the hours; the times; the way we like to be managed; the commitments that we want to keep outside work; the things that make us tick. Real conversations. Honesty. Unambiguous. Being ourselves, not trying to be something we think our employer wants us to be. We have to be clear what success is for us – our priorities and goals – and then make them happen.
As I left the conference yesterday I was struck by the number of people who spoke to me, messaged, emailed or tweeted me about the session. There is no doubt that people putting themselves out there – laid bare – as I was yesterday, baby pictures and all – can really help. It can help to remove stigma. It can help to show there is perhaps another way. It can help to give people ideas and strategies for making a change. But ultimately, it is just talk. To really make changes to improve our lives, we need to take action. We need to stop being passive. Stop waiting for someone to save us. Stop hoping that our organisation will do the heavy lifting for us.
It’s our life. It’s our health. It’s up to us.