How You Know If You’re Working Yourself Into An Early Grave

Why you should care and what you can do about it

Photo by Matthew T. Rayder on Unspash

A few weeks ago I ‘celebrated’ my 32nd ‘name day’. Reflecting on a decidedly disappointing and unremarkable birthday (who wants to be 32, I ask you?), I realised I had been working full-time for a decade.

Ten years of work and I feel like my ‘working life’ has transcended ages of the Earth: I now teach kids who don’t know what ‘floppy disks’ are, have never known the wonder of a ‘Nokia 3310’ or who think ‘Mario Kart’ is a brand-spanking new smartphone game.

Educating about the finer points of 20th and 21st Century pop-culture, is becoming an increasingly tougher task.

In addition to teaching the youth of today random nonsense (so important though), I have spent the latter stages of my career attempting to scale the ‘greasy pole’ of management positions.

Four years later, battling my way up the ladder has finally taught me the most important lesson:

I’m done working myself into an early grave.

I’m content to work in an unpromoted position and I’m delighted to have finally learned enough to try to regain some semblance of a work-life balance.

Here’s how you know you have been burning the candle at both ends and — more importantly — what you can do to stop yourself from burning it out.

1. You check your work emails in bed (or on the toilet)

No, the poor chap in the title image isn’t a photograph of me, before you ask.

That could easily have been me last year though — desperately clawing my way through mountains of work:

Just…one…more…email

I’ve even checked work emails on the toilet — instead of just shitting in peace and tranquility while watching videos of cats on Facebook.

The sad truth is, in powerless management positions — especially working for the state rather than in the private sector — much of your ‘management time’ will be spent making up for the shortcomings of some of your staff.

Many a time in the last four years I found myself sending emails to other managers (or worse, my underlings) at ludicrous times — 8pm, 11pm, 5.45am…

Sure, everyone has choke points and busy periods in their line of work and sometimes shit just needs to get done.

However, if you are consistently and repeatedly sending emails at insane times of the working day — or on weekends — then you need to wise up.

The work will still be there when you wake up. No email is important enough to be sent at midnight.

2. You cancel plans on a whim

Many a time in the last four years I felt that something at work was ‘too important’ to catch a coffee or spend an evening with friends, or worse, my own husband.

I cancelled plans just so I could work on emails, policies and of course, lots and lots and lots of spreadsheets.

It seems a little pathetic on reflection — that I felt these things important enough to miss precious time spent with people who matter greatly to me

If you find yourself having not seen your friends for months, or you cancel that long-awaited dinner reservation just to scrub a few more items off from the to-do-list, then you have lived the last few years like me.

People in your life are worth precious minutes of your time. Not spreadsheets.

3. You skip the gym (and anything fitness-related)

I only really noticed at the weekend when I went to squeeze into an older suit for a wedding and the suit jacket wouldn’t close — my midsection has seen better days.

Fat creeps up on you like the tide.

One moment you are the picture of fitness — a spartan warrior or something resembling Tom Hardy. At least inside your head. The next you can’t even close a damn button without breathing in and clenching your gut muscles for four hours straight.

Living in constant fear that, should you breath out at the wrong moment, a button will be fired from your waistcoat like a bullet, taking out the bride’s eye as she cuts the wedding cake.

Only when you have been in this situation, or something similar, will you bitterly regret all those evenings where you chose to spend time working on emails instead of working out.

Fitness matters — possibly not even now but when you are still working towards your state pension at the tender age of 86 (probably), you will wish you focussed more on your fitness back in the day.

4. Your emotions are a mess

I’ve come home and taken out my frustrations on my husband, to my eternal shame.

Some days I didn’t even bother to walk my Golden Retriever because I was so down about work.

Could there be greater shame than taking out workplace angst on a puppy?

I’ve even spent far too much time on building the fantasy of me, rage-quitting my work. I dream of storming into a senior managers’ office in an overly dramatic strut and slamming my resignation letter on the table.

I knew it was my work (or hours spent there) that was affecting my mood, but did precious little about it, until just about now.

If you are coming home with a variety of different moods each week or you are taking your frustrations out on your partner (or the dog), then your work-life balance needs a serious realignment.

What you can do, right now

You check your work emails at stupid times? Stop doing it, and encourage your colleagues and managers to do the same.

How about signing-up to a staff ‘health and wellbeing policy’, where all staff only check and send emails between the hours of 8–6 or 9–5?

If you know you’re developing more of a one-pac than a six-pac, make sure you finish on time, clear that diary or cancel that meeting and drag yourself to the gym, because the work will still be there tomorrow.

If that doesn’t work, free up your lunch our and spend that time doing fitness, or yoga, or anything that drags your ass up and out of that swivel-chair.

Make plans and stick to them.

No spreadsheet and no email is worth sacrificing even a brief 30-minute coffee with a friend or loved one who is probably working far too much as well and needs your council.

And if none of this is working, here’s a radical thought — do you even want to, or need to be, a manager?

At 32, I have learned that work for me is simply a means to an end. Sure, I love teaching, but it primarily funds and support the life that I want to lead — I want to walk the dog, spend time with my husband, my friends. It doesn’t matter that I earn less money that I used to.

Being less of a grumpy bastard and a generally nicer and more pleasant human being is, for me, a worthwhile trade-off.

We are brought up to believe that chasing power, position and promotion is everything that one should aspire to.

Go life your life, rather than just working for the entirety of it.

Scottish Teacher and MSc student at Edinburgh Uni. All about Whisky, Beer, Board Gaming and Dogs. Getting back into writing after a long thesis grind.

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