Tag Archives: work

Talking about poverty

The stories in western cultures go that wealth is deserved and poverty is the consequence of laziness or other failings. This makes it difficult to talk about experiences of being poor, because there’s always the fear of being judged, blamed and thought less of. This in turn makes it harder to challenge those dominant narratives about what wealth and poverty mean.

In practice, your best chance at being rich is to be born into a wealthy family. It’s not actually about personal excellence, skill or merit for the greater part. It is the accident of your birth. There are of course exceptions, but on the whole, wealth begets wealth.

If you are born into poverty, you may be clever enough and skilled enough to work your way out – people do. But, not everyone does. We have many studies from psychology that demonstrate what happens to rats growing up in impoverished environments and with poor diets. None of it bodes well for your average rat, or, by reasonable extension, your average human. Exceptional people can thrive regardless of where they start from, but a system that requires everyone poor to be exceptional clearly isn’t fair or reasonable.

Most households are only one serious problem away from disaster. A sudden job loss, a serious illness, a bereavement, the failing of a key bit of kit… and from there, debt, and difficulty and spiralling into increasing trouble from which it is every harder to break out. Poverty is often a consequence of sheer bad luck. However, if we blame people for their poverty and misery, those of us who are doing ok can hang on to the belief that our virtues keep us safe. We can pretend it won’t happen to us… right up until it does.

People who have never experienced poverty can have some funny ideas both about how it works, and who is afflicted by it. I’ve been in too many conversations about the undeserving poor, the feckless, careless, doing it to themselves, should try harder, shouldn’t have had so many children… Words from comfortable people who may not even be aware of how they are inclined to blame the poor for poverty. And yes, of course some poor people make bad choices – people at any income level do that. We judge the person with a million pounds of debt far differently from how we judge the person who doesn’t have a tenner for food this week.

I’ve experienced poverty. I’ve managed to keep afloat – which I think was a mix of luck, judgement and discipline. I’ve had those days when I wished I could get so drunk that I no longer felt anything. I know why people might do less than responsible things to try and escape from the misery of their own lives – if only for a while. Grinding misery does not facilitate the best short term thinking.

The Haves get their stories about poverty – for the greater part – from the media and from others who have plenty. We won’t get a cultural shift without those who have enough better understanding how poverty works. So I keep trying to talk about it. I keep asking people if they have ever had to choose between heating and eating, and what they imagine that might be like. I will challenge assumptions about all the luxuries the Haves are convinced the Have Nots are able to get with universal credit. I’ll keep talking about the shopping implications of poverty, and the stress and mental health implications. I hope by doing so I will also make it a bit easier for other people to tell their stories.

A great deal of poverty is invisible, because the stigma attached to it makes it much more appealing to hide the problem and pretend you are ok. Can you tell if the person you are looking at has been able to afford decent food this week? You can’t. Do you know whose debts have spiralled out of control? Who is selling their stuff on ebay to pay the electric bill? Of course not. And if you treat poverty as the deserved consequence of personal failure, who is going to tell you otherwise?

Advertisements

Time off – some observations

I took last week off – sort of. I still wrote a few blog posts and checked my email most days, but compared to a normal working week it was minimal stuff. I used the time to look after my home a bit, to read, craft, walk, and rest.

By Friday of my week off, I was starting to feel a bit better. That told me a lot about how exhausted I’d been. I need to make some ongoing changes around rest and time off, clearly. Once I reached this point it was also noticeable that the anxious aspects of my thinking had toned down significantly. I would like to spend more of my time not so close to the edge, so this is something to explore.

I’ve spent some time thinking about what uplifts and restores me, and how to do more of that.

I’m going to keep notes on how long I’m working each day, so I can cap the length of my working week. There are some hazy areas around working and not working for me. Is rehearsing a mumming side work? Is doing technical support for a friend part of my work time? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not going to get bogged down in the details because the self employed life is sprinkled with speculative stuff that never turns into paying gigs, and fun things that turn out to be research. I can’t read a book without learning something, but that doesn’t necessarily make it work…

I want to be able to work a solid eight hours a day when my brain is sharp and fast. I want to have the rest of the day off to do domestic things and potter about. I know if I slide into longer days I become slower and get less done for the time put in. Creativity is dependent on having time when I’m not busily thinking about workish things –I’ve not been getting this balance right. I’m hoping this time off will have given me a reboot and that I’ll be able to change some of my working patterns.

And if it hasn’t been a successful reboot, I’m simply going to do it again!


