NOW talk: taking care of ourselves

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Overworking seems to be a normal thing in the social sector. How can we build an impactful organisation without putting our own well-being at risk? What does work-life balance mean in a team where most members are volunteers? That’s the topic Annina and Ömer discussed in their NOW talk.

Annina: What does life-work balance actually mean to you? I mean, what does a good life-work balance look like?

Ömer: Work-life balance…I am not sure where the limits are when we talk about balancing work and life. Many times I see them overlapping, intersecting especially in social work and the non-profit sector. To me, this is also where it can become overwhelming. The ideal work-life balance for me, is when I do not feel the pressure of my work outside my working hours. You know, being able to disconnect from my projects while I am having a lovely dinner with my partner. How about you?

Annina: It’s funny that you say that, because I was thinking the exact same thing. I do not like this term work-life balance much, because for myself, I can’t really draw a clear distinction between what’s work and what’s not. Take NOW for instance: In the classical sense of the word, it’s not work, because I am not paid for it. But even if I love doing things for NOW, it’s also not free time or a hobby. So I think it gets increasingly complicated to draw that distinction.

For me, the real question is about balance. Is there a good balance between the various activities in my life? Is there enough room to be challenged and grow, but also enough room to relax and enjoy? Am I being happy and healthy?

Ömer: I absolutely agree. Earlier this week, with some of my colleagues both in my professional job and in NOW, we had read an article that shows how much overworking and stress non-pofit employees have to face and how overworking does not necessarily mean creating more impact. I think we can’t simply do 9 am-5 pm, we need some flexibility in the kind of work we do. But where is the limit to that flexibility?

Annina: Hmm, good question. For me it always really helps to keep track of hours, like we recently started doing at NOW. That way, both myself and my team/employer have a clear instrument to check whether I’m working too much (or too little), but at the same time, I’m free to work whenever I want or when it’s necessary. What’s your strategy to make sure you keep a good balance between activities, and don’t overwork?

Ömer: First of all, trust and openness to your team is key! I need to be able to reflect on how I feel and share this openly with the others. It’s also important that we encourage and help each other to take some time off. That’s what helps me to create space to start balancing. This openness and dialogue makes me more mindful and more aware of how my life is at that moment. Secondly, I do change settings, environments. I go to a cafe, do some exercise, meet with friends and not speak about work. Those kinds of activities boost my inner balance. I’m really happy that in NOW I feel so comfortable to openly speak with my team about how we feel.

Annina: I feel like I’m learning to balance in this very moment 🙂 I used to overwork a lot and that was affecting my health, but also my work in negative ways. That is the irony in overworking: It actually does more harm than good, because if you are not well-balanced as a person, your work quality suffers from it. Especially in social work settings! I think it’s amazing that we managed to create this open atmosphere at NOW, where we can openly talk about how we’re doing, if things are too much, and even about such taboo topics as mental health issues. That’s very important to me as well. Personally, yoga, breathing and mindfulness exercises help me a lot. They help me focus on what’s important on this day, while at the same time reminding me that I’m only human and that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Ömer: Absolutely! Being gentle to yourself and being gentle to the team. That is the secret. In NOW, it also took us some time to come to this point. I remember it very clearly when you and some other team members brought this to the table. It wasn’t an easy discussion and some of us had to realize that if we take time off, that means others have to jump in. We are all connected and have to be conscious about that and make sure it’s not always the same people to balance the team out. After that, we have started paying great attention to the physical and mental health of our team and the participants. There is this whole topic of the “power of being able to say NO”. We feel like everything is urgent, and yes sometimes it is… but there is a good in saying NO at certain times. “NO, today I cannot do it. I need to take a break.”

Annina: Definitely! I also feel there was a shift in how we are dealing with this at NOW. We had quite an open communication culture from the start. But since we are collaborating only online, it was sometimes not so clear who was working how much on what, and to see the amount of work each person put into NOW. I remember for myself that at the beginning, I put more work into NOW than I actually had time and energy for, just because I was so passionate about the project and I felt the work was important and needed to be done. And I implicitly assumed that everybody else in the team was (over-)working as much as I did. So when we finally got together for the Encounter, I was already exhausted. In addition to that, I realised that this was not the case, and that it hadn’t really been necessary for me to go so much over my own boundaries. That was a very difficult experience for me, but I think it helped both myself and NOW to take health and well-being more seriously.

Ömer: You were aware and you felt comfortable sharing it, making it not only personal but also a team issue. This was a turning moment. Today, I am more careful and cautious not only in NOW work but in all my other projects and programs. I don’t think anything in this world is more important than our physical and mental wellbeing. Otherwise, it will be more harm than good in long term.

Annina: It makes me very happy to read that this influenced you personally as well 🙂

Ömer: Yes! I started asking myself “ Why wasn’t I aware of this? How am I doing when it comes to work-life balance in NOW and in other things I do?”. Those reflections have been important for me to learn about myself. There is no one-size fits all recipe for this. But I think anyone can start by asking themselves and other team members the right questions.

Annina: I think the last thing you mentioned, about asking team members, is very important. I think there is a tendency in our society to see health and well-being as a personal issue. But it’s also a social issue. You cannot be healthy if you live in a system that is making you sick. And you cannot speak up about your boundaries if you don’t have a team, a surrounding which is willing to listen and to adapt to your needs.

Ömer: I cannot agree more. We have to continue doing this very actively. I really hope NOW will continue raising this issue and creating awareness not just in our team. We should even more actively talk about it with our participants who are facing the exact same challenges! And of course spread this in the society as a whole. Thank you Annina for this wonderful reflection morning!

Annina: That sounds like a plan! For me, NOW has already been a kind of “wellbeing-policy-role-model”, not because it’s perfect but because we are talking about these issues openly and continue learning as an organisation. And I hope everyone at NOW can take this to other contexts as well. Thank you Ömer as well 🙂