Dealing with difficult times


All around me people are losing their jobs, and it’s impacting me far more than I expected it would. Breaking news last night reported that my last employer has announced 500 full time staff will lose their jobs, with potentially more to come. I was a casual employee there until April, and had I not managed to secure a contract position elsewhere until the end of the year I have no doubt I would have become an unemployment statistic myself.

Many wonderful people – some of whom I know, others I don’t – now find themselves in uncertain financial times amidst an ongoing crisis of global public health. It is difficult to see an optimistic way forward at the moment, which adds even more insult to injury. I worry there are simply not enough jobs available to soak up the impact to these unfortunate souls. And when my contract is up in December, I may still yet join their ranks.

The higher education sector has taken an absolute beating this year, as have many others, with many institutions having to make difficult decisions to stay afloat. I’ve heard rumours of other institutions folding completely.

We’re seeing arguments spill out into social media about who to blame, and I’m half expecting to see a string of industrial action events following the wake of the redundancies. In the end though, I worry they won’t do much to help the people who suddenly find themselves without work. When a university finds itself facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, the cost cuts have to come from somewhere. There just isn’t that much fat in an institution to avoid impacting staff.

There was a time when a job in higher education equated to security for life. I no longer believe that; my experience has shown as much. The times are different now, and we must adjust to this new reality – unfortunate as it may be.

This has to begin with prioritising our mental health. If we cannot roll with adversity and still find moments of joy and peace we will truly struggle. I have known the darkness that comes from self-doubt, depression, frustration, anger, and despair. Even in employment they still arise sometimes. Resilience and perseverence are crucial qualities to cultivate, and they must be honed and kept strong. This requires constant action, meditation, and attention.

Part of this comes from helping others, particularly those who find themselves unceremoniously jettisoned from organisations and institutions. When I was first made redundant in 2018 I felt invisible, forgotten, and unimportant. It’s critical that we show people in similiar positions that this isn’t the case, and that they still matter to us. The dark times will pass, but until they do it’s crucial that we look out for each other.

man standing looking out at the sky

Maintaining Perspective


“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In a sentence, that sums up the last week for me. As I’ve said before, I work in online learning, and at the moment I am being kept extraordinarily busy. Too much so for my liking, in actual fact.

Despite my attempts at sounding wise on the topic of work-life balance, I’ve hardly been following my own advice lately, and it’s really wearing me down. Not so much emotionally, but definitely physically and psychologically. I’m working too fast, too hard, and for too long, and am rapidly running out of steam.

In saying this out loud, I realise that the effort stems as much from ego and pride as it does from professional pressure. Perish the thought I’d admit I can’t handle the chaos that’s going on around me, and that it might just be too much for me. That I might need help.

Two days ago I wrote about the risk of overwork becoming a badge of pride, and here I am guilty of the same sin. I wrote of how important it is to look out for colleagues, and to gently express your concerns when you feel they are falling into an unhealthy spiral of longer and longer hours. It’s perhaps most important of all to be willing to see the same faults and risks in yourself, and up until today I didn’t recognise that.

So today, looking ahead, I intend to leave my desk during lunch, spend some time with my family, laugh, breathe and recharge before returning for the second half of my workday. It’s good for my mental health, my peace of mind, and I believe for my physical health as well. It makes me more productive in my work too. But I think perhaps most important of all, pulling back for a breath and some sun helps maintain a balanced perspective about what truly matters in life.

Lego man looking stressed out.

On work-life balance in a time of self-isolation


I’m noticing a concerning trend lately amongst many of my peers and colleagues. With remote working increasingly standard across many sectors and industries, the normal rhythm of a professional life spent in an office has flown out the window, and many people are starting to grapple with finding a new equilibrium. In my observation (and experience) this can very easily include not knowing when to stop working for the day.

Particularly for sectors where demands for skills and services have ramped up in the wake of COVID-19, when working from home the events or triggers that mark the slow down and end of the day frequently don’t happen; or they do happen and are ignored because there is too much to do. In either case, the result is similar.

