Tag Archives: work

Changing how I work

This week I put down my paid work with the Transition Network. For some years now I’ve done a monthly community newsletter for Transition Stroud, and of late I’ve also been doing the social media as well. It’s been a good project to work with and there’s a lot to like about it. The pay was steady, more than the minimum wage most of the time, and it was work I could do well. I poured a lot into it.

Like many self employed people, I work multiple small jobs. The trouble with this is the generally invisible work around working. If you just do one job, you probably won’t notice it. You need to know your people, the outfit you work for, its rules, habits, assumptions, systems and whatnot. As someone doing social media work, I also have to know the brand identity and how it’s evolving and be on top of news developments.  There’s quite a lot of mental work that all of us do around the work we officially do.

When you work multiple jobs, you still have to have a full job’s worth of that knowledge for every single job you are doing. Then you have to move between jobs, keeping track of what applies where.  It might seem like having lots of small jobs would be no harder work than doing the same number of hours on a single job, but it is, because of all that extra mental labour required.

There was a brief patch when I was up to eight jobs, and a long stretch when I was doing seven.  I’d successfully brought the number down, but even so it’s been hard. The Transition work was my one remaining outlier, the job that doesn’t overlap with any other job, which makes it the most expensive in terms of tracking all the information I need.  It’s not been easy to let go of, but if I am to avoid burnout and stay passably sane, this is the kind of change I need to make.

The other less than perfectly visible issue with having lots of freelance jobs, is that you have none of the benefits conventional employment gives. There is no paid sick leave. There is also no paid holiday leave. In the absence of paid time off, you either have to take a pay cut to get a break, or you have to work extra hard to offset your missing week. Neither of these approaches is restful.  Having done years when I didn’t manage to take a whole week off, this kind of thing is hard, and not good for mental health.

There are advantages to companies and organisations in hiring freelancers – no national insurance to pay, no pension requirements, no holiday or sick pay, short term contracts, fewer rights for the person you’ve hired, and it’s easier to have them on flexible terms. For a small outfit this can be an unavoidable necessity – Transition Stroud is a community group with a small budget and just doesn’t have enough work to turn what I was doing into a full time job.  This is also often the way of it around marketing and social media work, and quite a lot of publishing industry work. These are also reasons we really need Universal Basic Income to smooth things out for individual workers and small organisations alike.


Seasonal Exhaustion

It is mid December and as usual for this time of year, I’m exhausted. The reasons are different from other years, but the outcomes are much the same. In previous years I’ve been out working Christmas markets, having had to work extra hard in the days leading up to it, to clear my regular online work so as to make the time. In recent years I’ve also worked evening events – often other people’s seasonal parties. Late nights, then up early to do the markets. One year I did a market day and an evening event until 3 in the morning.

Usually I’m trying to figure out how and when the festive gift shopping and wrapping is going to happen. Trying to cut down on seasonal waste, I’ve made gift bags for several years running, and home-made gifts. Last year I made crackers and re-usable fabric hats. Which all takes time and planning and work and effort.

Some years I’ve managed to take time off between Christmas and New Year and often this is my one week off in the year and I can’t always manage it. I’m doing a lot less festive work this year, but the extra push to get time off may be beyond me. Perhaps I’ll be able to have a long weekend.

Christmas always means exhaustion. This year, between covid, and Tom having had a stroke, I’ve made it very clear that I’m just not doing the things. I’m not making anything for anyone else at the moment. I’m not shopping, or making bags. There’s an economic impact to not doing the markets but I’m so glad covid-caution persuaded us not to because Tom recovering from a stroke really can’t work that way this year and I cannot do it on my own. There’s too much to carry around.

Most years, I don’t really have time or energy to do much for midwinter – which is my festival, because of what I end up doing for Christmas. Perhaps this year I will be able to do something other than work.  


Capitalism and the virus

All the evidence at this point suggests that the environment in which you are most likely to catch the virus is as follows: It’s a crowded space with poor ventilation. In the UK we’ve seen hotspots around university accommodation. Amazon had a significant outbreak in their workforce. Obvious candidates include crowded trains, cramped workspaces, over-crowded schools, and of course busy social locations like pubs.

What these locations all have in common is that they are designed to extract the maximum profit for the minimum cost. Space is money. Businesses that can squeeze more people into less room can make more money because the overheads are reduced. And whether that’s cramming people into a bar or a warehouse, the implications are similar – there is a health risk.

To do anything safely at the moment, we need space between people and good ventilation. This doesn’t combine well with trying to get the maximum profits for the least space. Capitalism does not equip us well to deal with the virus, and it has given us workspaces and social spaces that, by their cramped nature, are problematic at the moment. And really speaking, always were.

Imagine a world in which we wanted nice things. Imagine a world in which workspaces were always comfortable, healthy and good to be in, and where living well was more important than shareholder profit. Imagine well ventilated workspaces. Imagine workspaces where the mental and physical wellbeing of employees mattered.

