Tag Archives: health

Working nine ‘till five

During my week in the gallery, I was getting up at half past seven, doing half an hour or so of computer work, walking to the gallery at 9, being there until 5 and then walking home. I found it utterly exhausting. It didn’t help that I worked nine days without a day off, which shouldn’t be normal for people with regular day jobs.

I’m used to being able to do bits and pieces of domestic work around my other work. Where other people might get a tea break or a water cooler moment, I might do the laundry or get the washing up. It means that when I end work for the day normally, I’ve done whatever I’m doing on the domestic front as well as the economic front. Coming home in the evening with all of that yet to do is emotionally wearing as well as physically tiring.

I’m a big fan of walking and cycling to work. I acknowledge that it is hard to do this, especially in bad weather or when you  are already tired. Many of the things that are more sustainable – cooking from scratch, buying locally sourced everythings… take time and energy that I wouldn’t have if I worked this way every day. I already knew that many aspects of conventional work aren’t easily combined with sustainable life choices, or with healthy choices for personal wellbeing. There’s a lot of difference between knowing something as a theory, and living it for a while.

I’m a big believer in making what personal changes you can, but I acknowledge that not everyone gets much control over how and when and where they work. Not everyone can go self employed, or can wrangle to work from home. Personal shifts alone won’t deal with things that are ingrained in our culture.

I also note that I wasn’t fantastically useful for much of that time. I’ve done a lot of public facing, events, retail, front of house kind of work – which can be sporadic – quiet while you’re waiting for people to show up, and intense when they do. But in terms of quality of work done for time spent… I wasn’t great. Compared to what I get done in a few hours working quietly at home, I wasn’t very productive. In some ways that’s the nature of this kind of work. But, how many people are turning up to put in the hours every day, and not paid based on what they do? How much time, life and energy are squandered while people show up for the required hours?

One of the great things about being self employed is that most of the time, it’s about getting the job done, and not about how long it takes. Unless your job is primarily about being available to help other people in some way, then time spent is meaningless for most work. How many workplaces will let you go home when you’ve done what needed doing? How many employers will reward speed and efficiency by simply expecting you to do more?

There’s only so much you can do as an individual to change any of this. I feel strongly that we need to be talking a lot more about why we work, and how we work, what we reward, and what we expect from each other.


Adapting to the new normal

One of the hardest things about being longer term ill, is adapting to the new limitations. It may feel like giving up. It may seem like you’re accepting that some things are gone forever, and that can hurt. But the thing about illness is that it won’t be cowed, or impressed by you fighting to hold onto your old life. It may well bite your arse for that. 

I’m wary of positivity, as it can do far more harm than good. But, when it comes to adapting, a somewhat positive outlook can help. Look at what you can keep, rather than what you have to let go. See your adaptations as ways of safeguarding your health and maximising your options for the future. You may have losses to grieve, but at the same time focus as much as you can on what is still possible, and make the best of it. Adapting to limitations is not a happy process, but trying to find the positives can help a lot with coping. Fending off despair is also important, because that just robs you of more options and gives nothing in return.

The last ten years or so have not been a smooth decline for me. I can’t walk as far as I used to – that’s been a dramatic shift in the last year. Shoulder damage means I can’t swim, or lift much. I am however sleeping better and this means late nights take less of a toll so I have more scope for events and a social life than I used to have. 

Having got the right kit in place, the massive problems my poor circulation used to cause are now minor problems. I’m in a lot less pain as a consequence. Using hand supports during work, I get less pain and inflammation. I’ve had to give up on musical instruments, but I can still write, sew, knit, colour things – I’ve kept more than I’ve lost. 

I rest more. This means I work more efficiently – I may be getting more done and more effectively at this point than I was five or ten years ago, because I think more about how to use my energy and I take more breaks. This has also helped with my mental health. Everything I’ve done to better handle my bodily limitations has also improved my mental health, or at least stopped it becoming any worse. 

The last year or so has been really tough, and I’ve done a lot of trying to understand why. Some of this I might be able to fix, or at least manage better. Some of it might be a new normal – I don’t know yet. What I do know is that the best thing I can do is figure out how to live within my limits. The more well I can be, the more options I have. Pushing to hold on to what I used to do is likely to make me more ill and take even more from me than I might otherwise lose. So, I have a constant fettling process about what I eat, how and when I rest, how and when I move, how I support my sleep… 

(Also, this isn’t a request for advice. All of the specific details about what I’m dealing with are deliberately absent from this post. If you don’t know me well enough to know about the various things I am dealing with, you don’t know me well enough to have much of a shot at offering unsolicited advice. Thank you)


Not everything can be fixed

Small things can be fixed. Small injuries can heal perfectly. Small injustices can be put behind us. Not everything can be healed. There are wounds that come to define us, experiences that shape who we are, illnesses that don’t go away and griefs that cannot, honourably be ‘got over’.

