Our lives have become more blended than ever before; the lines between professional and personal, work and home, have blurred completely. Working from home means no commute and less structured working hours, with many of us working harder and longer than pre-pandemic. We're starting earlier, finishing later, and squeezing out more from the time that we once considered wasted. And with that, our risk of burnout is rocketing, with England's Centre For Mental Health predicting that 10 million of us will need mental health support as a direct result of coronavirus.
It’s something that small business owners and self-employed freelancers – in other words, those who’ve been doing this WFH gig for much longer – are well aware of. Indeed, floral artist Bex Partridge knows all about pushing your mind and body too hard. While her work draws from the gentle ebb and flow of the seasons, she herself has suffered a couple of near burnouts since starting her dried-flower business Botanical Tales just over four years ago.
Learning to say no
“It can just be so hard to say no when you see an opportunity,” she says. The last time she came close to the edge was shortly after finalising her book Everlastings, which came out earlier this year. “It was less the volume of work I had, and more the emotional and mental strain it was placing on me,” she remembers. She knew something had to change and, for the first time since leaving her corporate job to set up her business, decided to consciously give herself time and space away from work; even if that meant missing a self-imposed deadline or saying no to a new opportunity.
“The only way I tackled it was to allow myself space to breathe… Managing time as a small business owner is incredibly challenging,” she says. “In my old job there were defined boundaries between work and home and therefore I felt a lot more comfortable making the most of my downtime.”
For Bex this often meant spending time on her allotment. “But when I started running my own business, I somehow felt like this was cheating… slacking almost. I've learnt that actually this time is important – it’s where I feel most at peace and calm.”
Knowing when to stop
Sophie Sellu, who runs her woodcarving business Grain & Knot, also understands that you need to set boundaries when you’re living in your own work bubble. “The thing is, I LOVE my work. But carving is really quite hard work. It’s bad for your body and wrists, and there’s a lot of RSI.”
Working alone, as Bex also does, can mean that the main danger is not knowing when to stop. But she’s found her process.
“I used to set myself daily targets, beating myself up if I didn’t meet them,” Sophie says. “But now I have this notebook that’s set up for the next seven days. I note down all the tasks I need to do in that week and try to assign them out.”
Sometimes she’ll “smash” through them in the first three days, but on other occasions she’ll stretch out the work for as long as possible. “It’s all about knowing when to stop – you can’t force creativity. I’m using sharp tools and machinery, so it can get quite dangerous if I'm tired. So, I’ve learnt to say no for my own health and safety. Even if that only means stopping to go outside for 15 minutes.”
The pressure to work long hours
Burnout can always be a danger when you are managing your own time. Sarah Walker* is an accountant specialising in internal audits for international media organisations. Her work often takes her around the globe – and the international travel coupled with offices in different time zones has often led to very early starts and even later nights.
“In theory you could be working all the time,” she explains. “You get on a plane or stay over somewhere for the weekend and think maybe I should be working now – just to make the next week easier.”
Like many young women starting out she felt the pressure to work long hours – not from her boss, she is quick to point out. This was all stress she heaped on herself.
“As women a lot of our self-worth is caught up in achievement,” says behaviour change specialist Dr Heather McKee. “We are rewarded for that – we reward each other, and we reward ourselves. ‘You work so hard’ and ‘you are so busy’ become praise. It can be difficult to step away from that and believe that you can build that feeling outside of work.”
For Sarah, it was following her boss’ example that helped her change her work/life model. “Our boss was male and very good at boundaries. When he left the office that was it. You couldn’t contact him, but he was amazingly efficient when he was there. I learnt from him how to say, ‘this is what I can achieve’ and ‘this is what I can do’, which was much better than saying ‘I’ll get this to you as soon as possible’ and creating unreal expectations.”
Yet our new blended ways of working mean people are piling even more unreal expectations on themselves. “I understand that a lot of people are worried about their jobs and trying to prove themselves, but it’s just not sustainable,” says Dr McKee.
The power of making a 'joy list'
So how does she help people to break their work addiction? “I start by getting people to make a joy list,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘What brings me joy outside of my work?’ It could be a walk in the woods, or a swim in the sea or listening to a nice piece of music or meeting with a friend… You have to look at your life like a project and set yourself up in a way that is the most supportive.”
All three women recognise that time outdoors is intrinsic to maintaining their state of physical and mental wellbeing – whether it’s a non-negotiable dog walking every morning or a 20-minute run to break up the day’s work activities. Beyond exercise, they have all put processes in place to manage the pressures of their workloads. Sophie doesn’t answer her emails outside of her 12-6pm working hours, Bex makes a to-do list then switches off each night and Sarah doesn’t talk about work unless, well, she’s working: “I like to put work away and switch off – otherwise my brain just starts ticking.”
The crux to all this is that over time they have learnt to say no. "I am only learning that now," says Bex. "It can be hard to say no though when you see an opportunity, but you must always check that it is the right opportunity for you and that it won't cause more stress than is necessarily worth it."
Sarah adds, “I think as you go up in your career you get better at saying no just because you have the experience behind you. But it’s hard at the beginning when you really feel you have to say, ‘yes, yes, yes’.”
*Name has been changed
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