The first time I realised my work was severely affecting my health, I had just turned 30. The organisation I was working for was going through a massive restructure and nobody knew what was going to happen to anybody’s jobs. All you could do was wait and hope and, in my case, work like crazy to try and prove that you shouldn’t be on the firing list. I got in early and stayed late, and started to develop a permanent cold. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it – after all, a cold is a physical ailment, not a mental one, therefore it couldn’t be connected to my work, right?
In her new book, Is Your Job Making You Ill?, Dr Ellie Cannon points out the links between our working lives and our health. Stress can directly impact our immune system, weakening it and making us much more susceptible to whatever is going around. It’s why mental breakdowns are so often preceded by physical symptoms – which we’re far too keen to ignore.
So much of good health, she explains, depends on us taking small regular steps to keep our bodies and minds in peak condition. When we get busy or overwhelmed with work, we start to drop these small actions, thinking they’re not important in the wider scheme when in fact they’re the one thing keeping us going. In order to keep our bodies resilient, we actually need some balance.
I talk about the need for balance a lot, but I’m not sure I really believe that anyone actually has it. After all, we all go through periods where work dominates or a family member gets ill and everyone has to rally around, or you suddenly meet someone and the rush of new love consumes you to the point that your friends think you’ve fallen off the face of the earth. Trying to keep track of everything you’re supposed to be doing, and finding the time to actually do it, can feel like you’re adding more stress on to a cauldron already bubbling with it.
However, Cannon has a solution – she recommends scheduling all areas of our lives in the same way we schedule work meetings. Rather than just thinking at the beginning of the week, “I’ll do three trips to the gym this week,” Cannon suggests putting them in your diary and giving them the same priority you would anything to do with work. You can take this a step further and set up alarms on your phone to remind you to do the simple things like drink a glass of water or take a five-minute break from your screen.
My friend, comedian and speaker Emma Stroud, has what she calls ‘a rainbow diary’. She schedules everything into the same diary, but she colour-codes it
Scheduling absolutely everything can feel fiddly at first and, if you’re anything like me, you might find looking at a completely booked-up diary absolutely terrifying, but there are ways to get around this. My friend, comedian and speaker Emma Stroud, has what she calls “a rainbow diary”. She schedules everything into the same diary, but she colour-codes it. Work meetings might be in red, for example, time with her family in blue, exercise in green etc. This means she can just glance at her diary for the week and instantly see what sort of balance she has. Too much of any particular colour probably means another area is being neglected. It also allows her to spot trends over time – if she’s feeling particularly tired one week, she can quickly look back and see if the past few weeks have been all work and no play. Or vice versa.
For me, the benefit of scheduling my diary has been a better overall understanding of what makes my body and mind feel healthier, and where there are areas for improvement. Previously, I would have put a constant cold down to the time of the year, something that I couldn’t change. I would have stressed that it was going to put me behind on work and I would have tried to push through on it. Now, I can see that it might be down to too much work and not enough exercise, or that I might actually need to book some time out to spend with friends. Stress may affect our immune system, but there are simple things we can do to alleviate it – we just have to remember to do them.
This is part of our special new-year series called Small Change, Big Difference – small things you can do in 2018 (and not big unrealistic resolutions you can't keep). To read more in the series, click here