Snowed in – some thoughts on work and working hours

Snow! How I have missed it in Helsinki. Nature decided to make things right in day.

© Michael Müller

A fierce snow blizzard reached rural Helsinki sometime during the night, last week, when Wednesday turned to Thursday, January to February. The wind was howling when I opened my eyes around 6:30 am. The front door didn’t budge more than a mere 20 centimeters. The porch was thick with new snow. Heaps of snow covered our drive-way and yard. Heavy wind lifted the light snow powder up into the air changing the form of snow heaps. The downpour of snow was so dense that I could hardly make out the nearest trees behind a veil of snow. “We’re snowed in!”, I called to my husband.

The snow veil became more and more thick during breakfast. Well, nature shouldn’t overdo it, was my next thought. My agenda for Thursday, the first of February, was to commute to my workplace “bright and early”. I had many to-dos in my mental check- list. Everyday life reality kicked in fast: “Damn, this ruins my plans for today!” I must confess it took me a cup of tea, oatmeal porridge and some traditional newspaper reading, before I realized: No sense in being stubborn and ignoring the forces of nature. Nature gave me the cool opportunity to take time to think snowed in. And recover adequately from an intensive work day.

The day before the snow blizzard landed to Helsinki had been a day with many activities. From morning till early afternoon, I had the opportunity to discuss face-to-face, in the same time and space, with many people about working life, human health and well-being issues. The morning seminar held at Helsinki Music Centre on working hours and how should they be defined in today’s working life provided fuel for the later discussions that day.

After a brisk walk from the Music Centre in crispy winter weather, frost nipping my cheeks, combined with some bus time, I reached home. This was around the so called blue moment when day turns to evening. At home it was time to start the next phase of my work day. The urgent, must do -task I still had on my plate was to write and upload into the project portal the interim report on a research project I am leading. The deadline for this task was that same day. I had received updates from my collaborators a couple of days earlier. However, writing a readable summary of great research results is not done with a snap of one’s fingers. It often requires hard thinking and deciding what is especially relevant for those handling and evaluating the achievements. A reader can digest just so much.

Translating scientific reasoning and academic jargon into words and sentences that are understandable also to those who are not researchers or into neuroscience and clinical research takes time. In my opinion it is the responsibility of the researcher to make sure that through this translation into more general wording, the research results and their meaning do not change. It is so easy to cut corners and be vague, if one is not vigilant. Writing a readable summary is not about copy paste –stitching together pieces of text from my collaborators reports.

In addition to the actual research achievements -summary, there was the more formal report of doings and the use of resources that also had to be written into specific boxes of a digital document with a fixed format. While logging into the portal, I noticed that the system was slow to open. As I started to get a bit anxious with the deadline looming a few hours ahead, getting text written and saved into the appropriate boxes seemed to take ages!

To sum it up, I ended up doing intensive work that Wednesday evening. Afterwards I was in quite high-gear mode. On the other hand, the first results of our research, the fruits of all the hard work done by many people, inspired, as did the day’s many discussions earlier.

So, at the end of the day I hadn’t had any time to actually stop and think, to process all the new information and knowledge I had gained on the last day of January. What would be the best next steps? What learnings are especially important? The next thought that popped into my mind when the inspiring day was coming to an end was: “My to-do list has several other, mostly unrelated, things that need attending first thing tomorrow. How will I get back to the mode in which to use today’s information to create new knowledge or develop my own thinking?”

I didn’t sleep well. Too many thoughts were tickling my mind. Also, positive stress that enabled me to get into a flow mode during reporting was now keeping me too vigilant. The approaching deadline had induced a positive stress state that enabled me to get into a flow mode during reporting and to meet the deadline. Downshifting from this energy burst takes its own time. I should have started to relax earlier.