Taking time off

Taking time off as a self employed or freelance person is challenging. First of all, no one pays you if you aren’t working so you have to be able to afford the economic hit. Secondly, the odds are there’s no one to cover you so all the key work has to be done to fit around the time off. Thirdly there’s the fear most of us seem to experience that if you don’t do all the work you can when it comes in, that work won’t come back – it will dry up or you’ll be less prepared for the next patch when you’re under-employed.

This week off has been a couple of months in the planning and setup. For some years now, I’ve managed to take the week off between Christmas and New Year. That’s easier because most people don’t work then so there’s not a build up of work queries to deal with. One week off a year, plus working some weekends and not always being able to offset at the time means living closer to the edge of viability than I think is clever. I’m also aware that creativity depends on downtime, and I need more downtime. I could also use some hours and energy to invest in my living space. I’m not going away, I’m just going to do different things for a week, and maybe nap more.

This blog will be running – I have some guest posts to share (which has been a great help) and will cobble a few together as I go (as I have with this one) because I need to get on the computer to check there are no ticking time bombs waiting in my email.

Patreon is still running this week, I set that up last week. If you want to support what I do, get more of it, and help me stay a bit more feasible, this is a good place to jump in – there are various levels, and everything helps. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB 

If you want to make a one off donation, that would also be lovely! Ko-fi.com/O4O3AI4T

You can also support me by buying my books, which are available from pretty much everywhere that sells books. If you want the comics and aren’t in the UK, your best bet ishttps://bookdepository.com – stuck my name in your book site of preference to see what’s out there…


Utility and identity

Being reduced to your utility is not good for self esteem. However, there’s a powerful flip-side to this as well – if you aren’t sure of what space there is for you, utility can be a good thing to hide behind. I’ve gone into many spaces offering my usefulness and willing to work simply so that I could be confident there was a space for me. I find it hard to ask for space if I’m not clear about what I’m offering. I feel more secure when I have a defined role.

Workishness can also be a good defence from having to look too closely at areas of insufficiency. I’ve done this, too. If you’re always busy, if there’s always a stack of jobs to do, you never have to pause and look at your life. Emotional insufficiencies can be blocked out by work. If you are busy, you never have to ask what you want or need – something else is always more important. If your situation isn’t that happy or rewarding but you want to stay in it, being busy can enable that, but it isn’t always the best choice.

Relentless working can become a part of your identity. The idea of ‘hard work’ as a virtue can mean that grinding yourself down every day seems like a noble or necessary activity. If you take up residence here, then the work, the doing, and being someone who works flat out all the time can become a major part of your sense of self. I’ve watched a few people go down this road and it isn’t pretty. Once you buy into working yourself into the ground as part of who you are, there’s a lot of motivation to hang on to it. Who would you be without the work?

Who am I? It is always a challenging question to ask. Who am I aside from this thing I have pegged my time, energy and identity to? And the more frightening question: Am I anything at all if I am not useful and working? It can prove far less frightening to keep slogging away so as not to have space to ask that question in the first place…

Relentless slogging leads to diminishing returns. Exhaustion, burnout, lack of ideas, lack of inspiration and input all take you in a downward spiral, locked into an embrace with the very thing that is taking you down. Breaking out of that is hard. If you’ve become utility-orientated, the best break out comes from seeing utility in different terms: If you want to be creative, inspired, able to do radical new things and make real change, you need to be well resourced. You need energy and inspiration and this means you need to take care of your own needs and wants at least some of the time. Resting improves efficiency.

The other question to ask, is what are you working for? What is this supposed to achieve? Because unless your vision is of a world where we all work ourselves to death as fast as possible, the odds are you aren’t moving towards your own vision here. I’ve seen this come up repeatedly for activists and creators alike. Living in a way that is at odds with the world you want to create isn’t a good idea and manifestly does not deliver your intentions.

It’s important to pause regularly and draw breath. Ask what you are doing, and why, and whether the means truly support the ends. If you are routinely hurting yourself, ask what you are protecting yourself from in doing this. Dare to ask what you really want, and what the best way to get there might be. Being busy isn’t always the most productive approach, sometimes it’s a way of avoiding the things you most need to do.


Work and mental health

There are all sorts of things I would like to do but can’t, because I know I don’t have the emotional resilience. It is, frequently, really frustrating. There are skills I have that I can’t always use to best effect because I can’t deal with certain kinds of situations. If there’s an aggressive tone to arguing, I won’t last long. I can’t cope with people who are controlling and like to run power-over – which does not make me easy to employ! If I need to stand up for myself, I can find I’ve got nowhere to go.

