Confessions of a workaholic, one year on

Perhaps it should say reformed workaholic, as one year on I feel I can legitimately lay claim to that. A little over 12 months ago, I was preparing to jump ship. Preparing to sail into a new role on what felt like a pretty distant horizon. I had taken a bit of a sideways step on the career ladder, and would no longer have management responsibilities.

It was a big change that after a lot of soul searching, I felt I had to make for my own wellbeing.  I had worked for four years in an organisation that I was fully committed to and that had given me tremendous opportunities. I adored both the people in my team, and our mahi, and was inspired by the leadership and the community we served. I was totally passionate about it, and was surrounded by a team that was even more so. It was hugely satisfying that my team and I could not only see the impact we were making, but tangibly demonstrate it too.

But I was exhausted. My to do list was never-ending. In fact, it was lucky if I had the time to scribble one down. My email inbox would induce a panic attack in an otherwise calm person (‘the tiger in my inbox’ aka my email is a blog topic all of its own). It was commonplace for me to reply to work emails the minute I woke up, and in the evenings, and churn through chunks of complex projects in the evenings and weekends. I even checked my emails while sitting on the toilet (every semi-spare minute was an opportunity to be productive, I thought!). Furthermore, when you’re really passionate about something, the list of extra things you could be doing never stops expanding. You can never quite do ‘enough’ because after all, you’re working to address very real challenges faced by very real people. It is very hard to turn your brain off to this. It’s even hard to leave work at a normal time to meet up with your friends, when all you can think about is the 101 tasks you haven’t yet got to. And as someone already prone to anxiety, this constant, frenetic feeling coupled with an inability to shake off the perpetual to-do list meant that I was perpetually in motion. At least, my jittery insides were.

I went over and above the call of duty because I felt so passionate about what we were striving to achieve. This is one of the shadows of passion, I think. And it makes it very easy to burn out. I knew all about burnout from my early 20’s, when I was working full-time, studying part-time, volunteering 10+ hours a week, and babysitting, playing sports and trying to have a 20-something year old social life too. I think it was shortly after this when I ended up with a) glandular fever and b) a strong aversion to signing up to too many commitments ever since.  On the plus side, I’m grateful to be learning a lot of these lessons relatively young.

But somehow, this over-committed state crept back up on me inadvertently, as you’ve heard about above. Experiencing this state of stress is not something that’s sustainable. Not only that, but for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a choice, I consider over-work to be a waste of valuable life. My integrity and work ethic will never be a problem for me, and so, with that said, I know my wise 90 year old self does not encourage me to work harder, longer, or more. She encourages me to live a more balanced, present life. Work is important, and it is one way to contribute in this world, if you are lucky enough – but it is not everything.

It wasn’t for lack of trying that my life had become so out of balance and unsustainable. I worked hard to relax my standards and become far less of a perfectionist. I became an expert on productivity strategies. I had coaching. I sought feedback on how to manage my workload, and what I should prioritise. I learned a little bit about how to push back, how to delegate. I asked for help, and advice, and suggestions on how to cope. I did mindfulness and meditation, and went to the gym very regularly.  But I was also nervous about the idea of stepping away from my beloved career path. Who would I be without my work and all the privileges that came with it?

Eventually, having a pretty awful car accident a couple of days after my 30th birthday was the biggest wake-up call I could have had. I wouldn’t wish this horror upon anyone, but at the same time I am tremendously grateful that a young-ish woman, who must have been texting rather than looking at the road, drove straight into the back of my car in the middle of a state highway. Thank god everyone was okay. I honestly don’t know if anything less life-changing could have jolted me out of that frenetic state so I might get onto a better, healthier path.  It took a fair bit of time to slow down and step out of my circumstances, but I couldn’t not.  Having that accident left me with a changed perspective, and an unshakeable feeling that continually reminds me of the fragility of life, and the value of time.