There is a big industry around the idea of perfect wellness. There’s a lot of toxic positivity out there that will tell you it’s not ok to be carrying something, or defined by your wounds, or still grieving. Not everything can be fixed, and it’s important to push back against the toxic positivity.

The idea of perfection can be a barrier to doing whatever healing might be possible. It’s better to learn how to carry grief. If all you hear is a message about getting over it, you might not be able to find the tools that allow you to move forwards, with your grief. Some losses define us. Some losses are too big and too important to ever let go of or move on from. But it is possible to make peace with the grief you are going to carry.

It’s much the same with the kind of illness that won’t heal. There is peace to be made. Compromises can be found, adjustments made. Sometimes it’s about learning how to make the best of the situation you’re now in. The notion of total healing can be a massive distraction from doing the things that would actually help.

It is better to put down the idea that everything should be fixed. It’s not a helpful idea. It can burden us with a quest for solutions that aren’t out there, or leave us feeling inadequate. Genuine healing can be much more about adapting and managing. Being able to cope is a good place to be. Doing the best yolu can with what you’ve got is the only measure of success worth caring about. Getting the hep you need to continue on your own terms is so much more valuable than being held to impossible standards of wholeness.

Some things can only be lived with. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you some expensive bullshit intervention, or is simply in denial about their own potential fragility. 


Nature, pain and the body

Nature, as it manifests in my body, is painful. Compared to many people I get off lightly, because it’s bearable and most of the time doesn’t stop me from doing things. However, I’m massively hyper-mobile, which causes pain, and there are some other things (maybe related, maybe not) that also hurt. If I pay attention to my body, then my primary experience is one of hurting.

This is an issue for me around any meditation that involves my body. Relaxing into my body is something I try every now and then, but cannot get to work. I like meditations that distract my brain and those can lead to some degree of relaxation, whereas engaging directly with my body increases my pain awareness and that can make me more tense and uncomfortable.

Ignoring pain doesn’t entirely work. It means I don’t know what’s going on with my body, and I can end up adding to things, or not doing things that would help. I need to make the time to check in with my body and to try and make sense of what’s going on in here. Do I need more rest, or more movement? Do I need to massage painful areas? Or warm them? Or am I too warm?

One of the tricky things for me is that some of what goes wrong really requires rest, and other things that go wrong are best dealt with through movement, and that can all be happening at the same time. There are parts of me that aren’t handling temperature well and that I need to be careful about keeping warm. But I am also doing the menopausal things, and hot flushes don’t go well with that. I can end up both uncomfortably hot and functionally chilled, which is bonkers.

For anyone with multiple conditions, this is a potential problem. Especially around questions of rest and movement. Trying to balance the two is hard. Sometimes there is no right answer, and you simply have to decide what to trade off against what, and which price to pay. It doesn’t matter how good you are at listening to your body, if it has these kinds of internal conflicts, there’s no solution to find.

Some years ago I had a New Agey type try to tell me that my pain was a consequence of not listening to my body, and not being embodied. Having explored down this path, I am confident that it isn’t so. There’s only so much being embodied that I can take, most days. There’s only so much I can fix by paying attention. In order to work, to live and function, I frequently have to do things that hurt, or do them while hurting, and it is better emotionally and psychologically to tune out as much pain as possible at those times. If I let pain awareness take control, then doing the things that keep me moving and vaguely fit gets really hard. If I get weaker, some of the things that are wrong with me will get worse, and my overall heath will be undermined.

Listening to your body is good, but when there are conflicts about what would help, your body may well not know what to do either. For some people, showing up may well be enough to reduce pain. This won’t be true for everyone. We’re back to that old chestnut that if you can heal by making a few minor lifestyle adjustments, you weren’t in that much trouble to begin with, and your experiences aren’t a fair guide for what everyone else can expect.


Escaping clock time

Clock time is very much a feature of industrialisation. It goes with shift work, and the need to have workers in the right place at the right time. Regular working life gives us little to no scope for improvisation, flexibility, time off when ill or when needing things. For most of human history, we haven’t had clocks. We’ve had sun time, and operated in small enough communities that organising without clocks has been just fine. It’s notable that industrial towns and cities tend to have clock towers so that people too poor to have their own watches would know the time.

