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Balancing Work & Life – A Conversation

Ort Gallery was recently accepted onto East Street Arts’ prestigious GUILD project, a comprehensive programme of research, mentoring, tailored support, and infrastructure and space development for artist-led spaces. During the first induction session of the programme Director Josie and Diversity Consultant Anisa met lots of other artists running spaces across the UK and one of the topics discussed was around balancing work and life and avoiding burn out.

Following this, Josie started an email exchange with one of Ort’s Steering Committee members Sarah, who is also a good friend of hers, about their experiences of juggling work and life. Sarah does not work in the arts so this is clearly an issue that crosses over into other industries. This is our exchange:

Josie: Hey Sarah. How is your work search going? Have you started? Are you thinking of going into the third sector?

Sarah: Work search has officially begun, I’ve been applying for things, but no luck so far. I’m looking for something part time, so I can then fill the gaps with things I’m more interested in and some freelance projects. I would quite like to end up doing a few different things instead of just one solid job as I think it would suit my personality better and I’m also very much tired of work politics – I figure when you work part time for a business, you need to squeeze in as much as possible in the time you have, which leaves no time for getting too involved in gossip and politics. That’s certainly what some old colleagues experienced anyway!
The third sector is certainly appealing to me and I do regularly trawl through the site ‘Charity Job’ as there tends to be a lot on there. Fingers crossed I find something soon.

Josie: This all sounds very good. I have been thinking about work/life balance a lot, especially since having my son as he has put everything into perspective. I do want “everything”, so I want a career that fulfils me, but I also want to see my child grow up and feel like my mental health and hobbies are cared for. So, as I’m self-employed I have given myself a 30 hour week maximum, spread over 4 days. This means I have 3 full days with him and I also don’t stay at work until 9pm and miss bedtime. There’s a lot to be said for productivity and you can get lots done in 30 hours. No one needs to work 40, 50, 60 hours… that’s just crazy. For me it means to accept that I have to carry on being frugal as I won’t get “rich” this way, but I am ok with that. 
I applaud your plans and I really hope you’ll find something. And I also think this is a good time to realise all this. A lot of people don’t get there til they are off long term sick due to burn-out or about to retire. We’re living now! #suchmillenials

Sarah: It sounds like you’ve really got things sorted to achieve that good work/life balance 🙂 and it is good to realise how important balance is earlier, rather than later. So many people don’t get it and I’ve seen some real breakdowns in people over the years, stressing about things that don’t really matter, working all hours and never switching off. Nowhere is perfect, or indeed needs to be perfect, but there should be a duty of care to look after employees who are perhaps at risk of burning out. When I handed in my notice with no job to go to, I was quite surprised that people didn’t look at me with worried eyes and ask me about what I’d do for money, but instead applauded me for taking a step back and reassessing what I actually want to achieve with my life. It has also inspired some friends to pause and look at their current situation and question if this is what they really want to do. I have worked hard to save up so that I can afford to do this, it’s not a flippant luxury, it’s come from a lot of conversations with the hubby and believing in myself and taking a risk. One way or another, I’ve had a job since I was 14, so this was a huge step for me.

Josie: Well I try… sounds like you’ve made some pretty hard experiences. I don’t quite understand where this all comes from. I know it’s to do with capitalism in general and also a societal understanding that working hard = being a good member of society, but even when I was working for a large arts organisation, where we were unaffected by sales targets and those kinds of pressures, our line managers were still driving people to mental breakdowns. It’s as if office life drives people crazy somehow. 
I’m glad people were impressed by you leaving. You hopefully showed them that there is something else out there. Interestingly, there’s hundreds of videos on youtube entitled “why I quit my job and how I’m making it work” or something along those lines. Clearly a lot of people wish they could do this.

