It is, I believe, National Work Life Week, which means that talking about work-life balance is currently in vogue. I am unfortunately not in vogue, because I have been thinking about writing this since August but, you know, BUSY. Anyway, I decided that I should probably get myself in gear and Write Something because it’s been an age.
Psychologists often talk of the work-life balance as something they aspire to but often fail to achieve. When I began clinical training, a reasonable chunk of the induction was spent talking about the demands the course would place upon us and the effort we would have to expend to retain life outside our jobs. Interestingly, it was noted that it was usually the trainees who had children – only one person in my cohort did – who made time for their real life, mainly because they didn’t have much choice.
Over the next three years, I watched my colleagues work during the evenings, at weekends, and on annual leave. This last one horrified me. I liked training because it meant I had huge flexibility – I could work on my thesis and case reports whenever I wanted, which meant I could also go to the cinema whenever I wanted. I can’t write or think at pre-appointed times, so when it was all useless and I could barely string a sentence together I’d wander off and try again when I was ‘in the zone’. It was marvellous. During my doctorate I went away more and saw more films and plays than I ever had before. I discovered opera. I read voraciously. I did, in some ways, have the time of my life, although my thesis did go ‘bang’ at one point so don’t think it was all plain sailing. But the point was that I knew it was just a job – a job I love and that I am good at, but just a job. I saw my patients and wrote my assignments and so on, so there was no way I was going to take annual leave to write a thesis. When my data analysis wasn’t working and I had to rewrite my entire Introduction I despised my research; having to forfeit leave to rework it would have made me impossibly angry and bitter. It was precisely because doctoral training was tough that I needed – not wanted; NEEDED – that leave. NHS annual leave entitlement is reasonably generous, but so it should be, frankly. I need those holidays to recover from the intensity of the work; to ensure that when I am working I am a good clinician, not a fed up, burnt out one.
The upshot is that when I go away, I REALLY go away. On annual leave, I am totally incommunicado. I don’t want to talk to anyone (after all, if I wanted to talk to people, I wouldn’t go somewhere they weren’t). I work a lot so I am entitled to some downtime. It is for these reasons that I frequently disappear from social media and ignore my emails for days on end. In the spirit of this, I went away over the August Bank Holiday to take in some country air. I rumbled back to London on the Monday and turned my phone on at some point that evening. What struck me was the number of people – mainly psychologists, because this is technically a psychology-related account, though you could sometimes be forgiven for thinking otherwise – were talking about actual psychology. Research and stats and theories and clinical practice and other stuff that made me want to ask why the hell they had nothing better to do with their time. And then I remembered that, in the not too distant past, I could have similar conversations that went on until 11pm, midnight – in fact, it sometimes seems as though the psychologists of Twitter only come out to play (or think, or disagree) in the witching hour. Not necessarily surprising – I do most of my thinking at night, and it is often then I have fewer distractions, but, really, do we not have better things to do with our free time than talk about work-related stuff? Every time I check Twitter I feel as though every other psychologist IN THE WORLD is more engaged with their profession than I am, but the fact is sometimes I don’t care enough to talk about it or write about it – as I said at the beginning, I’ve written nothing psychology-related in months; I have five papers languishing, awaiting revisions, because I can think of about five hundred things I’d rather do than write an academic paper that no one will read. Sometimes I just want to read a novel or go for a walk or have a social media conversation that’s casual and easy and doesn’t need fifteen tweets to demonstrate the inevitable necessary nuance. Sometimes, I don’t want to be a psychologist; I just want to be a person. Sometimes, and hold on to your hats here because this will come as a shock to you – nuance can go whistle. I want to make sweeping statements and chortle at gifs and comment on films I have seen.
Basically, my job is serious and I am worried it will turn me into a serious person who finds it impossible to disengage from it. I have an unusual approach to my job, a passion for it combined with impatience and a somewhat irreverent style, but it’s one that fits me and seems to suit many of the people I see. I hear painful things in my clinical work and I need to shut off from it sometimes. The last thing I want to do is discuss therapeutic models at a quarter to midnight; what I want to be doing is lolling about looking to be entertained fabulously.
Obviously I have no vested interest in telling other people how and when they should be using social media. Whatever. I don’t understand why anyone reads news on holiday, for example (or ever, actually); nor can I fathom why you need to relentlessly livetweet your free time. I’m not enough of a psychologist to make inferences – by which I mean, I’m a forty-hour-a-week psychologist, not an always-on-psychologist. I sound as though I lack commitment to the psychology cause, but I don’t. I simply have a resounding commitment to my own mental health, which, frankly, too few of us do. Life is about more than work and there is much joy to be had, if you simply care to look for it. So I am slowly accepting the fact that my psychology-related Twitter account is becoming ever-less psychological and I am revelling in the fact I don’t have the slightest desire to reverse the trend.