The seminar I had attended on the last day of January was on working hours. It was arranged by Finnish Economists and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. Results of recently completed research on working hours of experts were presented. The red thread of the event was how should working hours be defined in a 24/7 world where a fast-increasing number of people face, often daily, the challenge that, in their human networks, somebody somewhere is always awake. At the same time innovation, creativity, renewal, learning not to do things in a certain way and at the same time figuring out how to do things differently, are skills to be honed. The research showed that nearly 80 % of experts either need to be or at least feel they need to be reachable also after official working hours –  in the evening, early morning hours, during weekends and often also during well-earned vacation time. Excessive work load was also common (over 70 % had experienced this).

In the seminar many attendees felt that the traditionally defined daily or weekly working hours that one needs to do in order to earn one’s paycheck is becoming – or some claim has already become – an obstacle for doing work in a more productive way. Strictly defined working hours that represent work in the industrial age work, just don’t work. The reality in many professions is that work and so called free time are more and more intertwined. In some sense the work of many people has become timeless and not bound to a specific place. Above I describe my work day. I have the luxury (I know I am fortunate) of flexibility at work. This time nature helped me to realize this.

In many types of work, video-calls, in which people are attending the call physically in different time-zones and with their differently ticking internal circadian clocks, are an important part of the job. Some jobs require zig-zagging around the globe. When is one at work and when is one on leave? Is it possible to adapt and figure out a way to stay in tune in these working modes? And on top of this come the demands and needs of family and social life that differ between individuals. Also, what suits one, doesn’t suit another person. Some people are at their best in the morning, some in the evening. Some people get the needed push to get things done from deadlines, others want to be ready well ahead of a deadline. How to take into account these differences in working hour guidelines? Is this an unsolvable catch-22situation? What would work for most people in expert type of jobs?

Are flexible working hours the solution? Do they always support good health and well-being? I claim not, if people themselves don’t take the time to stop and take a good look at their own working habits. Work and safety guidelines on how many hours of work a person can humanly do before reaching the breaking point that can have serious mental and health consequences are useless, if people willingly continually work from dawn till the wee hours of the night. Legislation doesn’t solve the issue, if people don’t take responsibility of their own well-being and keep a caring eye also on loved ones and work buddies.

I must confess that as a doctor, I have difficulties keeping cool, when I again and again hear or read comments like: “if you love your work, you do not count the hours you do the things you love”. My response is: “If you love your work, you take care of yourself and make sure that you are at your best, physically, mentally, emotionally and cognitively”. Overworking is addictive and in the end the price for this can be high: One loses sight of what is relevant in work and spends time with trivialities. Loosing health through overworking can be permanent.

To get things done and taking care of oneself at the same time requires inventiveness. How to plan my daily activities to ensure a healthy balance of doing, idling and wresting? What is the best solution for my unique life? Each one of us has to answer this for ourselves keeping in mind that there are also other people to consider. How does our team work best? What about life outside work? If one is constantly overtired, coming up with new ways of looking at one’s work and working hours can be tough. The weary mind isn’t inventive.

Legislation on working hours can protect to some extent, but it should not hinder putting into practice and testing new approaches to defining working hours. If somebody comes up with solutions to a conundrum. Many ideas look cool on paper, but trying them in practice is needed. Through doing new solutions can also arise.

So, having talked some sense to myself during breakfast last week, on the snow blizzard day, I embraced being snowed in. I accepted nature’s gift thankfully, reorganized my day and changed its goals. I spent the day recovering from an intensive work day. I let my mind wonder and weave new thoughts from past day’s experiences and put emerging ideas into writing. Every now and then I took a small break and shifted my attention from the computer screen to the outside world. My attention was captured by the swirling and energetic movement of snowflakes dancing to the tunes of the winds. In late afternoon, I grabbed the snow pusher and a shovel and spent a couple of hours in snow work. I had a very good night’s sleep. The next day my body’s muscles reminded me that snow work is nature’s way of providing an opportunity to get physical exercise along with fresh air.

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