coaching topics, Self-reflection, Work-life balance

Balance, blend, whatever! A blog for Work-Life week 2021

In 2019 I wrote about work-life blend rather than work-life balance. I was moving towards recognising that flexibility and agility were important for me rather than a totally strict split. However, it was still pretty much work or everything else because working days and school days dictated certain patterns and separation. Wind forward 5 years and so much has evolved both in my own life and in wider society.

Personally, becoming self-employed was a really big change. It took a while to adjust and I have generally found it helpful to stick to some form of day to day working hours. But because I was working from home, it became too easy to just log on and check or do a little bit more. Yes, I was doing little “home admin” bits during my coffee breaks from work, and loving being able to visit the gym in the middle of the day, but overall the work was creeping into more of the total time than I felt comfortable with. So I’ve had to put the phone and laptop away and out of sight. My brain may still be churning away thinking about work related stuff, and I may be reading a book related to work (I alternate because there is so much to read in the diversity and inclusion world), but I’m not on social media or on my laptop. So the boundaries are not hard and fast but they are there. It’s more like merging at the edges.

I’ve also realised that experiences at work add understanding to my personal life and vice versa. This is why you will find me talking about work and personal life in posts – it just feels like both are a part of me and therefore a part of what I bring to coaching and consultancy. So my work and life blur a bit on social media too – though I am careful not to let myself make that decision for others to any large extent. Yes, I will talk about my family (even on LinkedIn), but in fairly general terms. I do still have a couple of places where I have more personal stuff and don’t bring work in, but some people know me on both, and that’s fine. I guess I am learning to be more relaxed about identifying different parts of my life and therefore removing any stress about keeping them separate.

3 images, one with a balance made of pebbles, the second with rows of red marbles weaving into rows of blue marbles and the third a swirl of red and blue inks.
Balance, blend or fluid

I often get clients asking me to work with them on work-life balance. It’s such an emotive subject as there is usually a lot going on. The first step is to say that everyone’s work-life perspective and experience of balance or blend is different. I’ve shared mine above but that will be different for everyone else. Maybe it is a clear balance for you – maybe it’s more merging at the edges with a bit of flexibility, or maybe, as in the image, it’s a more fluid messy but beautiful and unique creation.

Whatever it looks like for you now, the key is whether it works for you, or whether you’d like it to be different. Your balance point or blend will be different to mine, but the steps we take to find it may be the same. Where do you spend your time and energy? Is that how you’d like it to be? What recharges your batteries? When are the times and situations where you are likely to be most vulnerable and least resilient? Even if you can’t change the pattern now, knowing what you may be aiming for and taking tiny steps might help.

Self-reflection, Work-life balance

On life as a working parent.

Three things I often wanted my employer and colleagues to understand about me as a working parent:

1. By the time the official working day starts around 9am, I am likely to have been up since 6.30, getting children up and dressed and ready for school/nursery, dropping them off on an extended journey and then getting in to work myself. So yes, i do need that coffee at the 9am meeting;

2. After lunch, on days when I do the school run, I start to get panicky because my time is running out. I always try to cram too much in and am invariable late for pick-up. Please don’t try to stop me if you see me running down the stairs at 3.10pm;

3. After I have finally got the kids to bed (and mine were actually pretty good at this), the last thing I can face doing is to switch on my laptop. Pretty much the only thing I can face at that point is my pillow. please don’t send me the papers for tomorrow morning’s meeting at 9pm today.

As schools in the UK go back, working parents lives change. For some it gets easier, for others harder. Depends on the parent, child, school and childcare arrangements.

If you manage working parents, please check in with them over the next few weeks to see how they are and whether they or you need to change anything to be most effective.

If you are a working parent, please consider your boundaries, and let go of a) perfection and b) being able to do everything. It isn’t going to happen, and that’s ok. You are enough.

Self-reflection, Work-life balance

Post holiday struggles

This week has been hard. Last week we were in the west of Scotland, 8 miles down a single track road, surrounded by water, trees and hills. Yes, it was a little rainy, yes we did get lost on walks a few times and do some unnecessary hills, but there was a sense of space. Now we still appear to be down a single track road but that’s due to the number of cars parked along our road, and although I am fortunate to have a garden to look out on, there are fences, and hedges and roads. I feel hemmed in. Hemmed in by the surroundings, but also by my diary, and email and the looming new school terms with commitments and schedules. In the grand scheme I know there are bigger problems in the world, but it is possible for it to be simultaneously true that there are people in much worse situations AND for me to be struggling with my own situation.

