Manifesto for health and change

When I was a teenager, I worked as a manager in retail. I wanted to be an artist at the time, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to go to university. We used to work an 8.5 hour day with an hour for lunch and a twenty minute coffee break.

As a manager, I would sometimes chose to forgo the coffee break, when we were extra busy, to keep things moving in the business, which was shoe sales. At that time I cooked all my own food from scratch. I made home-made ravioli, soups, pate, smoothies, muesli, cakes and biscuits, and rarely bought a take-away. I had the energy to do this, perhaps because I took regular breaks at work.

I worked hard for five years, moving from shop to shop, going up a grade each time, as I increased the takings for the the very successful corporation I worked for. I worked long hours but I was rewarded for it, with regular salary increases, a pension and good breaks. There were challenges, which I won’t go into here. What I want to write about is health.

Today, thirty years later, we have regressed. We no longer have tea breaks, we only take a half hour break. We rush our meals and resort to cheap, sugar and additive filled take-aways.

Late in 2015 I went back into management in the Private Sector, after working for several charities where it was sometimes difficult to take a lunch break, depending on the availability of volunteers. Sometimes, to protect my health, I closed the shop for lunch. Sometimes customers complained about me doing this, other times they were supportive. The response was varied. I was able to take an hour for lunch most of the time, but the premises was poorly laid out, meaning I had to carry all donations to the next floor (there was no lift), every day. That’s equivalent of carrying a delivery of goods up two flights of stairs every day for a year. In this role I developed a cyst on my thyroid. Within weeks of leaving this role my cyst disappeared.

After this role, which paid a meagre £16,000 a year, I found a higher paid role as a deputy in the Private Sector. I worked from 8.30 till 6 with a half hour lunch break as a deputy manager in the Private Sector role. If we weren’t too busy then I was able to take a quick break for a cup of tea. The Area Management Team at Head Office would watch me on cameras on their phones and ring up making jokes if I sat down for five minutes next to the till where there were no chairs, for a couple of minutes to rest my aching legs.

I enjoy hard work. I don’t enjoy sedentary posts. I became very unwell when I worked in an office for almost two years in 2013 in a hospital, typing medical letters. I’d just gained my English degree. I thought I’d try something new. It turned out that sitting down all day was worse than standing all day. In this role I was able to take a break and because I always arrived early for work no one was checking my time-keeping. I was trusted to mange my time. Still, I put on almost a stone in this role, and found it hard not walking about, even though I would take the post to the post room for my colleague and run other errands to the chemist, I was seated for almost 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.

So why can’t I find work which helps me stay healthy?

The answer is, I did find work that helped me stay healthy. But this wasn’t till a year later.

In 2016 I spent a year studying for a Cache Level 3 certificate. I had to complete assignments on line and digitally submit these. I signed up to a teaching agency but my lack of experience meant that I found little work. I lived on beans and cake for a year because my savings only covered my rent and bills, so I put on even more weight because I had a low income while studying. I’m sure many students suffer like this. But at the end of the year I moved to Bristol and found lots of work where I could gain a great deal of experience in supporting teaching in schools and colleges.

The best work was in a Special Needs college which offered me Fridays off. I finished this work at 4 pm and started happily at 8 am. I would drive for one hour to work. And, as I like to be punctual, I would arrive at 7 am and take a coffee in town before work because the coffee shop, Cafe Nero, opened at 7 am. After work, I would drive home. This took an hour. I was home at between 4 50 and 5.10 and was able to go shopping for food or take a 17 k cycle ride around the countryside on my doorstep. We only took half an hour break in this role, but the fact that my day was slightly shorter meant I was my fittest ever in 2017- 2018.

I got the Strava app in 2017 and in 2018 I completed my first cycle 300 for Cancer Research.

However, I was driving 30 miles to the teaching support role, so 60 miles a day, and it wasn’t viable. My car was becoming costly to maintain with 240 mile journeys.

After this, I started an MA and took up a keyholder post in a local shop. This was low paid work, but I didn’t have to finance my travel. I was able to walk in to work and cycle after work. Overall, I was much healthier than in previous similar roles. Except, because I couldn’t eat in this role (I was the only one in the shop), I’d taken up snacking on chocolate in my snatched 2 minute break. One day I became unwell. One of the symptoms was excessive thirst. After several blood tests, my doctor told me I was at high risk of diabetes.

I immediately cut out the chocolate in my diet and asked for help with sourcing healthy snacks. This meant that I had to take time out to think about my health and look after myself. I realised I’d put my diet last. When feeding my family, I used to cook home made pate, home made soups and home made smoothies. Lack of time had caused me to change my habits. My focus had become solely on work and paying the bills.

I’ve enjoyed all my jobs, and I’ve worked in every sector, private, public and not-for- profit. I know what it is like not to have work. I have experienced that at least 4 times for 3 months in a row in my lifetime. I have many hobbies and I’m also a prolific writer and I volunteer most years for something. However, nothing beats regular work. Work isn’t bad for you.

I know there are many benefits to the social interaction of work, since I’m not someone who talks much in a work environment, and yet on the 4 occasions when I was in between jobs for 3 months, I felt depressed, and sometimes found it hard to get out of bed and motivate myself. The fourth time this happened, I changed my behaviour and built in an early morning coffee habit at my local cafe at 7. 30 everyday. This gave me something to get up for. However, I missed the camraderie of shared experiences.

Work isn’t bad for you. What is bad for you is lack of nurturing and praise and toxic workplace environments where you cannot take healthy breaks, and long hours which prevent exercise and healthy eating and a good work life balance, which in turn facilitates healthy relationships.

I’ve had my share of challenges to my health at work, but nothing beats what the author of When Breath Becomes Air went through. If you get a chance you should read that book, because, although it isn’t the premise of the work (the author is training at a prestigious college to become a surgeon and falls ill with lung cancer), he is performing highly stressful operations, and yet the overwhelming theme running through the book is lack of self-care. The protagonist, who is dying of lung cancer, is not sleeping and is denying himself breaks for food. How can this be? How can it be that people who strive to achieve and work hard aren’t given the care that they should expect by their employers?

I think we should change working hours to allow people to take better health- enhancing breaks and to arrive home in time to buy food to cook for their evening meals or to take a walk or swim or go dancing or cycling. We’d all be happier and healthier. You wouldn’t see so many overweight people. Take it from me. I know.

Published by hermionelaake contributing editor O:JA&L

Currently, whist working on long fiction, I write short stories, poetry, essays and blog weekly. I appeared on Blog Talk Radio, 2016, interview across continents with Susan Wingate. See my twitter account: herziloph, pinned tweet; Award nominee, Jointly-published and Indie writer. Nominated for the Avon and Authonomy First Lines prize, 2014 and the H. G. Wells Grand Prize for Fiction, 2013. My flash fiction is published with Open: Journal of Arts and Letters.

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