Sarah: I think office life can drive some people crazy. There is always some form of politics (unavoidable in life really!) and people trying to control others as they haven’t been properly trained to be a manager and some people associate fear with being a strong leader and others associate being super nice as a good leader. It’s a constant navigation of figuring out what’s going on in other people’s minds and how best to work with them. Also, without meaning to come across as hippy-dippy, working in an office is really unnatural when you look at the basics – we’re not designed to be sitting all day and to be inside staring at a screen, so it’s no surprise that people can get cranky.
In my experience, I think a lot of people like the idea of quitting to take a break or changing their careers, but it really is hard because it’s changing this whole mindset of “Don’t quit a job unless you have a job to go to” or if they like the career but hate the boss, it’s having to put the effort into finding a new job in the same industry, where you might slip into a very similar environment and then have another two-year cycle of shit before you feel like you’ve got enough time on your CV to be able to leave. A lot of people I have met really had this thing about staying in a job two years before leaving, believing that new employers would raise an eyebrow at a shorter period of time. It’s also that classic behaviour of wishing you could do something and then not making the effort to change i.e. wanting to lose weight but eating cookies every day and never exercising, lol! Next thing you know, ten years has passed and people settle down, perhaps with kids or pets or other responsibilities, and then really do feel like they can’t escape. It’s a safety net and I totally get it because I used to feel the same way. It’s also a lot of effort to put into motion; perhaps retraining or saving money or doing some unpaid work to build up experience in the area you want to go into. Changing paths can feel like you’ve gone backwards, which understandably may put people off.

Josie: That’s so interesting. I guess a lot of people working in the arts industry would consider a two year employment a luxury. Lots of us are freelance or employed for short term projects only. This has the advantage of working in lots of exciting environments but it also means very little security and, fittingly with this conversation, very long, very hard working hours in often extremely stressful situations. But, after speaking to some colleagues, what came out of it was, that it’s not just the tight deadlines that drive people to have a breakdown, but the internalised ideas around working hard and being the best in your field. Every project becomes part of your portfolio so many creatives feel that each tiny little detail needs to be right even when the budget doesn’t allow for it. It’s an impossible fight and means lots of us work for free or even spend our fees on materials. It seems that working in the arts does not allow you to escape capitalist thinking at all but instead adds the pressure of having to create a brand for yourself and promoting this brand every hour of every day. On top of that we would argue that we love our jobs as they are also our hobbies and allow us to be creative. But the pressures the jobs put on us are equal to the office environment we discussed above.

Sarah: It sounds like a whole other level of pressure! I think the whole ingrained capitalism thing is really interesting and if you have a permanent job contract, it’s a mental challenge to leave the safety net of a steady income with benefits to pursue flexibility and balance, as well as doing something you are really passionate about! A lot of our initial conversations with new people we meet (in my experience anyway, both professionally and socially) can be all based around what we do for a living and some people may feel scared to be judged on doing something which isn’t traditionally impressive ie a lawyer. In fact just the other day, I was in an Uber and the cabbie asked me what I did – I wanted to be really corny and just say “ I do me”, I thought, why can’t we talk about what we do for fun instead of what brings in the cash?! I always felt that my education at school and at home was based around what I wanted to do as a job – it’s a lot of pressure for kids to know and it should be ok to perhaps try a few different avenues in one lifetime.

Josie: So true! And despite many creatives having strong cross-overs between what they like and what they do, we do spend a lot of our time doing emails and populating spreadsheets as the work needs to be done.
I think the problem of quitting a safe job and doing something freelance/part time boils down to the choices we think we have/don’t have. A lot of people think they don’t have a choice because they have large mortgages or debts or, even worst, they are worried about what their families and friends will think (not to mention future employers). It’s as if every choice we make is embroiled in a web of judgement, financial worries, what ifs and worst case scenarios. The reality however is that each of us have to make a decision on how we want to live and this affects our finances, our lifestyle and our mental health. I think a lot of us do have a choice but paradoxically opening up the questions of “what would you do if you quit your job” scares many people to death as suddenly you have too much choice… it’s actually called ‘The Paradox of Choice’. It freezes people and they struggle to make a decision as they technically ‘could be anything and anyone’.

June 2019