 

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Over a year later and I can honestly say I am no longer fuelled by adrenaline. I have learned the value of slowing down, of considering before acting, and of not pushing to get things ticked off a list. Much to a rushing woman’s horror, I’ve let myself have evenings and weekends where I do very little, and where I have to sit with my thoughts and truly face myself, rather than chasing distractions. Many of us feel truly uncomfortable doing so. I have discovered and started to pursue three things that I am truly passionate about. None of them involve pushing myself to be a high-achieving career person.

We are all a work in progress, but I’ve now started to see the light and enjoy the benefits of a healthier life-work balance. In doing so, I’ve often caught myself feeling sorry for people who rush from meeting to meeting, exclaiming how furiously busy they are. It’s as if having far too much to do has become some sort of status symbol, some revered state. I certainly used to be one of those people – but I don’t think I ever legitimately aspired to be like that. I was just genuinely overloaded. And I couldn’t get away from it. But then I remembered, just last night, a scenario from my days spent in London. We were out for dinner one night with friends, and I was in the middle of planning towards a big campaign at work. I needed to check my emails urgently, and was having issues logging in. When I apologised for being rude while we were meant to be chatting at the dinner table, one of my acquaintances sort of shrugged and said ‘don’t apologise. I actually kind of feel sorry for you’.

At the time, I thought that was a pretty snarky comment. But it’s ironic that now, some six years later, it’s the exact same train of thought I have each time I come across a ‘rushing woman’.  Yet another member of a not so exclusive club that I am deeply satisfied to say, I have chosen to revoke my membership of.

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Confessions of a workaholic, one year on

Use your power.

Today I heard John Key say on the radio that he can feel sympathy as much as the next person in seeing the tragic pictures that have dominated our media in recent days – of children drowned, of lives so unnecessarily lost. But he countered this with a statement that were we to consider increasing our quota of refugees, he first needed to ensure sufficient supports and infrastructure would be in place.

Against my own better judgment, I thought he made a reasonably considered statement. Having relatively recently supported a family who were refugees from Myanmar in their transition to New Zealand life, I have some insight into the challenges faced during resettlement, and the accompanying infrastructure, support and services that are required.

But later this evening, I was absolutely stopped in my tracks when I saw on social media the now infamous photo. The body of a tiny wee boy, lying still on the foreshore. His body had been returned by the sea that took him, when his boat capsized mere miles from its departure point. I have never in my life had such a gut wrenching reaction to a post on social media. I suppose like the average Westerner in 2015, I’m pretty desensitised to the tragedies I read and hear about every day. But something about this picture turned my heart inside out. This boy could be my nephew; he could be your son; he could be the noisy little kid that goes to preschool down the road. Less than a month ago, I was travelling through this part of the world – but the circumstances of my trip could not have been more of a contrast to those of the desperate passengers aboard this boat.

In light of this tragedy, I can think of nothing less humane, and nothing more unnecessarily bureaucratic, than the precious time that will be wasted in deliberating whether New Zealand (not to mention other, far closer states) can increase its quota. This devastating story represents hundreds of thousands of equally tragic stories in the crisis that is currently taking place across our world, that are no less compelling, and that have no less of a human face to them.

I feel compelled to act, yet absolutely powerless. But in writing this, I take the lead from Chris Clarke who I heard speak at TEDx Manukau on Monday. Chris Clarke is the CEO of World Vision New Zealand, and he told his own, equally heart-breaking story of Syria. Chris reminded us that when you see injustice before you, you can get upset, you can get angry, and you can shake your fist about it. Or you can choose to open your hands and take action in whatever way you can. Step, by step, by small incremental step, you can contribute to justice and fairness being reinstated in the world. It sounds a bit hopeful to me, but it’s preferable to sitting here and doing nothing.

This is fundamentally a human issue before it is a political one, and I earnestly hope that this time, the will of humanity will take precedence over politicking. New Zealand could be Syria, could be England, could be Somalia. We have New Zealanders offering to accommodate families in their homes. 15,000 Icelanders are doing the same. The British public is fiercely spreading the #refugeeswelcome message in a bid to get decision makers to act. This crisis has been caused by people. So there is no doubt that the solution is in the same hands.