Capitalism teaches us that all of these things should be sacrificed for the good of the profit margin. But surely there is more to life than profit? If we are to survive this virus, there has to be more to life than profit.


Internalised capitalism, actual poverty

I’ve been seeing a meme doing the rounds that identifies a set of experiences as internalised capitalism: Feeling guilty for resting, self worth based on career, putting productivity before health, believing that hard work leads to happiness, feeling lazy when you can’t work and using busyness to avoid your needs. It struck me that this can be as much about poverty as it is about capitalism.

If you are comfortably off, then you might be able to avoid these feelings. But, in reality most people are a paycheck or two away from total disaster. One big, unexpected bill can throw most people into difficulty. If anyone depends on you, then that’s a lot of pressure to be under. So you work when you’re ill, because you have to try and stay ahead to keep you and your people safe. There is no job security anymore, no certainty, nothing much you can count on to help you if things go wrong, in too many parts of the world.

The more poor and insecure we are, the more tightly we are tied to all these things. The more reason we have to fear poverty, the more obliged we are to internalise the capitalism and sell ourselves to survive. Capitalism is not a system that creates wealth for all, it is a system that thrives on poverty, and fear of poverty. It would be nice to be able to avoid internalising that, but the more vulnerable you are, the fewer options you have.

Capitalism doesn’t work for most of us. Things that really need doing – growing food, caring for the sick and vulnerable, raising children, looking after the land – don’t actually pay very well. The best way to make money in this system is not by working, but by using the money to make money. The most successful capitalists at the moment seem to be the disaster capitalists who are able to play the markets and make money out of things going wrong for everyone else. Capitalism does not feed the hungry, or shelter the homeless, or safeguard the environment. At which point it seems fair to ask what use it is.

The work we do should be meaningful and useful. There is no shortage of that sort of work that needs doing. Identifying with our work, in a context where our work is making things better, would be fine. No one should have to fear the consequences of not being able to work. No one should have to work when they are ill. No one should spend their time mostly exhausted. Human systems should work for the vast majority of people involved in them, not a small minority.


How to create well

One of the unexpected blessings of lockdown has been an opportunity to rethink how I live and work. Not having the lad in school has changed the shape of the day because I don’t have to get up early. I’ve also changed how and when I sleep – something I’ll blog about another day. The result is much greater flexibility, which I’m enjoying.

It’s clear there’s all kinds of upheaval coming for me – which I’m looking forward to. With much of the future uncertain it struck me as a good idea to look at my priorities and preferences. I can’t plan much, but I can be ready to make the best of what comes along.

One of the things that has become obvious is that if I want to work creatively, I have to rethink how I deploy my time. If all of my available energy and concentration in a day goes on paying work, it’s not sustainable. There comes a point where I can’t do any creative work because I’ve run out of resources. This should be blindingly obvious, but the pressure to be productive and economically effective is high, and the things I really need to be doing don’t look productive.

I need time to read for pleasure and also to study. I need time to experiment, mess about, practice and explore without having to worry about creating a viable finished product. I need to spend time doing things that cheer and uplift me and engaging with the people who delight and inspire me. I also need time when I’m not doing anything much with my brain – to daydream and wool gather, to ask what if and why, and wherefore?

I don’t have my best ideas by pushing for them. I have my best ideas by making space for them.

I can be structured and professional about the writing, but it only works for the long haul if I also get enough playtime.

I don’t think this is just a writing issue. I don’t think it’s just a creative industries issue. I think it’s going to be about the same for everyone. No matter what you do, too much focus on productivity will be unproductive in many ways. The space to live and grow is essential. I think it’s ironic that if you want to be the most effective working human being, the odds are that slowing down and not trying to work so much are the keys to success. It takes time to live a life that is inspired. Not having the pressure to succeed and produce is actually really helpful when it comes to success and output.  And even if that wasn’t the case, this is still the better way to live.

I’m now aiming for four or five hours of productive work every day and four or five hours or investment time, plus time spent living.


Putting the heart back into my creative process

One of the things that trying to work as a creative professional can do to you, is knock the joy out of the creating. When being taken seriously as a creator depends on earning enough, there’s a lot of pressure. How people see you – friends, family, people your life brings you into contact with – often depends on your earning power. The underpaid creative is often taken to be a hobbiest, lazy, incompetent, selfish… it can be a very unhappy experience. So you try to make it pay, to prove that what you do is worth doing.

When did I stop creating for the joy of it? Hard to say as it was a process, not an event. I used to be someone who wrote a lot, but that’s not been true in a while. I’ve struggled to be creative. Starting a patreon account a few years ago helped a lot, in no small part because of that economic component – if I was writing for people who were willing to pay me to write, that made it ok. Not irresponsible self indulgence. Not a failure to take care of my family and household.