I’m fortunate in that there are a number of steady, small freelance jobs I do where I’m well insulated. I work for people who understand me, am left mostly to get on with it, and feel safe. I do some pretty good work in those contexts, too. If there’s nothing to trigger a mental health problem, I’m a good worker. I bring loyalty, dedication, willingness to go the extra distance to get things done. Frequently I also bring passion and creative thinking. What I don’t have is the capacity to fight people. I don’t have the means to deal with a lot of ‘normal’ human behaviour.

I hate how this makes me feel. I hate the feeling of inadequacy that comes from not being able to deal with more abrasive environments. I hate not having the emotional resources to face down someone who is being sexist, or unreasonably demanding, or domineering. I hate having to ask for help dealing with more challenging workspaces. I hate having to say to people that I know I am too fragile to do something.

I also know that mental health is fragile. We’re all breakable. We can all be ground down by too much pressure, by inhuman treatment, unreasonable demands, constantly shifting goal posts and toxic environments. There’s so much mental health crisis in the world today and it is in no small part because we insist on maintaining toxic workspaces. There is shame in saying ‘I can’t take this’ and so often the feeling that you should be able to, and that not being tough enough to handle the poison is your failing, not the failing of your situation.

I am too fragile for this. I hate being too fragile. I will however, keep talking about it, keep owning the shame I feel and the difficulty I experience. I don’t want to work in environments where any sensitivity gets you labelled a snowflake and treated dismissively, or further bullied for being in trouble. I know it isn’t necessary. There is no job, no working arrangement where efficiency is improved by giving people a hard time. There is no job where bullying makes people better at what they do, and having to fight every inch of the way ups your creativity. It’s a rather nasty myth that keeps certain spaces in the hands of the most aggressive and toxic people. Politics being a very obvious example of this.

If you can’t stand the heat, there’s something wrong with the kitchen.


Working hours and mental health

One of the things I worry about, because I suffer from assorted physical issues and poor mental health, is not being able to work like a ‘normal’ person. This can mean pushing harder to try and do at least as much as I think a person in regular employment would do. Whatever that means.

Last autumn I established that I can do 40-50 hour weeks. I sustained that kind of workload for about five months. I watched it undermine my physical health and wipe out my mental health. On reflection, I don’t think is purely because I was fragile to begin with, but because long working hours are detrimental to mental health.

A long day leaves a person with no energy in the evening – or what’s left of it. You can only recover. If you can recover. You can’t do anything much to lift, cheer and sustain yourself. It is difficult being sociable or physically active when you are exhausted. The same thing happens with weekends – if you can take them. Being too tired to do anything much and not even having the energy to try and think of something it might be good to do.

In a counterpoint to this, I’ve seen a few articles floating about online regarding companies who have cut down to four day weeks without cutting pay. Productivity and enthusiasm go up. Sick days are reduced. Happier and more motivated staff turn out to be better workers.

When you are exhausted, it is harder to make good decisions. It is harder to plan for the long term or to take the time to examine your work life balance. Exhaustion as your normal state, is a toxic condition to live with. It sucks the joy out of life and turns everything into a chore that will take energy you can’t afford. Exhaustion makes it harder to engage with others, harder to care and harder to give. When you feel under-resourced, you are more easily persuaded of scarcity and the need to make sure you are protecting yourself from others. Exhaustion makes us easier to control.

When you have energy and time in which to deploy it, you can make more informed life choices. You aren’t just fighting for the next breath or staggering towards the next sleep. People who feel well resourced feel more able to share and give and are less likely to be frightened or persuaded by emotive, unevidenced arguments promoting hatred and division.

As the UK has shuffled towards the brexit cliff edge, I’ve noticed how many people I know are simply exhausted. I hear myself saying ‘just make it stop’, conscious that torture works by getting people to the point where they will do anything, say anything to make it stop. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Exhaustion works in much the same way. We don’t make our best choices when we are exhausted, and when we would do anything to just stop suffering for a little while.


Join a Trade Union

One of the methods Molly Scott Cato suggests you can use to resist fascism, is joining a trade union. It is certainly a good way of resisting exploitation, upholding workers’ rights and connecting with something bigger than yourself. For many of us it’s also not an option. If you’re in the gig economy, working handfuls of hours here and there wherever you can get work, there is no union to protect you. This is no doubt why such work is on the rise. If you’re in the illegal side of the economy as a trafficked person or illegal immigrant, you are unprotected and likely to be massively exploited – sometimes in ways that will kill you.

As an author, and someone working in the comics industry, I have no union to join. I joined The Society of Authors because it’s the next best thing – they offer legal advice and they lobby on behalf of writers.

In the arts, there is always someone who will do it for less, or do it for free. You’re paid for the finished product (if you are paid at all) and not for your time, so the scope for even making the minimum wage often isn’t that good. There are always people trying to break into the industry who are persuaded that working for free, for exposure, for the portfolio, for a shot at a paying gig next time, is worth it. And why would anyone pay for what they can just take?