When the schools closed in 2020 for the pandemic, we no longer needed alarm clocks. Both Tom and I are self employed and can work when we choose. With study moving online, James’s start time was a lot later – he’d been getting to school by bicycle and needed to get up early for that. Suddenly we had a lot more flexibility. This was as well because pandemic stress played havoc with my ability to sleep. I slept when I could, and got up when I couldn’t sleep, and paid little attention to the clock.

We’ve stayed that way. James has continued studying from home and is old enough not to need any help with that. He’s also not faced with an early morning bike ride, so does not need a hearty breakfast, so we can leave him to it. In practice I mostly still get up early, but it’s nice not having to.

Last winter was the first winter I can remember of being free to wake with the light. It was lovely, soothing and restorative. I find winter difficult. Not having to get up in the dark helped me emotionally.

It’s also great having the freedom to sleep in a bit if I’ve had a bad night. I take sleep seriously, I go to bed at sensible times, I drink soothing tea, I am mindful of screen use and over stimulation etc. But, sometimes I get hit by insomnia. Sometimes the anxiety gets me, or the depression, or the menopausal weird night events – sometimes all of these things together, which means failing at sleep. The freedom to wake when I do has brought a lot of health benefits and greatly reduced my stress. Insomnia is much worse when you know how many hours you have left when you could sleep and you can see the next day falling apart before you’ve even got to it. The freedom to sleep in changes everything.

I’m not convinced that the way we currently organise our lives is necessary. With increased automation, we aren’t going to need people in factories working to clock time. Clearly there are some jobs – medical and emergency especially – where you have to be able to count on other people being there. But what if other work and activities were organised in more flexible ways? What if we had more scope to negotiate, or respond to the situation on the day? It would be a much kinder way of interacting. It would be interesting to see how much work doesn’t really depend on clock time, because my suspicion is that many things could be done more flexibly and much more comfortably than they currently are.


What do we inspire?

This question has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks, and I’ve had some interesting social media conversations around it as well. I have issues around not inspiring in people the things that I need and want.

A fellow Pagan with ongoing health issues talked about how difficult it is if you don’t inspire care in others. It took me a long time, several tattoos and a birth to decide that I don’t have a low pain threshold – as I’d always been told – and that I may be experiencing a lot of pain. That I’m able to do a lot can make it hard for people to see what I can’t do, or how much it might cost me. When people are convinced that you are robust and healthybut you aren’t, they may also be convinced that you’re making a fuss or being lazy. That doesn’t inspire care or kindness.

I was asked why I felt the onus was on me to inspire in the first place. I recognise that this is all tied up with feeling that I need to earn a place – that warmth and care for example, are not things I should assume would come my way, but that they have to be earned. I’m better than I was at not assuming all of my relationships will be about utility, because a number of people have gone to some deliberate effort to demonstrate otherwise. But still, it casts a long shadow. I expect to have to earn things and the flip side of this is that if I don’t get what I need in a situation, I tend to assume it’s my fault for not having been good enough in the first place.

There are always interesting questions to ask about where we assume power to be centred. People who feel that they have earned and are responsible for every good thing that comes their way can miss the roles of luck and privilege. People who feel responsible for the things that go wrong can miss the influence of bad luck and other people being unkind or unhelpful. It’s not easy territory in which to strike a healthy balance. We can divide along lines of people who think they are responsible for everything, and people who feel responsible for nothing. Some of us only own our good fortune and feel anything that goes wrong is not of our making. Others of us do the reverse, feeling to blame for any problem and setback, but grateful or lucky in face of anything going well.

What do we inspire? What should we expect from others? How much is a response to me a measure of who I am as a person? When I’m trying to think about this dispassionately, ideas like ‘deserve’ seem largely absurd. Who gets what they truly deserve? Probably no one. Does everyone deserve kindness, respect and a chance to explain when things go wrong? I think so, except I’m not good at applying it to me.

For much of my life, I’ve had an array of issues around what my face and body do or do not inspire in other people. I’ve been bullied a lot over how I look. I’ve had how I look used as a justification for doing all kinds of horrible things to me. The accident of my face and bone structure, the accident of a stomach that just doesn’t develop decent muscles no matter how I try. The accident of a body that stores calories when stressed… things I have little control over that have dominated a number of important relationships.

