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Editorial - Guilty Pleasures

Yesterday was Saturday and I took a duvet day.

For the uninitiated, this was a day literally spent under my duvet i.e. doing nothing. (Well, I binge watched a series on Netflix I’ve been trying to finish for weeks so maybe it wasn’t entirely nothing.) The reason I share this is because instead of relishing my day off, I’ve spent today in an agony of guilt, beating myself up for what most people do on a regular basis.

It’s felt quite alarming to realise the extent to which I found relaxing such a switch from my routine and so disconcerting. Deciding to compound my discomfort with not working, I went on a long walk through the park today, listening to music and pondering why I feel so guilty about relaxing.

An Inconvenient Truth

As an entrepreneur with a portfolio of working activities that include consulting, coaching, training, and writing, there’s always something to do. Over the years it has become second nature to work unless I have a reason not to. The very uncomfortable truth is that this flies in the face of everything I tell my coaching clients about the importance of self-care and well-being. It helps that I love what I do but the downside to loving your work is that it becomes very easy to ignore the boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one and there is a pile of studies that demonstrates the link between overwork, depression, ill-health, and death. New global research published in May by authors including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) points to the sobering analysis that three-quarters of a million people three-quarters of a million people are dying from heart disease and stroke each year as a result of working long hours. A BBC report on the study points out that on this basis, ‘more people are dying from overwork than from malaria’. Constant overworking takes a biological toll with overworked stress hormones causing high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure. The chances are that long working hours are accompanied by too little sleep and exercise, which in turn causes behavioural changes such as poor eating habits and reliance on stimulants like alcohol or tobacco.

The truth is, no matter how much you love your work, too much of it can leave you feeling stale, lethargic, and uninspired (not helpful when you’re writing a novel). Regular breaks can also help improve overall job satisfaction, and numerous studies have shown the importance of taking a break, whether it’s for an hour, a day, or even longer. Inserting breaks into our busy lives has been shown to reduce stress and impact positively on wellbeing and productivity which, in turn, boosts our performance.

The truth is, no matter how much you love your work, too much of it can leave you feeling stale, lethargic, and uninspired.

But if taking a break and relaxing is so good for us, why is it so hard to do?

One reason perhaps is that we have unconsciously internalised expectations and narratives – both our own and those of other people – about success and failure, leaving us feeling compelled to strive towards targets which our conscious mind acknowledges as impossible and yet we still die trying to achieve. It’s not a stretch to add to this toxic mix all the harmful myths that abound about superwomen who can balance the strains of working life with family and personal demands without breaking a sweat. And, of course, let’s not forget the perennial myth of the strong and super-resilient black woman for whom nothing is too much.

Sadly, the only thing that’s true about this particular myth is that it leads to burnout and poor mental and physical health.

Burnout vs Productivity

If, like me, you associate pleasure with guilt, it’s time we learned to decouple these two notions. Unlearning the lessons we have taught ourselves can be extremely challenging, and I’m the first to admit I can be incredibly stubborn about this, particularly when the new lessons contradict my well-established self-narratives. But we don’t always get a second chance to learn the same lesson, so this is one well worth paying attention to.

There’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself to perform to your best, but it should not come at the cost of your mental or physical wellbeing. We need breaks to improve our thinking, give us time to reflect, and spur our creativity. Taking time for ourselves will ultimately do more to improve our performance than soldiering on just to end up running on empty.

So, as I sign off to take a break before the new week starts, my advice to myself is to learn my own lessons and instead of ‘do as I say’, switch to ‘physician, heal thyself’.

After all, don’t they say the graveyards are full of busy people?


Founder & Managing Editor, ReConnect Africa

‘Imperfect Arrangements’ ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

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