No-one, by virtue of their country of residence, should have claim to entitlement or privilege over another. It’s our duty, as those who are blessed in where they live, to defend our fellow humans. If you’re reading this, you are one of the lucky ones. And therefore I urge you to use your power, in whatever way you can. Raising our voices as citizens of the world until they are impossible to ignore is the only thing that is going to lead to genuine change.

#useyourpower  #refugeeswelcome

I haven’t republished the photo out of respect for the child and his family.

Use your power.

Tribute to the South Side

A short stroll from the not-so-temporary portacom which I have called my office for the past three years is the Middlemore Hospital train station. The surrounding area, I am told, has the highest foot traffic in the district. Firmly embedded between the hospital’s Western Campus and the main site, one platform leads south, to Papakura and beyond. The opposing platform, to Remuera and further north. Two hundred metres away on the Western side, you’ll find De La Salle College, a Catholic boys school where the local kids go. On the other side, Kings College – but here, the majority of local kids are more likely to have been inside the hospital than beyond its impressive gates.

In the late afternoon of the working day I observe something that in my perspective, represents a major division in New Zealand society. Armed with their sports gear, iPhones and musical instruments, the Kings’ kids words are a mile a minute as they debate their latest maths test. They are on the platform heading north, to Auckland’s wealthier suburbs. I can’t hear what the De La Salle kids are saying, but I do remember the time they belted out a beautiful harmony that seemed to light up the entire station. They don’t have the fancy gear. Sometimes, hovering not so inconspicuously in the trees behind the station, they smoke. They are on the platform heading south. The Kings kids are mostly Pākehā, and fees to attend this school are tens of thousands of dollars per year. The majority of De La Salle kids are Pacific. It is a state school. At the end of each day, I too, pack up and depart Middlemore to head north. I go to central Auckland, which from the heart of the South Side, sometimes I think may as well be another world.

This is more than just a tale of two schools, however. Those two opposing platforms to me represent the very real and significant divide between the status of different ethnic groups in New Zealand. This certainly isn’t the first or last time that someone will write about this issue, but in my little bubble of the world, there is certainly more we could do to change our minds, hearts and actions to address it. For the average north or central Aucklander, probably enabled by geographic segregation, it’s easy enough to ignore. For me, someone who grew up in Glenfield on the North Shore, South Auckland used to be a once-a-year destination for the purpose of visiting my Great Uncle and Aunt on Guy Fawkes night. Occasionally, given it is the home of our international airport, South Auckland was the destination point before a family holiday to Fiji or Australia. And for many other Aucklanders, far from ever having visited the Māngere markets on a Saturday morning, South Auckland is merely a place to pass through en route to the airport, or a district intersected by a large motorway that takes them to Coromandel and beyond for their holidays. As it is so often when you are travelling for pleasure, you can cut through the poorer areas, places you don’t want or need to see, to reach your chosen destination.

A map of deprivation in Auckland – this is from 2006, but the story is much the same now.

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Having had a career in population health, I think that this divide is probably far more apparent to me than the average New Zealander. Population health concerns itself with improving health outcomes for a whole population, and has a particular focus on those who are least well off (and therefore have the worst health status) in society. It considers that factors such as economic status, housing, and social conditions have a significant role in determining health status. Its value base is that inequity between groups in society, for reasons that can be prevented, is unacceptable. I agree.

Māori and Pacific people in New Zealand are significantly over-represented in poorer areas. The opposite is true for Pākehā. There are many factors that this inequity is attributed to, and realistically is a blog post for another day. But I have worked within and around these statistics for most of my adult career; and am perhaps overly aware that where you live and how you live can very much determine when and how you die.