Perhaps it’s not about what’s intrinsic to me. Perhaps the bigger issue is the way people read meanings into bodies and then refuse to consider anything else. I don’t have a delicate bone structure. That’s not a measure of my overall health and wellbeing. My body shape has a lot to do with how my body is, and is not a measure of a lack of virtue. Perhaps there are other stories to tell where I don’t have to feel entirely responsible for how people react to me.


What if we took mental health seriously?

At the moment here in the UK we have badly funded mental health resources and long waiting lists for anyone in crisis trying to get help. It’s an appalling situation. But, what if we didn’t even start at the point of trying to fix people’s mental health? What if we took mental health so seriously that our laws, culture and ways of living actively supported us in getting to be well? What would need to change?

Stress, and particularly stress caused by poverty and insecurity undermines mental health. If we wanted as many people as possible to be as well as possible, we’d have to deal with those problems. The money and resources exist. Universal Basic Income would remove a lot of fear from people’s lives, which would have wide reaching mental health benefits. 4 day working weeks, and work policies that promote mental health would be great. Shorter shifts, better breaks, kinder and more humane working conditions would all help considerably.

We’d have to take the climate crisis seriously. Distress around the loss of species and habitats is affecting many people’s mental health – especially young people. The insecurity and uncertainty caused by climate change impacts mental health. Flooding, drought, hazardous heat waves, crop failures – we can’t afford this level of uncertainty and threat. We can’t protect our mental health without protecting the environment.

Everyone needs green space where they live and free and easy access to that space. The relationship between mental health and green space is known. We also have better mental health when we have time, energy and opportunity for exercise – being able to move about outside is the cheapest and most sustainable kind of exercise available. That should be on everyone’s doorsteps. To improve everyone’s mental health, we would have to fill our towns and cities with plants and set more space aside for walking and cycling.

We need healthy bodies – good food, clean water, prompt medical care. We need the time and resources to be able to take care of ourselves, which isn’t available if you work long hours for not much money. A great deal of depression and anxiety is caused by being ill and being in pain. Taking mental health seriously means we need a culture of physical wellness too – you can’t separate body and mind.

Good mental health also requires social engagement and feelings of belonging. It calls for dignity and a sense of self worth – much of which would be tackled by dealing with the points I’ve made above. We need laws that uphold dignity and treat people as valuable and not disposable. We need systems that do not punish people for the accident of their circumstances.

We have to stop seeing poor mental health as a sign of personal failing or weakness. It’s a symptom of sick systems, broken relationships and inhuman ways of treating humans. To change that, we have to start thinking that kindness is better than exploitation, that wellbeing should not be a privilege for the few and that consumption is not the answer to everything.


Resilience and Efficiency

Efficiency tends to make people think of saving money and doing the most for least. The trouble with supposedly ‘efficient’ systems is they don’t have any slack in them, so as soon as there’s a problem or a setback, there’s trouble.

In workplaces this can mean having to work overtime if something goes wrong with a project or someone is ill. In healthcare it means not having the beds or staff to deal with something out of the ordinary. Like a pandemic. In education it can mean things like teachers not having the time to comfortably adapt to changes – as we’ve seen in the last year. In the short term, this kind of efficiency can seem cost effective. As soon as circumstances change, it doesn’t work and the cost can be high.

Resilience means being able to adapt. It means being able to afford to take time off when you’re ill, and not having to work people to exhaustion to make up the gap. Resilient approaches are also kinder, gentler ways of working. It assumes you should have options and scope for flexibility and that maybe short term profit isn’t always the most important thing. Assuming you’ll need the option to cope is a good idea, rather than just demanding more from people in times of difficulty.

Efficiency can also result in the normalising of crisis. You set something up so that it is running at capacity. You know perfectly well that things never run smoothly all the time, so the whole approach assumes that the answer it to pile on more pressure in times of difficulty. Once things become difficult, crisis becomes normal because there’s really no room for recovery or getting back on top of things This leads to people always having to work overtime, feeling constantly pressured to skip breaks,  and other such toxic things. Quality of life is undermined by work systems that are designed in this way. What is put forward as efficient can often turn out to be exploitative.

Other kinds of efficient systems require people to work like machines, operating at rates that leave no time for being sociable, or thinking about anything, or anything else human. We shouldn’t be asking people to work like machines – and in the long run this also breaks people, which isn’t efficient for us as a society. It certainly isn’t resilient, either.

The idea of resilience may be a good way to counter toxic narratives around efficiency. Resilience suggests pragmatism. If people aren’t prepared to treat other people kindly, they might be prepared to consider that resilience is a better strategy than short term efficiency.


What if we worked less?

