If you’re finding yourself tapping away at your laptop at all hours - nights, weekends, days off - you’re not alone. Jennifer Barton looks at what you can do if your work/life/chilling out schedule is in shambles...
I realised I was in an obsessive relationship with my work one night several weeks ago. I’d received an email from an editor asking me to make some edits to an article I had written. It was 7:30 pm on a Friday. Even if I managed to finish everything off that evening, there’s no way anyone would have looked at the piece until after the weekend (at least: the article was due to go in a print publication, which wouldn’t hit newsstands for months).
Yet unthinkingly, I opened up my laptop and started tapping away, hunched over my work until far into the evening. I edited the article, then started working on a project for the following week. I even decided to chase a couple of invoices. I should probably mention that I don’t even typically work on Fridays. At least, I didn’t. Now, I seem to work all the time: days bleed into nights and weekends, and there I am, a silhouetted, hunched figure banging on my laptop keyboard. Around me, life happens: the kids settle down to a movie with their dad, my brother-in-law sits in the garden with a drink, my friends meet up for an impromptu weekend walk… but I can’t seem to switch off from work.
My boundaries with work have eroded so dramatically these past few months that I’ve even woken up in the middle of the night - and, I’m almost too ashamed to admit this - started writing. At 1:30am in the morning. It would be one thing if I felt productive working these slightly aberrant hours; truth be told, it’s mostly the opposite. I don’t feel like I’m getting anything significant done. I just can’t break the habit though. One thing’s for sure: I really need to stop always being “on.”
“It can be very damaging to people's bodies. One of the main concerns is circadian misalignment: the circadian rhythm regulates our hormones for our 24-hour cycle. If your circadian rhythm is misaligned because you're very obsessive with work, it can decline your mental wellbeing, it can cause heightened stress and anxiety, it can lead to sleep problems. Insomnia is a very common sleep disorder that can affect people if they're having difficulties with their circadian rhythm,” therapist Sharnade George, founder of Cultureminds Therapy and an advisory board member at Headspace, tells me.
Clearly, I’ve developed some poor habits since the pandemic first started. Maybe my work life initially became blurrier last year when schools closed and I had to start working odd hours (I was in a fugue state for most of that period, so I honestly can’t remember)? Or perhaps I’m struggling with being home all the time; I’ve freelanced for years, but I’m used to changes of scene to keep me inspired and productive.
Writer Jennifer Barton
"This isn’t to say you can’t ever work at odd hours; of course if you have a creative burst on a Saturday, or wake up earlier than usual to sort out business admin, that doesn’t mean you need to panic."
There’s no doubt that lockdown life lends itself to working more hours. The Office for National Statistics found that home workers did six hours of unpaid overtime per week, on average, last year (compared with 3.6 hours for those who never worked from home). With people worrying about pandemic-related job loss, obsessively working is a natural reaction for those looking to protect their livelihoods.
This isn’t to say you can’t ever work at odd hours; of course if you have a creative burst on a Saturday, or wake up earlier than usual to sort out business admin, that doesn’t mean you need to panic. That’s not quite my situation, though: George tells me to look out for cues from my body, which will let me know if I’m working too hard. Fatigue and physical changes can be signs of stress.
“A lot of people feel that when you're struggling with your mental health, it has to be something that you notice mentally. It can be something physical as well,” she says, noting that for women, changes to the menstrual cycle may be indicative of stress-related issues. Figuring out a schedule that best serves us is reflective of a larger struggle many of us are feeling around the future of work: there’s a lot of confusion after the year we’ve just had.
We don’t really want to go back to our offices - a recent survey from Deloitte found nearly one in four workers would quite happily work from home for good. Meanwhile, the Minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss, called for flexible working to be normalised in March 2021, to help individuals manage that elusive work-life blend in a way that allows them to enjoy life - and their careers in a way that works best for them.
"As a freelance writer, I love many things about my job, and its flexibility. I’m now realising that I need to reframe my thinking: the dark side of freelance work is that it also never really ends."
These new ways of thinking about work are exciting, but require self-discipline: what good is a flexible pattern if it leaves you feeling more depleted?
Lucy Cleveley, a business psychologist and founder of GrowSmart (and co-founder of Discoco, a new project dedicated to demystifying the personal development space), believes one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to set clear boundaries, especially when it comes to responding to emails (and compulsively checking social media at all times).
“Whatever schedule you set for responding to people, whether it's on social media, whether it's email, that's the precedent that you're setting, and people will continue to expect you to do that. If you change your pattern, you are resetting other people's expectations,” she says. She recommends setting up an out of office, detailing the hours or days that you’re working and a response time, e.g. let people know you’ll get back to them within 48 hours.
“So you know that if somebody emails, they're going to get some kind of response, even though it's automated. You are, again, setting those expectations.”
Jenny Stallard, a freelance journalist and coach, runs Freelance Feels, a community aimed at helping the self-employed, so knows all too well the mental journey that motivates someone who works for themselves to feel they always need to be “available” to their clients.
“I think it's attached to fear, potentially fear of failure, but also of letting someone down,” she says. “Try and have something you’re accountable for: you’re calling a friend at seven o’clock, you’re going to invest in watching a documentary at a certain time, you’re meeting someone. Make a plan to do something that means work has to stop,” she advises. Stallard also recommends putting any work-related items firmly out of sight at the end of the workday, whether that’s putting your laptop and work documents in a box that you put away, or slipping them into a drawer.
As a freelance writer, I love many things about my job, and its flexibility. I’m now realising that I need to reframe my thinking: the dark side of freelance work is that it also never really ends. There’s always more admin to do, a new pitch to draft, an article I could tweak a bit more before filing to my editor - and no one telling me to go home.
Which is why I need to start telling myself that I’ve done enough - even if there’s a voice telling me I can do just a bit more. I’ll be doing this for my mental and physical health, my productivity, so I can enjoy my friends and family. So I can ultimately enjoy my job more.
So long then - I’ll be logging off now.
Three top tips to get yourself out of your working-round-the-clock rut, from career coach, author and leadership trainer, Jenny Garrett OBE
1. Craft your working day
Take control of your workday, set alarms and reminders to tell you when to start work and when you want to finish. You may also want to add your working hours to your email signature to manage others’ expectations of you.
2. Create a nudge
Create a nudge that tells you that the workday has ended; perhaps it could be some exercise or a bath. This creates clear space that the workday has ended. Without these daily nudges it’s easy to drift and do “one more email,” or just finish off a project that you’re working on.
3. Still do the commute
Fitting in another activity may feel like it adds to the pressure to be “productive,” however, tagging a 20-minute walk on to the end of your day will provide some much-needed separation between work and home. This “fake commute” gives you a window of time to decompress, similar to the positive switch-off of travelling to and from the office.