by Robbie Wojciechowski 

Finding a bit of space between job applications, temporary contracts, and creative urges can be exhausting but learning to look after ourselves properly is the most important lesson to learn when making a living.

The last year of my life has been the most exhausting one I have ever experienced. I’ve had to learn huge life lessons when it comes to sacrificing my time and energy. There have been lessons I expected to learn like the difficulty of finding work, and lessons I perhaps hadn’t anticipated, lessons about my mental health.

It’s felt unrelenting in lots of ways, with so much pressure coming from so many different directions. I have fears about how I am seen by people, a feeling that seems to inflate after receiving a rejection letter from a job application. I also worry endlessly about whether I’m making the right choices in whatever pathway I am following at any one moment.

Among the Step Up participants, a lot of these feelings are shared too.

“There’s this shame around feeling down, or not having the easiest time and not being honest about it,” says Hiba, a writer and community organiser providing support and opportunities to BAME women.

“There’s a part of me thinks that I’m 26 and that I haven’t got a career yet. There’s pressure from myself, but pressure from society, to have a career, even if it isn’t a job that you want,” says Martha, a designer and theatre practitioner, who’s in the search for more long-term work.

In this mind state, every day can feel like an existential crisis, but pushing through, and finding ways of separating the frustration about work, has proved a vital lifeline for me.

With social media waking us up to the idea that we could be at work 24/7, even if that work is our own projects, we can forget where we actually stand in our own lives. Taking time to sit, to be idle, to separate work and play, is one of the biggest learning curves in trying to find a balance between switching off and switching on.

Mental health campaigns in the UK have started to open up awareness around this issue. The work of the Royal Foundation and the Heads Together campaign has brought high-profile media attention to conversations around mental health. But as the campaign moves into its second phase, one thought that rests with me is how those facing unstable work situations could be better supported?

The job I’m in currently involves being in a public facing role. But separating how I feel inside, from the outside world of work, is something I’ve always found very difficult. Not letting these images bleed is something we’re told to learn early on in our careers.

It’s not unknown that unsteady work situations, temporary contracts, and freelance work aren’t for everyone. These often unstable forms of work need their own mental strength to deal with. Out of those on Step Up, it’s often this area that is raised as an issue, finding mental health and physical support to deal with the psychological burden of unstable work.

When the writer Kevin Braddock faced a series of breakdowns in his life, he created Torchlight System. A mental health storybook that allowed him, through writing, to self-reflect and process some of the difficulties he was facing.

The book maps the story of how Kevin started to look after himself again, after a long time of forgetting to do so. We see him learning not to punish himself so much, learning to ease the burden of his stressful editorial job, and finding ways and solutions to enjoying the everyday world around him.

It’s often at work that we’re hit hardest by our feelings. Workplaces can be inductive to what looks and feels like quite trivial stresses and anxieties. But we numb these feelings by pushing them away. Processing these feelings or at least taking time away to think about ourselves is as important as turning up in the morning.

I think we need to start having more conversations about how we can begin to look after each other better. More conversations about what we can do to help foster this in the workplace, as well as more understanding.

Looking out for those around us and recognising their burdens, can help create huge change. I know how much having an open and understanding employer has helped me in the past. Being given the time to take a breather, sit down, to do something away from a computer, has been so vital to me feeling better about work.

The hope is that in the future this form of expression become more open. Working together to help look out for each other should become part of the norm in the workplace.

Monday 23rd October 2017