Changing Course - From Burnout to Balance
Full disclosure, this story is from my husband Mark. When I decided to set up The Alternative he said that he wanted to talk about a period in his life when he struggled to find some kind of work / life balance and ultimately this affected his mental health.
Originally building his career in TV, Mark started to realise that he was equally as passionate about photography. As one of those lucky people who truly enjoys his day job, Mark started to build his photography business as a weekend hobby whilst being fully committed to his full time main employer. This was all pretty good until a move to a completely new part of the UK tested his mental health and forced him to rethink the balance in his life.
Can you tell us about your life before the move?
This isn’t necessarily a story of extremes and life going from bad to good. I was living in Hitchin (Hertfordshire) which is a lovely market town where my wife and I have family and great friends. I was 5 years into commuter life with all the cliches that you can imagine when living in the surburbs and working in the capital. On the same time train every day, leaving the house at 7, home after 8pm and constantly knackered. Mixing it up by getting on a different train carriage really didn’t provide that much excitement!
With the routine I started to feel a lack of enthusiasm about the way I was living and working, I knew something needed shaking up. I was trying to build a photography business in addition to my weekday TV job and shooting weddings and portraits at weekends which took up time and energy. I loved it but felt exhausted and something had to give.
Why did you decide to move to a new location?
In all honestly I felt like I needed to force my arm in some way and by extension, that of my wife and I as a couple. Moving to Norwich (Norfolk) was quite a random act based on the fact we visited there in Summer 2015 and really liked the city. It had an artistic and independent feel to it. It was bigger than Hitchin, felt a bit like Belgium (which I loved and still do love Belgium!) and I could envisage a future life there in some way.
It would force me to think long term about how I worked and how I could achieve balance by implementing changes to my working daily life. I knew I couldn’t commute to London from Norwich on a daily basis and that was the ‘arm force’ bit.
Did you consider how you would make your work life ‘work’ in this new location?
I did to a certain extent but not totally. Maybe this was slightly reckless but at the time I didn’t particularly care. I wanted a change and whatever happened would happen.
I actually got lucky as my employer was very flexible and my boss was amazingly understanding. I made changes to my working week and was able to work remotely from home some of the week. It really made me appreciate my role and the company more.
Once you moved, how did you feel at this time - mentally and physically?
First of all it was exciting. We’d moved to a new city that we knew very little about. Even the morning after moving day when I was on the train to London at 5:30am it felt exciting and I was energised. Then came the bedding in and exploring. It was a positive feeling, one of adventure almost. We made great new friends and were very lucky to settle in so quickly. The home part of my life was all good but as the months ticked past I was feeling a bit burned out. I was still spending 3 nights a week away from home in London. Don’t get me wrong I was, and still am, eternally grateful for friends and family putting me up but I was starting to feel exhausted. I do realise this was all self-inflicted though and so felt a tad stupid; like I had only myself to blame for how I was feeling. I thought I could manage 3 nights away from home every week but I couldn’t. I needed to address this and make a change to my work / life balance.
Did you speak to anyone about how you felt?
I internalise stuff quite a lot and didn’t really think I needed to let things out. I have a tendency to just work most things through, especially if the circumstances are of my own making.
In February 2017 about 13 months after we’d moved I’d reached breaking point and felt shattered, pulled in various directions emotionally and that I was a f*cking idiot for inflicting this on myself. I let everything out to my wife one morning before work (a 39 year old man crying outside Tesco’s on the phone isn’t very cool) and she helped talk me round and gain clarity on the situation.
How did you decide to change your situation and what steps did you take?
I approached my manager and explained the situation, that I wasn’t managing and luckily there was a role I could go for in the team that was a job share. It would mean I would be working for only 3 days a week, plus one of those days would be from home. This was a brilliant scenario. There was the reduction in salary to consider but as I was building my photography business I felt it was a perfect opportunity to jump at. It would give me the impetus to push myself and go after what I wanted to achieve too. That wasn’t easy for me though as I’ve always struggled with a lack of confidence in my ability and had a tendency to sit back and take an easier road than push myself. I knew it was an opportunity I wanted to take and I felt I was good enough to keep learning my craft as a photographer. Again, that ‘arm forcing’ was there to go for! I do appreciate that I was lucky to have this part time situation presented to me but you have to try to make it happen. To look for these opportunities.
How would you describe your life and your outlook now?
I feel positive about the direction I’ve taken and am really glad I embraced the chance to work and live in a more flexible way. It’s helped me gain perspective on a lot of areas of my life. I realise how much I love working for my current company even though its’s part time and feel massively fortunate to do this. I’m stimulated in my role, love spending time in London with all the benefits of being in a creative, forward thinking company with great work mates. I also stay over one or sometimes two nights a week and get to spend valuable time with friends and family too. The balance is right now!
Just as importantly, I’ve had time and opportunity to grow my photography. I’ve built a portfolio of work I’m proud of and I’m enjoying building on my skills and taking my work forward. It really does take time to find what you love doing and you have to put the hours in. I have more time to dedicate myself to that! Freelancing has improved the ability to organise myself too.
Looking back at my old self before, I was in hindsight too relaxed and to be honest pretty rubbish at getting myself in order. That was always a big issue and source of frustration to me and my wife. Being brutally honest it caused me feelings of self-loathing, guilt, anger and stress. I’m more driven now and happier. It’s not all smooth sailing and there are still moments of doubt and worry, especially financially. Sometimes the fog of self-doubt rolls in but I feel I can gain control of the fear easier and quicker now, evaluate and be rational and plan my way out of it with a good outlook.
With the gift of hindsight, is there anything that you would do differently?
I wish I’d have gone to Reading 92 and seen Nirvana! No seriously though this is the million dollar question and only helpful, I think, if you can act on hindsight to improve what you’re doing now.
I wonder if I should have been a photographers assistant maybe at 18 but I really wasn’t even aware of what I wanted to do at that age. I do think I should have thought about how I wanted to be working at 40 when I was in my 20’s or early 30’s even.
At 30 I was working at ITV Granada doing script clearances for drama programmes such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Doc Martin. I loved it and was taking stills on Coronation Street and programmes like Granada Soccer Night under the guidance of the pictures team and a great photographer called Neil Marland. There was a job opportunity there for a stills photographer on Emmerdale and I wish I’d have gone for it instead of leaving Manchester to head back to London. But I wouldn’t have had valuable experiences I’ve had, worked with some fantastic people over the last 10 years and arrived where I am now. I’m now shooting TV stills, have a great network of friends and family and genuinely love what I do. I never did see Nirvana though.