It is not okay that being poor, Māori or Pacific in New Zealand means you are more likely to smoke, and more likely to die early as a result. Families are robbed of their elders. Generations suffer from smoking-related disease and ultimately die far too young. Kids, much more likely to smoke if their families do, grow up repeating the pattern. Smoking isn’t the only issue that matters, but it’s one that is pretty close to my heart for South Auckland. Replace smoking in that sentence with any other health issue (except anorexia and melanoma), and it’s the same story. Replace health outcomes with any other outcome of interest (education, social status, life expectancy, or economic status) and the statistics are the same. This is not a judgment. It is a reality in our country.

On my last day working in South Auckland, I visited my Great Uncle in Middlemore Hospital, who very sadly, has only a few weeks left to live. He is well into his eighties and has enjoyed a long life. My Māori colleague was incredulous that in four years working there, I’d only visited someone in hospital once. She has regularly visited friends and whānau, and on the whole they are a lot younger. This isn’t a coincidence. Māori have higher rates of disease and a notably lower life expectancy than Pākehā.

What I wonder about our society, or at least the one that I have been raised in, is how aware we are of this divide. How much do we actually care about it – and therefore, what is our response? John Key & Co are currently immersed in a project to redefine the New Zealand flag, which real people, it seems, are not particularly engaged with. This is at a cost of upwards of $25 million to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, we live in a grossly unequal society which stacks up poorly internationally: we are one of the least equal of the developed countries in terms of income equality, and this has occurred in the last 20 years. Currently one in four of our children live in poverty, and many of these are in South Auckland. Imagine for a moment how we might better invest that money to contribute to a safer, healthier, happier world for these kids. Equality within a society means everyone is better off. It means less crime and greater social cohesion.

At my leaving do, a fellow Glenfielder acknowledged the privilege we had shared, of working in South Auckland as somewhat outsiders. I am grateful to have spent four years of my professional and personal life immersed in South Auckland’s communities. To have developed a small appreciation for the realities of people’s lives out here – which differ vastly from those of people living in Auckland’s more affluent suburbs. I would argue that our society would be far more cohesive if more people had the opportunity to step outside their own norm. It’s too easy to ignore if it doesn’t affect you. Or maybe we are too apathetic.

I often see South Auckland and its people being portrayed in a negative light both in the media and by those who have no insight into its realities. But as a relative outsider who now feels a part of this place, I choose to add my voice instead to the many who celebrate this rich and diverse part of our city. Those who celebrate the strength of family, culture, music, food and laughter. And the values that South Aucklanders bring to life better than anyone: service, humility, gratitude and generosity. I love Humans of South Auckland on Facebook for this reason.

South Auckland has given me its own gifts – to start with, a greater sense of humility. The elderly man who would turn up at our office to hand over a huge box of broccoli and cauliflower. Grown from his community garden, which we part funded, and that provided both a means for local people to get active and to feed local families. This is one of the things that showed me the seemingly inverse relationship between generosity and the amount you actually have to give. Time and again, myself and colleagues were warmly welcomed into people’s homes, churches, community centres, and workplaces. I saw the lengths that people would go to for the benefit of their communities. I repeatedly saw and experienced how laughter, joy and connection far surpassed anything material possessions or wealth could provide. And most of all, I developed a deep respect for the people who are motivated by making a difference for others – people who do not assess their professional worth by their salary or their status, but by the difference they have made for their communities.

In sixth form, our geography teachers took us on a field trip to Ōtara. It was more than likely the first time I, and many of my peers, had been there. The bus, full of yapping 16 year olds from a North Shore girls school, parked up in an average local street right outside people’s homes. The purpose of the visit was to contrast the housing in different parts of Auckland: from a gated castle somewhere like Epsom, to state housing in Ōtara, where you are more likely to see Samoan flags hanging from the windows than the latest Curtain Studio offering. I distinctly remember being told to be respectful, and not to stare. Fast forward several years and I now have strong memories of the friendship I developed while working with the kindergarten around the corner. And the appreciation of funding from the youth and family centre in one of the local blocks of shops. That geography trip would never have prepared me for the richness of working out south for the last few years. But I’m lucky that the experience itself did that.

