OPINION3 April 2023

When life gets in the way

Opinion UK Wellbeing

Louise McLaren shares a few lessons on what happens when a major and unexpected life event forces you to pause and shift gear.

Red traffic light

I’m writing this perched on a bench outside the station in Agen, in the south-west of France. This is Gascony, the region of foie gras and sausage.  Agen’s famous for its prunes. It’s rugby land here, too. Allez les Bleus

Further south, in my French home town, it’s sunflowers, Armagnac, melon, genial elderly farmers in caps, antiques and a love of photography.

Near here is the small town of Jean Castex, the recent prime minister, whose accent was the butt of quite some jokes while he was in power, leading to much discussion about classism and ‘accent snobbery’ in France.  

Agen isn’t, to be honest, a place that tourists would necessarily want to spend lots of time in, though this is by French standards – I daresay it’s still a more pleasant town than many UK counterparts of a similar size.

I’m waiting for a train. And now I’m writing on the train. It seems to be a context in which I do a fair amount of writing. I know why – it’s a context outside of the usual daily diet of phone calls and deadlines, with inefficiency and signal blackouts built in.

I’m here because my dad is not in a good way in hospital. We don’t know how long he has left. And suddenly all those deadlines you had control over, and a plan to hit, all the resourcing you had nailed, it’s thrown up into the air. Fortunately, with my fantastically supportive and dedicated colleagues there to catch it all and make Plan Bs and Plan Cs.

It might be shameful to admit, but there have been many occasions over years of working beyond a comfortable capacity when I entertained dark fantasies of having an illness that would require hospitalisation. Nothing really serious, mind, but something that would see me obliged to switch off completely – because it would be clear that there was no option to keep working. A sabbatical would have been a better option, obviously.

I know from talking with friends in the industry that I’m not alone in having imagined such an escape route. Recently I was told about a director in our industry who was seriously ill – and met this illness with some relief because it meant she could get off the treadmill and, for once, put her health first.

It’s such a trite truism that our work is not life-or-death. But there are so many of us doggedly pushing on, never really stopping to catch our breath, always prioritising that next deadline above all else. What happens when life gets in the way, though?

It shouldn’t take actual death to realise that our work is not life-or-death. So far, I’ve been processing a few lessons.

  • A good net will catch you. Colleagues who step in, proactively help you delegate and switch off, and who take control of a bunch of additional tasks smoothly and without the slightest hint of strain, are worth their weight in gold.
  • Clients who respond with empathy and flexibility, human being to human being, are the sort of people I want to keep working with.
  • Sometimes deadlines can shift. This doesn’t need to mean big delays, but often deadlines are somewhat false, just to keep the pace up.  We’re always collectively keeping the pace up. But sometimes a day or even a few hours’ grace creates more space to get stuff done calmly, and to get it done to a higher standard as a result.
  • No-one is really indispensable. We make ourselves so because this keeps us in employment. But when you’re forced to step back from driving the project, leading the presentation, owning the deliverable – it’s remarkable how others can step in and do the same, just a bit differently. And sometimes different is better too. 

Lastly – and this is the hardest lesson to process – it really shouldn’t take a major life event to force you to step back and shift gear. It’s not so easy to achieve proactively, but of course if we can create working conditions in which being maxed out is not the default, we’re better able to flex to deal with the unexpected.

Because the unexpected will always come.