Simon Blake: Some thoughts on working well

After two weeks at a health retreat, the charity chief executive reflects on how to strike the right work-life balance in the digital age

Simon Blake
Simon Blake

Most of us will be living and working longer than the generation before us. As we enter our 40s and 50s, we can see a hefty chunk of our working lives still in front of us.

Just over a week ago I finished a two-week health retreat. My days were filled with yoga, mindfulness, meditation, exercise, healthy eating and treatments. Two weeks without a beer or a glass of wine. More significantly, perhaps, two weeks without looking at a single work email.

I was one of scores of people at the retreat from across the private, public and voluntary sectors investing holiday time in their physical and emotional wellbeing because day-to-day life is too busy to do so in ways we might hope or intend. Although, of course, the detail is different across different sectors, when we talked we discovered that many of the themes are the same.

A relentless email inbox Inboxes that flow and flow, and are often in large part other people's agendas, not yours, and hard to stay on top of. Quite a lot of them are cc'd to cover people's arses. With that inbox comes an (often self-imposed) expectation that you will return emails within the day and be available and responsive in the evenings and at the weekend.

A lack of time to think properly Time to think is crucial for making good decisions, yet schedules often mean we don't get time to think about the things that are important, only the things that are urgent (often driven by the expectation that you will respond to the above emails immediately).

Out-of-hours events Meetings, functions and launches over breakfast and dinner that mean the working day extends, and that the gym, hobbies, study or time with friends or partners are too often second fiddle to work.

Unnecessary travel Lots of travelling when sometimes tele or video-conferencing would be just as effective.

Unhealthy food Catered breakfasts, lunches and dinners, all of which could be healthier.

This is the sixth or seventh time I have been to this particular place. Each time we come away feeling amazing, both physically and mentally. Each time it gets me thinking and talking about the way we work. I have never made the time or decided to write about it before.

We must think seriously about what needs to change if we are to work and live healthy, balanced lives and be at the top of our game so we can make the social impact we want to

However, I see more and more of my friends and colleagues describing stress, and burnout, and saying they feel less effective. It got me thinking again about the sector I work in – the civil society sector – and our working practices and cultures. 

As leaders of these organisations, we must think seriously about what needs to change if we are to work and live healthy, balanced lives and be at the top of our game so we can make the social impact we want to. Some of this may or may not be particularly true for those of us working in London, but, wherever we live, we all have a responsibility to help ourselves and our teams be the best they can be at work and to create balance in their lives.

So what can we do? Many of us are taking action in our organisations already. I would be interested in ideas and thoughts about what we can do both individually and collaboratively across the sector, but here's my starter for ten.

Change email culture Don't send more emails than we need to. Pick up the phone instead. Stop cc'ing people in who don't need to be, don't respond to cc emails unless you have to. Give permission for people to look at emails intermittently rather than have them on constantly. Turn ours off when we can in the evenings, weekends and on holidays. Have a moratorium on emails in the office for a morning from time to time. And perhaps the biggest cultural change for some of us is just accept that is is ok not to answer all emails, particularly those that are not relevant – it does not make us rude or incompetent.

Think differently about thinking I did some really good thinking while swimming and running on holiday. If people do their best thinking away from their desks, then we have to build cultures of trust so they can do that thinking away from their desks. We can change the way people spend their time to think. Sensible leaders believe that getting the job done is more important than sitting at our desks, and we need to trust ourselves and others to find the best way to think and get results. Phones, laptops and iPads are a distraction from good quality conversation and thinking. Which meetings do we just have to ban them from?

Out-of-hours events and launches Do we really need so many events and launches? Having now trawled through the hundreds of emails I received during my holiday, I have invites to be at an evening function almost every day of the week between now and the end of June. Some events do not need to be held at all in my view. Those that are important should, wherever possible, be within the working day. For our health, our hobbies, our friendships, our relationships and our children. The number of sector-wide events is unlikely to reduce in a hurry, so we can all make some boundaries and rules for ourselves and help our teams do the same.

Reduce travel as much as possible and use IT Most of us travel more than we need to. How can we use advances in IT to our benefit so we travel as we need to, meaning we are away from home less, which good for our health, our hobbies, our relationships, our children, the environment and our bottom line, and makes us more accessible for people with disabilities.

Explore healthier food options Quite simply there are healthier options than sandwiches and crisps. Just adding a box of fruit doesn't make it a healthy lunch.

On their own, these all seem like fairly simple and obvious changes we can and are making within our organisations, but cultures run deep; the out-of-hours events culture in civil society in particular is a deep-seated one. I would be interested in whether this strikes a chord with others, in any ideas you have and any steps you have already taken or that could be taken to help us live our long (working) lives in healthy and productive ways.

I haven't talked about social media and working practices at all in this blog – an issue for another day.

Simon Blake (@Simonablake) is the chief executive of the National Union of Students, but is writing in a personal capacity. This article first appeared on his blog simontalkingaboutstuff

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