I give back to South Auckland in a small way by supporting a teenager through Variety Kiwi Kid Sponsorship. You can too.

Tribute to the South Side

Anzac Day took on a new personal significance when I learned of the sacrifices my grandparents and their loved ones made as a result of the war.

Four years ago, in a blue Italian taxi, I approached the entry of a war cemetery on the outskirts of Ravenna. Travelling on my own, I’d negotiated a local taxi driver to take me out there, instructed by the patient lady at the hotel desk. He was to drive me out there and wait, in the middle of the countryside, while I searched for the grave of my Grandfather’s brother. Raymond Willard Evans. We exchanged various hand gestures to confirm this understanding … the prospect of being stranded in the middle of Northeast Italy on my own wasn’t particularly appealing. Some of the money I used to travel to the UK on my OE was from my Grandad’s inheritance. My partner at the time had returned to London, his home, and I was desperate to join him. I was furiously trying to save enough in a short timeframe to qualify for a work visa. With that enabling my travels, as well as Dad’s reminders about how lucky I was to travel all over Europe, I had a strong appreciation of what a privilege it was, and always will be, to choose to travel. This vastly differs from the circumstances of my own Grandfather and his brother, who travelled through Egypt, Greece and Italy during World War Two. In my haste to visit Ray’s burial site, I didn’t pause to consider how exactly I might find it in amongst 954 other graves at the Ravenna War Cemetery. Most buried here are Canadians; others Indians, New Zealanders and Palestinians. What followed was a frantic run through each of the cemetery’s aisles, and after putting out a plea to the universe, locating at first a group of New Zealand graves, and eventually, his own. The gentle whisper of wind through the lonely cemetery, in which I was the only visitor, felt fitting.

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It wasn’t until our Grandad passed away in 2004 that we discovered that the first husband of our Grandma, Gaylene, was in fact Raymond. Ray never returned from the war, and consequently Gaylene remarried Bob, Ray’s brother – our Grandfather. It seems that this arrangement was not uncommon at the time. My reflection in the eleven years since is that this was a generation of sacrifice. My Grandmother, my Grandfather, and my Grandfather’s brother. Fast forward to today and we are a generation with almost too much choice. Freedom to travel, to decide where we live, work and play. Freedom to choose who we will love, and marry – which takes on new significance when reflecting on the marriage of my grandparents. Ray was 24 when to our understanding, he died of tuberculosis whilst in the war. He wasn’t killed in action, unlike many. But I wonder whether either is really any worse. I was 28 when I visited. What truly breaks my heart is that I was the first Evans to visit Ray in his resting place. A lonely cemetery in the Northeast Italian countryside, which could not be further from home. But a reassuring place of peace and calm. I can’t talk for my Grandma’s experience, but I can only imagine the pain of knowing your beloved will never return home from the place he fell on the other side of the world. And that nor will you have the opportunity to stand in that place of the earth which has since held him.

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It is deeply emotional to stand in a place where your Grandmother and Grandfather should have first stood. To be the bridge between generations and to attempt in some way to acknowledge their loss. To be the first direct descendant, I believe, to ever have stood at this my forebear’s resting place. To introduce myself, and to offer my humble thanks to Ray for my life, and that of my sister and father. It’s a strange thing to fathom that this tragic loss resulted in our own family coming into being. I wonder what he would have thought to have me there, one of the Evans’s that came after his time. One of only two granddaughters of his beloved wife. What a privilege to visit on behalf of my family, one that wouldn’t exist in its current form were it not for WWII. May we always remember, acknowledge and respect those who sacrificed so much. May we always have the humility to reflect on our freedom, and the privilege of having the choices we do today. May peace always prevail over war.

Anzac Day took on a new personal significance when I learned of the sacrifices my grandparents and their loved ones made as a result of the war.