An open letter to self-employed people who work too hard

Be a better boss to yourself. Please.

This is an open letter to self-employed people everywhere. If you read blogs – and you probably do because you’re here – then sometime in the past month or so you’ve read a really inspiring blog about someone who quit their shitty job working for The Man to pursue their dreams.

Six months to a year down the line, they’ve replaced that shitty former boss. Who made them work stupid long hours for little extra pay. Who frowned when they didn’t work through lunch close to deadlines. Who failed to properly recognise their achievements. Who didn’t let them take proper time off when they were ill or their nan was dying. They’ve replaced that shitty former boss, with a shittier new boss. Themselves.

To quote my good friend Millie, who specialises in occupational burnout: “We have got to stop this culture of martyrdom in the workplace.”

Workaholism is an addiction like any other. I know. I’m in recovery from it. I was galvanized to write this article specifically now because I just heard a very sad story about someone I used to work on projects with now and then, but hadn’t seen for a while. On reflection, this person was a poster-child for working too hard. They put everything into their work at the expense of everything else for several years. The person in question has hit burnout in the worse possible way both physically and mentally, they won’t be able to return to work for months . While this stands as a stark reminder of the out-of-control train ride you’re putting yourself through, if you don’t keep your wellbeing as a main priority, I don’t want to dwell like on someone else’s issues like cars on the motorway slowing down to stare at a bad accident. So I shall use myself as the necessary fodder instead.

This year I had a big kick in the teeth work-wise. A big project that I’d poured my stupid little heart into failed quite dramatically, leaving a trail of minor devastation behind it that I’m still wandering through, looking a bit concussed and broken. When the dust finally settles, I suspect I may be relieved it happened. It was a wake-up call to me. I was a workaholic. I honestly think that it controls you in the same way that any other addiction might. And many people don’t realise how bad it is for them because I’m becoming increasingly aware of how our culture and society embrace workaholism. In an aspirational society we are encouraged to self-improve constantly in every aspect of our lives: get fitter; eat better; advance in our career; earn more money; be a better parent; improve our homes; improve our sex lives. This continuous forward momentum is damaging. We’re encouraged to ‘move on’ from nasty breakups and other negative incidents as quickly as possible. We don’t give ourselves enough time to make mistakes, to take a few steps back and get some quiet perspective before we take those important steps forward. Add to that the introduction to the workplace of the idea of fun.

In writing Microserfs, his exploration into the culture of tech firms in the early days of Silicon Valley, Douglas Coupland pointed out that if you make workplaces fun, workers need never leave. Table tennis, lounging areas, gyms and coffee houses – they turn a workplace into a campus. Google even calls it Google Campus. It’s arrested development, you never have to grow up. However, as Coupland points out, it also tricks you into having no life outside of work because you never need to leave, everything is here for you including your friends.

This is the trouble with self-employment as well. It is fun. You often get to work with friends. You have fabulous ideas and start these great projects that you’re really excited about. You become social media savvy and use twitter all the time. Your smartphone carries your work-life with you everywhere. You don’t need work to be separate from your life because it’s such a great part of your life.

It’s addictive. Even the hard work and the challenges are addictive because you’re taking on the world. You’re smashing it.

Starting out you have to put in a lot of unpaid hours, that I agree with. You need to make a name for yourself and have a fabulous portfolio of work to sell yourself properly. You need to go out and network, so your work-life and your social life begin to merge. But it all becomes a habit. You don’t mind because you’re passionate. This is your life. You’re living the dream.

And the other thing is, there are probably other things in your life that make you very unhappy. And if you stop for a moment they might escape from the drawer where you filed them away. Past versions of yourself can be detrimental to your self-esteem, so you begin to root your self-esteem in the job because the job rewards you. For every rejection, there will be an even better win.

We live in a society full of mental health problems. Some are extreme, but most are small and sadly pretty common. We’re alienated, we are disenfranchised, we are in crisis. If you think it’s a personal, not a societal problem, I  refer you to this article – Only Fundamental Social Change Can Defeat the Anxiety Epidemic. Humans tend to react to things in human ways. We seek ways to take back control of our lives because we are lost, as a society and as a species. So we drink, we drug ourselves, we become obsessed with clean eating, we become obsessed with running because we can stomp through the madness. And we work. Boy, we work.