Online, our work is pirated and given away, or even sold by others who never pay a penny to the original creator. New laws against piracy look to be more for the big corporations, not for the indie creators. We may be hurt by the ‘protections’ coming in. If we can’t afford to sue, we have little scope to protect our work, and we can’t get a fair share of the worth, often.

More than anything else, what creative people need (I think) is solidarity from other working people. That means recognition that we are also working people, doing work that is just as real as anyone else’s and for which we deserve to be paid. We need other working people to stop telling us to do it for love, or that it’s just a hobby, or that them giving away our work is somehow doing us a favour, or that we should be grateful to the people who pirate our books to read them because at least someone is reading them.

This goes further than creative industries, too. Our economy depends on unpaid work – usually domestic, but also volunteers in other spheres. There are no unions for carers, for child raisers, for people who provide the domestic underpinnings that give others the freedom to get educated and to pursue careers. There are no unions for the grandparents who take on the childcare. No one is lobbying government on their behalf. This work is essential and without it many other things would be unfeasible. If you are interested in worker’s rights, it is important to include the people whose work is often both invisible and unpaid.

Don’t marginalise people who are not working, either. There is no trade union to join if you are out of work. There is also no trade union to join if you are too ill to work, or if keeping yourself functioning is such a big job that it doesn’t allow you the time and energy to be economically active. Being chronically ill is incredibly hard work.

Join a trade union if you can. Whether you can or not, stand in solidarity with workers who are vulnerable, marginalised and exploited. Don’t see migrants – even the illegal immigrants as your enemy – question the people who use and abuse them. Question the poverty that has driven them to migrate, and ask who caused it. Don’t see underpaid work as ‘fun’ or a calling and assume that makes it ok somehow. Don’t ignore the work of people who are not paid for what they do. We’re all workers. Poverty and desperation make people more vulnerable to fascist politics. A climate of exploitation makes us all more vulnerable. Solidarity and mutual respect are essential.


Getting my brain back

One of the things I particularly struggle with around depression and anxiety is the way both of these things impact on my ability to think. When I’m suffering, I lose focus and my concentration is greatly impaired. It takes me longer to do everything, I have fewer ideas, and I’m less confident in my judgement. Of course when everything takes longer, there’s less time for rest or for good stuff, which makes the depression and anxiety worse. A vicious circle forms.

Not being able to think well in recent months has flagged up to me how invested I am in my mental function as part of my identity. I had made a number of work choices based on a belief that I would be clever enough to juggle it all. At the start of September I was working eight different small, part time jobs, because with no idea how the finances were going to work after an unexpected upheaval, I said yes to everything that came in. I put one of those jobs down quickly. Several of the others had steep learning curves and a lot to take in, so the autumn was challenging.

At Christmas I put down what was identifiably the smallest job – some marketing work I’d been doing for a couple of authors. Happily, I was able to point out to them where their own strengths were and how best to go forward and I think they’ve being handling it well since then. I think it was the right time for all of us to reconsider my role.

I came into January with six jobs, coping better and doing more several of them, but still struggling to think. I started to feel like it was me – that I couldn’t cope with forty hour weeks, and that the problem was my own poor mental health. I struggled on, with things getting harder day by day. I reduced my hours on one of the jobs, and got very little benefit from that. By early February, everything was reducing me to tears and I knew I was in trouble. I put down two of the jobs – two that were interlinked. I had got to the point of feeling that I just couldn’t do it anymore, and the fear of breaking down in tears when dealing with people had become a serious thing. At that point I was still afraid that the problem was me, and that I would stay where I was.

In the few weeks since then, I’ve become calmer. I’m still working very long hours, because there are jobs I need to finish. But, this week, my brain started working again. I’ve become faster and more confident, and that in turn has lifted and cheered me. I like myself better when my mind is sharp. I may now be able to create a virtuous circle and get back on my feet again.

What I’ve learned from this is that I can work 40-50 hour weeks and be mentally viable. What I find hard is having to shift between lots of different, often unrelated jobs, but, if everything else is ok, I can do that. Where I have clarity about what I’m supposed to be doing and the room to get on and deliver, I have managed. What I can’t deal with is uncertainty, fast moving goalposts and frequent changes of direction. I don’t know that I could do one 30 hour a week job in that sort of environment and stay functional.