The idea of four day working weeks is something many people have considered, and some businesses have even tried. How different would our lives be if we could afford to only work four days a week? What would change for us? How would we be impacted by other people working less?

Larger businesses can undoubtedly afford to pay workers the same money for four day weeks, and take on more workers to fill the gap. This would improve employment rates. In any sizeable business, there are management people and shareholders making a profit out of the work being done. A bit less money for them and a bit more investment in the people doing the work would make this possible. What evidence there is from people trying four day weeks is that you get a more motivated, healthier and more productive workforce, so it’s not really much of a sacrifice for the would-be profit makers.

I’m self employed so there’s no company that could treat me better than it does. But, if more people had more time off, I would benefit. More books would be read and more people would have energy to invest in leisure, which would probably improve my situation in turn.

More time off means having the scope to do more than just rest, recover and sort out your domestic stuff. More time off means more opportunity to enrich your life. What would you do with that extra day? You might study, or volunteer. You might invest more time in your physical health, or develop hobbies and skills that enrich your life. You’d have more time to meditate, contemplate, get outside, maybe grow your own food. Perhaps some of the less sustainable things you have to do out of time poverty could be changed.

How much of your life is currently organised around being time poor and tired from work? How much time do you even get to think about how you are living day to day? What would change if the people around you had more spare time? What would become available, emotionally and socially that isn’t possible at the moment? Who would you spend more time with?

What would it do to the economy if there was far more employment available, and people also had far more time to enjoy themselves? How would our spending choices change? What would happen to our towns, our communal spaces, and our green spaces if we had more time to use and appreciate them?

Poverty is stressful. Open up more working options, and many people would be in a far better state psychologically. Overwork has long been identified as a source of mental health problems. Stress and exhaustion make us sick, and exacerbate any illnesses we have. How much more well would we all be with a four day working week?

How would education change if a four day week was normal? How much more flexible could we make it, how many more options might people of all ages have around opportunities to learn and develop?

Asking what if we worked less also means considering some fundamental questions about what our lives are for and who they should benefit. Having more time for ourselves would make our lives much more about our own happiness and wellbeing, and that would be a truly radical shift.


Contemplating resilience

I’m writing this on a Friday morning. This is part of a new cunning plan about how I organise my time, and it has paid off well. I’ve shuffled about so that I don’t have to be online at any specific time in the morning. Anything that needs to happen before lunchtime is set up the day before, or earlier. This has worked out well. It means if I have a sleepless night, or am otherwise ill, I can get to the computer whenever, and nothing is messed up.

This shift also means that if I’m having a bad day for concentration, I’m under no pressure. This is as well – this is a blog post brought about by being short of useful ideas, written on a day when I’m in a lot of body pain and don’t have much energy. It’s a slow process, having ideas and writing.

I’ve become much more possessive of my time and energy. I’ve had to, there just isn’t enough of it to go round. I’ve started asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ What do I want? What do I need? These are not questions I am good at answering, but I’m going to keep asking them.

Flexibility helps. Giving myself more wriggle room for the really bad days, helps. Slack in the system helps. We live in a society that prizes efficiency, but, what efficiency really means is nowhere to go if something goes wrong. Efficiency doesn’t give you enough hospital beds in a pandemic. It doesn’t give you resilience in face of sudden change. It doesn’t give you options. Working when ill isn’t as efficient as taking time off to recover, but an overly efficient system won’t let you have time off. Ironically, trying to be efficient isn’t efficient as soon as the situation changes. There’s a lot to be said for trying to be resilient in the first place.

For me, resilience looks like being able to afford to stop and rest whenever I am too tired to continue. Days off at need would be helpful, but I’m not quite up to that, yet. I can work very short days when I need to, and on the day of writing this post, I’m contemplating that choice. I could push on with an interesting piece of work I have on the go, but I’ll do a better job if I’m not so tired. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired, but it was probably more than a year ago.

Working hard doesn’t save anyone. It just grinds you down and reduces your quality of life. If your financial situation is so bad that you have no choice but to work long hours for little pay – that’s truly awful. I’ve done some of that kind of work, and I know that we need radical political change. No one should have to break their physical or mental health to be able to afford to eat. No one should be worked to death so that the billionaires, the shareholders and the people who profit from other people’s labour can keep doing that.

I want everyone to be able to take time off when they need it. I want everyone who is ill to be able to afford to rest and recover. Financially vulnerable people working when ill have certainly been part of how covid is getting around and a kinder, fairer system would have protected us all from the consequences of that.