If you work and work and work, it fills the void most of the time. You can’t save the world but you’ll have a damn good bash at making one small corner of your world better. But you do it at your own expense. You apologise to friends and family for forgetting to call, forgetting to hang out, forgetting to send an old-fashioned birthday card because work took over. There was a big project deadline or a crisis, the usual.

But you need days off, everyone does. Turn everything off. Spend time being free. Look at trees. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at trees lately and they really are fabulous things. Spend time with the people you love, otherwise, you’ll look up one day and realise they grew up, grew old or died and you were too busy to really notice.

And please remember something I too easily forget: Your career does not define you, you are a many-splendoured thing.

And the daft thing is, long hours without breaks are counter-productive to good work. It’s common sense and has been proved by various studies time and time again. Happier workers are better workers. Workers who take proper breaks and aren’t overworked are more alert and more efficient. Working long hours on a regular basis will not make you more successful because they will drain you. You may develop sleep problems. You may get ill. You may get depressed. All these things and more can hamper your work output in the long term. You think you can’t afford a holiday? Well, can you afford a month off work for burnout with no sick pay?

Yes, I know, there are times when your job requires you to put in extra hours to complete a major project. Yes, I know you probably need to work harder during the run up to Christmas if your business relies on Christmas sales. But you need to take a proper rest afterwards and let your body and mind recover. And you need to not make the extra hours into a habit. And you need to stop taking on too much. There are so many brilliant ideas and projects to get involved in, I know, and then there’s the bread and butter stuff that actually keeps you financially afloat. But you need to compromise on exciting projects sometimes, so as to not compromise on yourself.

And the peer culture needs to stop. Colleagues and clients who are also workaholics are like druggie mates, they will drag you back in. So everyone please stop bragging about working a 60 hour week sat in front of a piece of technology with more smarts than you. If that computer had genuine free will and a fabulous fleshy body, it would be white water rafting in Scotland, or going to visit its computer-mom, not posting a picture of its twelfth cup of coffee on twitter with the hashtag #longweekend.

Being a good boss to yourself is hard because you hold the carrot and the stick. You are both good cop and bad cop. It’s difficult to make objective judgements on when you’re procrastinating because you’re feeling lazy and when you’re procrastinating because you need a break. It’s difficult to know when you deserve a pat on the back and a trip to the pub. It’s easy to worry that you’ve got that big thing coming up in a few months and if you can make a little headway on it, maybe you’ll feel less anxious. But if you were working in a more tradtional 9-5 job, your thinking would likely be ‘I’ll have a good weekend off and then tackle this with a fresh head on Monday’.

If your days off don’t feel like days off because you worry about work, you’re probably not taking enough time off. Your brain needs to learn the habit of putting some things to bed while you concentrate on other things. You need to really listen to your friends and family when they tell you gossip or share their own worries, because this takes your brain out of your own work narrative. It also makes you a better compassionate person.

A few months ago, Millie and I decided to found a project called Brainfood, with the aim to run workshops tackling the causes of creative, occupational and physiological burnout. Millie is the founder of Nutritional Resilience. With her excellent knowledge of the science behind burnout and the pressure we put on our adrenal glands, she is the perfect partner for this. She also runs workshops for companies and universities to tackle occupational burnout in other sectors where it’s common. You can follow Brainfood on Twitter and Instagram for updates on future workshops later this year.

So, let this open letter be your next inspirational blog. You already took the big step of quitting that traditional job and becoming an entrepreneur. But part of being enterprising is to constantly evolve and adapt and while you may want to move forward as quickly as possible to flee your worries, every now and then you need to press pause and take a moment. Small changes to your habits can really make a huge difference to your well-being and much of it is common sense. A little less caffeine, a little more love. If I can do it, so can you.

All the best,

Kirsty Fox, social entrepreneur, writer and former workaholic


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