Loch Goil from the Drymsine Holiday Estate

Mostly on holiday I read fiction – and not all “great” fiction either – it’s good to escape to other places sometimes and books have always been the way I do that. At the start of the week though I finally got around to reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. Whilst a lot of it to be honest were things I had read before about habit forming, one thing has stuck. He points out that lots of people can have the same goal, but the people who had developed good systems pointing towards that goal were the people that achieved their goal. And that although systems can at first glance appear constraining, they can also be free-ing.

On my return to my desk, I was pleased to find that one system I set up before I went away was indeed working to free me up in some way. I finally got around to setting up a booking system for phone calls for clients – through my calendly link people can book discovery calls or coaching sessions without the to-and-fro of emails. Setting up the system has forced me to block out some clear time for these calls and therefore other clear times for undisturbed client work too. And several people had booked calls for the next 2 weeks. One small step towards implementing a system that helps me spend more time on the interesting bits of work and less on the admin!

This weekend’s task is therefore to look for systems that might be useful around the house. In theory we have systems but they have probably be viewed as optional vague ideas by some members of the household. I think I need to present them as “this is what you will do when this happens” instead!

academics, coaching topics, Self-reflection, Work-life balance

Boiling academics – a post for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

Its nearly 2 years since I left my employed role as an academic. I left because there was an opportunity to do more of the things I liked and values, and less of the things I found stressful and de-energising. Whilst being self-employed is certainly not stress-free even outside of a global pandemic, there is definitely a different feel to it when you have more autonomy and aren’t constantly fire-fighting. When I stopped my previous role, I had factored in a couple of months rest before getting going pro-actively business-wise. I expected there to be some emotional readjustment – after all my identity had been defined as an academic for 20+ years, but I didn’t expect the level of sheer mental and physical exhaustion that I experienced. I also found I couldn’t physically go near one of the buildings I had worked in – which was weird. Not so much “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” but more like “you don’t know what you’ve lost ‘til you stop”.

I understand now that it was my body and mind finally having the time and space to “stand down” from constant state of alert. The rebalance of cortisol/adrenaline and other hormones was powerful – I hadn’t realised how much I was living in a constant “on” state. Constantly switching from task to task and most days full of meetings. Always another thing to catch up on. Since then I’ve learned that my inability to focus at times and my tendency to overcommit weren’t purely a function of my employer, but I don’t know how I kept up that meeting schedule.

A pot of boiling water.
Green tree-frog by Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Having managed, coached and mentored academics at all levels I continue to see the extent of this inability to see the strain. It’s classic “how to boil a frog” urban myth territory – throw a frog into boiling water and it will jump straight out, put it in cool water and gradually turn up the heat and it will stay in until it’s cooked (note this is actually probably not true but I am not prepared to do the experiment to see – no frogs harmed here). Watching academics burning out, filling in every moment even when I had removed duties from them to help, always wary of missing out on an opportunity to the extent that they take on more and more is heart breaking and frustrating in equal measure.

It’s heart breaking because the load on academics now is horrific and institutions have largely failed to acknowledge this in any meaningful way. Yes, it’s been compounded by the pandemic with its need to duplicate teaching into online/hybrid mode, support students and colleagues from afar and maintain research regardless (never mind having to do this from kitchens, bedrooms and alongside co-workers or homeschoolers). But it was already bad before then. Academics are pulled in so many different directions these days that they are constantly stretched and risk snapping. This matters not only because we are compassionate human beings and these are people we are talking about, but also because some of these people may hold the key to solving the world’s biggest problems or educating the next generation of pioneers. When academics do finally reach breaking point, it rarely results in “a couple of weeks of sick leave”. The resultant adrenaline and cortisol crash means we are usually talking months off work, if not the end of a career, and often heavy personal cost.

