I’m writing this blog post on a tube on the way to work. I try not to work on the tube these days, I try to use it as time to get me into and out of the right head space for work. Right now my brain is whirling too much to focus and in circumstances like this I’ve learnt the best thing I can do is get some of those thoughts down into something productive.
I’m an all or nothing kind of girl. I’m not good at doing things in moderation. I’m not good with hierarchy, barriers and boundaries. Sometimes I like to think its why I’ve (to some extent) achieved. It’s my inner voice that moves me on rather than external drivers. The flip side to this is I also don’t know when and how to stop. The same urge that makes me want to cross artificial barriers imposed upon me mean that I struggle to impose them on myself.
This means that I find work life balance a difficult thing to identify sometimes, let alone to achieve.
Learning the hard way
During my PhD I didn’t have a full weekend off for three years. By the time I submitted my PhD and was preparing for FRCPath I had developed a discreet bald patch where I’d lost my hair and was doing a regular battle with angio oedema, where my face would swell when I tried to eat. I submitted my PhD one year early so I could successfully pass FRCPath first time, however the legacy of that time lives on in my deteriorated health.
I grew up thinking that success was about hard work. If you worked hard enough then you would be rewarded. If you got the qualifications then you would get the job. It was a really simplistic view of the world that I think I only woke up to not being true over the last couple of years. The fight doesn’t stop just because you are qualified to step into the role, that is when the fight actually begins. If you use all your energy and will power to cross the line to get the qualifications it will leave you depleted when you have to step into the arena for the true battle.
Succeeding and being good at my job is something that has always been important to me. Lately however I’ve begun to realise that giving it my all, all the time, isn’t in itself enough. I can’t work for the next 25 years until I’m due to retire with the intensity that I have worked for the last 10 + years. I need time away to really be successful. I need time to refresh my mind to enable me to bring the best version of myself to the challenges I face. Creativity needs energy not exhaustion. I don’t really feel yet that I have mastered or even begun to be able to prioritise stepping away in order to achieve this, but at least having the realisation is taking an important step along the way.
Facing the hard truth. We are all replaceable
I used to run, I was awful at it, but never the less I persisted. I haven’t been running since the pandemic started. I arrive home in a ball of flames at the end of the week and my husband spends the weekend putting me back together so that I go out and do it all again. This isn’t sustainable, and as time goes on I feel less and less than me and more and more like an infection prevention automaton. I have given up most of what makes me me to try and deliver for my job because I believe in it. This isn’t a long term strategy however. It is the bits that make me me that also make me good at my job. The other thing is that if something happened to me tomorrow, it is my friends and family that would mourn me. Another infection control doctor would be found. My stuff would be packed up and handed over and at most I would occasionally be brought up in conversation. I know this because I’ve already seen it happen to a colleague.
I worked with an amazing admin guy in my department. He’d been there for 15 years. A few years ago he went home one night, sat in his favourite chair and died. I’d worked with him for 10 years, he pulled my pony tail every time he went past my desk. He left chocolate on that same desk when I was having a bad day to cheer me up. He talked to me about his dogs, his music and his wife. After 15 years working in the department I was one of 3 people who went from work to his funeral. No one from the lab he supported went. My wonderful consultant boss went with me and our clinical lead went to represent the department. 3 people out of 40.
That day was a real revelation to me. The people who I spend more time with than my family may not feel the same way about me as I do about them. If the same thing happened to me would I even get three? Would I be replaced and never discussed in the same way after all those years of service? Sometimes I think my knowledge matters but I’m not convinced that I do. Then I think should it? After all this is a job, its not a family. The problem is as someone who is ‘all in’ sometimes I can find it hard to remember the difference.
Family is everything
Given all the above I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I balance the person that I am, the environment I work in and the need to re-energise and be the best version of myself. This has involved coming to the realisation that the thing that matters most to me and what I need above all else is my family. They mean everything to me. They have been my cheer leaders to get me to where I am, but they are also the ones who have suffered from me having my focus elsewhere. I have missed so many birthdays and special events due to being ‘all in’ elsewhere. Life is not a movie. Life isn’t a 3 part story arch about the workaholic who final finds love, moves to the country and raises sheep. It is however about constant learning and re-evaluation. So here is what I have learnt:
I don’t have the capacity sometimes to set boundaries for myself, but if I’m ‘all in’ for them that that is the start for me of being able to find a way to balance the demands of a job I love with the need to be ‘all in’ with those that matter most.
The top things I’ve learnt:
- Spend time reflecting on who you are and what drives you
- Know which things refresh you and which thing drain you
- If like me you find it difficult to set boundaries find something/someone who can support you in doing so
I am far from having cracked this one but having done the thinking I feel I’ve at least taken some steps in the right direction. Like all things I’ll be taking it one day and one step at a time.
All opinions on this blog are my own