As lockdown started, I realised I needed something to work on that would help me stay functional. There’s little point trying to be seriously economically active at the moment and that’s been liberating. So I’m writing a series called Wherefore – it’s a bit like a soap opera in that there’s no grand plan or over-arching structure. It’s on my youtube channel – https://www.youtube.com/nimuebrown I’m just doing it because I want to. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on those terms.

I have a collaborator in this – Bob Fry, who is also in my mumming side, and has a truly unusual mind. He’s been giving me prompts and ideas, and I started writing primarily for him. As it has gone along and other people have responded, I’ve started writing with them in mind as well, and so it is made out of love and the desire to entertain people who like what I do – and this is going well. For the first time in many years, I want to write for the pleasure of creating and sharing. Working with other people and having other people to create for is key for me. I don’t do this well as a solitary process.

Much of my difficulty stems from wider issues in the creative industries as a whole. Most creative people cannot make a living from their work. The question has always been about how to respond to that. Should I dig in and try harder to be ‘professional’ and economically viable? Or should I try and muddle along economically and create what I feel moved to create? I’m moving towards the second position. As a household, we are viable financially, and that will do. I need to put the heart back into my work. I need to create for the love of it, and for the love of the people out there who enjoy what I make. The worth of creating is something I need to measure in the joy it brings, not what I’m paid for it.

If lockdown has taught us anything, it should be that the value of the work people do, and what they get paid for it, are wholly unrelated issues. It’s true of the frontline essential workers, and it’s just as true of the creative folk who are keeping everyone amused and comforted – often just by giving work away. What we pay for, and what we need are two separate issues in our strangely structured society. I don’t have to keep on measuring my worth as a creator in terms of what anyone is willing to pay me. I can measure it in terms of what it does, and if I can delight a few people, that’s time well spent.


How to shape a life

Everything is strange right now, and I have changed how I order my days to try and help me cope with this. I’m someone who has mostly worked from home, so there’s less adaptation there for me than for some people.

It became obvious to me a few weeks ago when the coronavirus crisis got going that my concentration was suffering. I’ve been giving myself more time for everything. Alongside this I find I want to be online more because this is where I connect with people. So, I no longer take weekends off. I’m working a bit every day, and find the structure helps. I don’t have to do that much on any given day, but a feeling of keeping moving is proving useful.

I’m getting up with the light. I’m not sleeping well and am now reliably up at least once in the night. This is a new normal I am struggling with, and I need to nap more. I think this is adrenaline and panic acting on my body, I don’t quite feel able to stop. Things to work on.

Who is around when online is starting to inform the shape of my day, as well. Times set aside for phone calls.

I am tired with my whole being. But, getting something done, something a bit like normal life is helping me cope. It anchors me. This blog is a fine case in point. I show up, I do the things, I feel a bit more like myself.

I’m also finding that same accountability really helpful around writing – there are a few people I know are following Wherefore and being amused by it, and that’s a reason to pick up a pen and try to keep something moving. However small. It’s also a reason to brush my hair and try and put on a presentable face for a little while. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2iAnLZ1JJzOfltGrnS0P8Q

I dislike the thought forms floating around the internet that we should all be using this time to become super-fit, create epic art, become a world class chef, compose music, write novels, learn languages, etc etc. It’s hard enough getting out of bed in the morning. It’s hard enough getting through the day with sanity a bit in tact. If creating is part of how you cope – dig in. But that’s the only reason to do it. These are difficult days, and no one should feel obliged to turn this apocalypse scenario into some kind of work of genius. If you can wash occasionally, eat passably and not become an alcoholic, that’s more than enough. And if you can’t, if you’re not keeping up with the basics or your survival tactics are complicated – no shame. It’s what you’ve got. It’s the best you can do with what’s going on right now, and if that gets you to the far side of all this, then all power to you.


Money and philosophy

There would be a simple way to have all non-essential workers stay home without over-burdening the companies they work for. That same method would enable self employed workers to stay home, too. It would make it reasonable to ask for rent holidays. It would put money into the economy where it would do most good. Small business people would have a chance to re-boot in the future. That solution, is universal basic income. Giving everyone a viable amount to live on is also the least bureaucratic way, and thus the quickest, of rolling out an intervention.

However, giving people money in this way challenges the capitalist philosophy of what money means. We are used to measuring human worth by income. Those who earn most are considered to be worth most. We are encouraged to look up to them respect them, see them as valuable. At the same time we’ve called low paid people unskilled and considered them as having little value. If you pay everyone the same, it’s like we’re all worth the same as human beings. It’s a radical shift in thinking.

As the virus impacts on us, we’ve gone from seeing many low paid jobs as low worth, to recognising that these people are the heart of our infrastructure and the backbone of our societies. Money, it turns out, was not a good measure of the value of people working in supply chains and retail, bin collectors, cleaners, carers… their worth to the rest of us is far higher than their paychecks suggest.