Today I feel a bit more like a person I can recognise. A person who can have ideas and gets stuff done. Feeling more like myself combats the depression and anxiety, and gives me more tools with which to deal with those issues. I’m lucky because I was able to put the problem job down quickly – not everyone can afford to. How many other people’s mental health issues are simply a consequence of their economic circumstances, the lack of control they have over their lives, the pressures created by their workplaces and the huge feelings of uncertainty created by the ill considered choices of governments?


Working while anxious

Experiences of panic and anxiety can make working difficult, or impossible. It’s hard to think clearly when anxious. Decision-making, prioritising, and concentration can all be impaired, which makes getting anything done difficult, and also makes it hard to trust that what you have done is right. Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful for working with anxiety.

Invest more time in planning how and when you are going to do things. I use a physical diary and I allocate work to specific days. Having moved to this from an endless to-do list, I find it helps me stay on top of work and not get overwhelmed. Also use your diary to plan rest time, time off and restorative activities. Time spent planning is a good investment because it’ll help you avoid being overwhelmed. It helps with making more realistic decisions, and monitoring progress. It gives a much needed feeling of being in control.

Take breaks. It is more efficient to take a break than it is to push on with poor concentration and mess up. It is more efficient to take a day off, get into a better headspace and carry on from there than it is to burn out, collapse or have a meltdown. If something seems impossible or overwhelming, stepping back to properly assess it puts you in a better position.

Look after your physical health. Eat good food, move about, get outside, stay hydrated, get enough rest and sleep. Don’t treat your body as a non-issue because the work is on top of you. Look after your body and you will be better able to cope with everything.

Don’t assume the problem is you. When you’re anxious, it’s easy to assume that the problems with stress and overload are being caused by your own mental health problems. This isn’t necessarily true. It may well be that stress has external causes that need dealing with. If you don’t feel able to assess this, check in with someone you trust and ask them how it looks. If your workplace is making unreasonable demands, even if you can’t get that changed it can help a lot knowing that the demands are unreasonable and that it isn’t coming from inside you. Feelings of failing only add to feelings of anxiety.

If you live with other people, check in with them too about balances of work and domestic responsibility. We have a household policy that the person who is having the easier time with paid work picks up the larger share of the domestic work – and we pass that balance back and forth at need. We re-negotiate regularly and we check in with each other to see what’s changing. If one person has a deadline, it might be a good week to let them off domestic responsibilities. I find that in the week or so after a big project, I’m more inclined to do the domestic things and may dig in for deeper cleaning and re-organising.

We don’t become anxious alone. Anxiety is the consequence of experience, and it’s often the consequence of having been put under too much pressure for too long a period. We don’t solve this on our own – even if all the conventional responses to mental health make it an individual issue. In practice, the solution to mental health difficulties is often team work. Wellness is a consequence of how we work together, how we share the loads, the stresses and the opportunities to kick back. If we all check in with each other to make sure workloads are shared fairly, anxiety is reduced. We can also help each other by working together to create peaceful, supportive environments and to plan ahead so that people know what they’re doing and when. Predictability eases anxiety.


Work, depression and self esteem

Here are some mechanics I have observed repeatedly in my own life, and am fairly sure I am seeing in the lives of various of my friends who suffer from depression.

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → unable to work → feeling even more inadequate → becoming even more depressed.

Or…

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → working harder → becoming even more exhausted → becoming more depressed.

When you look to work for validation, for a sense of self worth and achievement, and depression is gnawing away at your underpinnings, the odds are you aren’t going to win. But, if you don’t work (be that paid or unpaid), you get to feel even more useless. Depression is good at telling a person they are useless, worthless, unlovable, unacceptable.

Thus when depression kicks in, I turn towards work to try and feel validated. While resting might help my body, it can actually leave me more anxious and insecure than trying to crack on. Instead of turning to others around me for help and kindness, I dig in to the most utilitarian relationships. I focus on where I am most useful, not where most good flows towards me.

I’ve looked hard at the mechanics of this, as it happens in my own life and as I observe others on the same downward spirals. The conclusions I have come to are that it is very hard to get off this spiral on your own, and that once you are on it is not a good time to be dealing with the things that cause it. The real answer lies in what happens the rest of the time – how loved, supported, valued, resourced and welcome a person feels. The degree to which utility dominates relationships in the normal scheme of things. The amount of positive feedback and soul food.

This in turn leads me to thinking about how we normally treat each other. How transactional are our relationships? How much of a feeling of scarcity underpins how we treat each other? How much do we do to validate each other in the normal scheme of things? What do we do for the people around us if we suspect they aren’t ok? If we can support and validate each other on terms that are not primarily about usefulness, I suspect we can all help each other stay out of the awful downwards spirals.

There is a massive amount of power in telling someone you value them, and that their value is not conditional on what they do for you.