A piece of string frayed and ready to break

Frustratingly, most institutions do have the power to support staff mental health better. Most institutions do have online employee assistance programmes and counselling but often the counselling team is overstretched and focussed on students. One thing that sometimes gets underestimated is the degree to which a stigma around “not being a proper academic” and admitting you need help remains. Compounding this is the strength to which academics identity is tied up with, well, being an academic – not surprising when people tend to have invested a huge amount to get to that position. I remember saying and often hear “I don’t want to do this anymore, but I just don’t know what else I could do”. This feeling also leads to a feeling of hopelessness which then contributes to the spiral.

As with most mental health and wellness issues, it is far more preferable to de-escalating the situation before it reaches crisis point. Whilst coaches are not generally mental health practitioners and should always refer people to a mental health professional where needed, coaching certainly supported my mental wellness by:

  • Getting me out of my head – academics are brilliant thinkers, but its not always helpful to spend all that time in our heads. Getting the worries and concerns out into the air via talking, or onto paper (be that writing, drawing or whatever works for you) is a big first step.
  • Strategising how to manage short-term survival on a day-to-day basis – prioritising tasks based on real importance rather than perceived importance can return a feeling of control and autonomy that supports mental wellness. In the longer term this means reconnecting with the reasons you do what you do and re-considering whether this is the way you want to do things going forward.
  • Helping me practice saying “no” – having planned priorities for the next few months can feel empowering – like you have permission (even if it’s just for yourself) to say no to things (or at least negotiate part way).

What we really need is an acceptance that current demands are unsustainable and unmanageable. Until then, I’d settle for a recognition that mental health is not just for students, and I’d love to see larger scale coaching programmes for mental wellness support available AND accessible for all university staff.

coaching topics, Work-life balance

Balance or blend?

Work-life balance, juggling roles and responsibilities at work, at home and in the community are topics that often crop up in coaching conversations. Many times they are not the original focus of the coaching, but because I coach the whole person we tend to at least spend some time talking about how work and life fit together. What follows is a slightly modified version of a 2016 post from my blog elliehighwood.com when I was reflecting on my own situation. 

Life may not be a box of chocolates, but could it be a cup of tea?

tea2

The term “work-life” balance is much used and much-discussed. Many surveys and magazine articles discuss whether your “work-life balance” is as you want it to be. In Athena SWAN applications (gender charter mark for universities and research institutes run by the Equality Challenge Unit) we are asked to discuss how the University is supporting “work-life balance”. Typically we talk about core hours, nursery care, and any family friendly policies we have.

However, many people object to the term “work-life balance” itself, and I can see why. Balance implies the two things are playing against each other… increase attention on one and the other must pay. How meaningful is it to imply that we are only alive outside of work? Many people are at least partially defined by the work that they do, or by their actions at work. Others are predominantly driven by the work that they do… and the term work-life balance somehow suggests that these people should “get a life”.

The alternative term work-life blend has been around for a while. The thinking behind the term is that in the modern world, with new technology etc, then for many people it is entirely possible to take care of some work things from home and some home things from work. Of course this isn’t possible for all roles… particularly those in the front line service industries, and manufacturing. The other reason for adopting this term is also that it removes the negative connotations of “balance”. With a “work-life blend” a much more diverse set of existences seems possible, all equally valid, and things are not in tension with one another in the same way (there are however only a limited number of hours in the day and therefore there must remain some tension!). More recently “work-life integration” has started to be used – I am still thinking about what this means for me. 

I have previously been rather resistant to the word “blend”. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking about it in terms of paint… if you mix lots of different paint colours together you inevitably end up with a murky mess that isn’t particularly enticing. I also worry that it means never being “off duty” from work, and I at least need to give my mind and body a change of scenery sometimes and find it hard enough to be properly “present” at times outside work as it is.

However, I might be changing my mind.  In 2016 the University of Reading Edith Morley lecture was given by Karen Blackett, OBE, CEO of media.com. She spoke about having “banned” the term “work-life balance” in her company, using instead, “work-life blend”. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not sure I can buy that. But then Karen talked about having 6 well defined and non-negotiable strands to your blend, for example fulfilment at work, effective parenting, and such like, and using this to discuss your working practices with managers etc.

And this morning I thought of a new description for “blend”  – a careful combination of different ingredients that are not subsumed by each other but together make up something delicious and supporting. In other words…  my favorite English Breakfast tea!