Case in point: This morning I awoke to a flurry of emails from a wonderful colleague of mine that extended virtually continuously from the point where I clocked off (after working late myself) and didn’t stop until midnight. Her tireless efforts are greatly appreciated by everyone, but I worry for her physical and mental health if she continues this pace up for long.

Still recuperating from a week-long cold, I’m more conscious than normal of the need to look after myself, but even I am working faster, harder, and longer hours than I normally do. There are times when this is absolutely necessary, and helping the university sector make a sudden shift from blended learning to fully online in order to enable students to continue their studies is arguably one of those times. But we must be very mindful of the line in the sand that distinguishes an extenuating circumstance from the new normal.

In certain industries, such as academia, that line in the sand is faint indeed, and working longer and longer hours can become a badge of honour rather than an occasionally necessary unpleasantry. As colleagues and friends, it’s crucial that we look out for each other and raise concerns with others when we feel they are pushing themselves too much. We live in challenging times at the moment. Peer support is essential now, more than ever.

laptop set on a couch

On Remote Working


With uncertainty around the coronavirus being what it is these days, many employers are starting to look at establishing remote-working opportunities for their staff. Having worked from home for many years now (both part time and full time), I thought I’d share some some tips and observations that I’ve found particularly useful.

To provide some context, I’m a learning designer and educational technologist and have worked in higher education (e.g. universities) for nearly 20 years. My primary “clients” (though I don’t call them this) are academic staff interested in developing their courses online.

Establish rituals and habits (and follow them)

Establishing habits and cues that only take place at the start or end of the day help can help emphasise the shift from being at home and “off the clock” to being in work mode. 

For example, I try to always dress for work in the same way regardless of whether I’m working remotely or on campus.  This helps mentally reinforce that I’m representing the University even at home.

At the end of the day it’s also important to have cues that help switch off our minds and return us to an at-home headspace.  Frequently I’ll go running as soon as I’ve mentally “clocked out.”  It gets me out of the house and focussing on a non-work activity, and when I return home, mentally fresh, I know that the evening has begun.  Walking the dog or going for a walk are other ideas.

Set Goals for the Day

Particularly when surrounded by the relaxing and familiar environment of home, it’s easy to get distracted.  By setting goals and tasks for the day first thing in the morning, I find I’m better able to stay on track and have a tool – e.g. ‘the list’ – to return to if my mind starts to wander.

Practice active communication

This is a big one.  When you’re not physically surrounded by colleagues it’s easy to start feeling isolated and out of the loop.  Taking the time to actively reach out, connect, give updates and ask for updates helps maintain a sense of camaraderie even when in disparate locations.

This is especially important when the bulk of your colleagues work together, and you are one of the few (or the only) people working remotely.  It’s easy for others to share information amongst the local team that never makes it to you because they’re in close proximity and you’re not.  So, it’s important to ask questions and actively seek out news that you might be missing by being in a remote office.

Create a dedicated workspace

On a similar theme to rituals and habits is where you work when at home.  When one space is used for multiple purposes (work and non-work) it’s easy to lose track of your reason for being there.  Again, setting goals can certainly help here, but equally if the only time you sit in a particular place is when you work, it can be yet another way of reinforcing the distinction between worktime and non-worktime.

Stand-up and take breaks periodically

Especially if you are alone when working from home, it is incredibly easy to forget to move, eat, stretch, or take a breather.  Breaks helps you relax both mentally and physically and can contribute to increased productivity when you set down a task for a moment and move a bit.

Sometimes I will start laundry or dishes running as a means of getting me to stand up.  When the buzzer goes off, it will remind me to pause, make a cuppa, put things away, and go outside for a few minutes before coming back to work again.

Understand whether flexible working conditions mean “location,” “working hours,” or both

Another big one.  Some businesses are happy for staff to work remotely but expect them to keep to a standard 8-4 or 9-5 working day.  Others are happy for remote staff to work any bizarre times of day or night they like so long as they get the work done and meet their professional obligations.  Particularly with employers who allow flexible work but are reluctant to do so, it’s important to establish trust.  Understanding their assumptions and expectations for when we work and how often we provide status reports can go a long way to demonstrating we’re professional and reliable even when remote and unseen.

Have tips of your own? Leave a comment and share some approaches that you find useful.