As isolation kicks in, we may be more in need of our entertainers and creators. Especially the ones willing to interact with us, teach us and support people in being creative to stay sane. In their absence, we might notice the things that were valuable to us – venues, gigs, events, festivals… Most of the people working in these industries are not wealthy.

What do we deserve? What resources should we have access to? When the not-so-free market dominates, our scope to access everything is based mostly on our buying power. Our buying power is based on what our work is worth to the market, not what it is worth to other humans. Unpaid domestic work is totally undervalued, but right now, people cleaning things are keeping their families safe and well. Such work has always been valuable, but the value has been invisible.

What if we deserve to have our basic needs met because we exist, not because a specific level of profit can be extracted from our labours? What if the people who make money out of money while doing no one any good are not entitled to more benefits than most other people? What if we deemed making profit by exploiting others to be a disgusting activity, not one that should bring benefits? What if worth was measured in terms of actual worth, not earning potential? Meanwhile, the massively affluent ditch their workers with no pay and demand government bailouts.

Universal basic income gives everyone the same fundamental worth and the same basic entitlement to have needs met. Practically speaking it could be a magic bullet for solving a great many of our problems right now. Philosophically speaking, it would radically change our cultures for the better.


How we think about work

How we think about work may be more informed by what we get paid for it than by how useful it is. Unpaid carers are routinely undervalued. Unpaid domestic work is unvalued. We tend to take going out to work more seriously than staying at home to work. Friends and family don’t assume they can just pop into your busy office for a cup of tea and a chat when they feel like it. If you are a self employed person and a carer, it can be hard persuading the people around you that you are working.

The way we prioritise paid employment has a great deal to do with the stories we’ve assembled about paid work. It is the basis of how we organise our lives and our countries. It is entirely normal to work for someone else who profits more from your work than you do.

For most of human history, it clearly wasn’t like this. We haven’t always had money. The closer to subsistence you live, the more preposterous the idea of profit seems. We didn’t used to work, we used to exist, survive, struggle, hunt, farm and make the things we needed for daily life. Without the notion of work it is hard to have a notion that some people are so important that they shouldn’t have to work and should be served. When everyone is involved in the effort required to stay alive, the value of what you do is not going to be measured in coins.

Our ideas about work are deeply intertwined with our ideas about human worth. Our money stories distort our sense of what is valuable. It’s worth taking the time to think about what we value and what we pay for and who we think is important. If our views weren’t distorted in this way we might better value the people who raise children and care for the sick and elderly. If we did not put money first, we might have a very different perspective of people who do very little, and get paid a great deal for it.


The ethics of working for free

I do a lot of voluntary work. It can feel like having the abundance to give freely of your time is always going to be the ethical choice, but it isn’t. Here are some things to consider if you’re working for free.

Is this a commercial activity? Should it be the sort of thing that can pay you? If you are able to work unpaid, are you denying someone else the opportunity to earn a living, and are you supporting an enterprise that would just rather not pay people? If it’s commercial but can’t pay, are you propping up something unviable and is that really the best use of your time?

Exposure is not payment, usually. If the company could afford to pay you, they should not be treating you like they are doing you a favour by offering unpaid work. If the company cannot afford to pay you, there is no gain for you in working free for them, it will not turn into a paying gig. It is a different consideration if you are looking at a charity, a social enterprise, or a community project which may not be economically orientated and may well be worth contributing to for the value of its goals.

Are you supporting a culture of unpaid work? Many people end up working unpaid when they don’t want to, and most should not. If you are on salary, your hours may be vague but the pay should be fair. If it is in your contract that you may have to do unpaid overtime in emergencies, that’s what you’ve got, but your overall pay should make that ok. If a company is constantly demanding little extras unpaid, that’s not ok or healthy. The major thing to watch for is this – does unpaid work take anyone below minimum wage payments? If so, the company is breaking the law. If you can comfortably afford not to be paid to work, you might be able to afford to stand up against this sort of thing. People on minimum wage may be too fearful and vulnerable to resist this kind of exploitation.

Fear of losing your job is the thin end of the wedge that has people working unpaid in insecure job situations. For the freelancer, the zero hours contract holder, the casual labourer, job insecurity can mean feeling obliged to say yes to working for free sometimes. The thick end of this wedge, is modern slavery, where people are working unpaid for fear of punishment. Tolerating a culture of unpaid work makes it easier for the extreme end to carry on. If unpaid work is normal it becomes harder to see full blown slavery. And of course there are degrees of exploitation in between that are even harder to identify.

If you can afford to work for free, take the time to ask why you are being asked to work for free. That is a gift of your time that you can give to people who are more vulnerable than you and who may be unable to speak up against exploitation.