A couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of a lovely brunch with my team on a work trip to New York when I went into cardiac arrest. Had it not been for the three doctors who happened to be brunching at the same place, who kept me alive with CPR till the ambulance arrived, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.
I’d had a busy few weeks, taking six flights in three weeks while running my business, Glow London, alongside my role as chief marketing officer of The Social Element. This is not to mention my full-time job bringing up my kids, squeezing in their playdates, bake sales, charity fundraisers, being on the PTA, a class rep, organising parties, supporting my husband who travels the world for work, refurbishing my office and finding time for my workouts/running/lashes/nails and waxing.
But as the traumatic blur of eight days in ICU and the ensuing medical attention has begun to fade, I realised that it wasn’t just a busy few weeks. I’ve not even been having an exceptionally busy few months. I am always busy.
And it’s not just me. It’s everyone I know. I am surrounded by, and often coach and mentor, so many people who are working ridiculous hours and juggling so many clashing priorities.
From my (I’ll admit slightly delirious) hospital bed, I penned a post on LinkedIn about how after years of being told by my loved ones to slow down, my body had stepped in and forced me to. I asked my LinkedIn connections to slow down, take stock and prioritise what matters to them outside of the hustle – yoga, art galleries, people watching – whatever floats your boat. The response has been moving, and a little frightening. Not least because I don’t remember even writing the post…
After 80,000 reactions, 8,500 comments and hundreds of personal DMs telling me that my post spoke to them – scared them – because they live their lives like mine and worry they are heading down a similar path, I knew that the whole industry has a problem. While I later found out that my condition was hereditary, although not helped by my lifestyle, it’s still horrendous to think that I’d created these conditions. And the number of us this resonates with should be a wake-up call for us all, not just me.
So many of us are juggling kids or whatever is important in our lives, our work, our own social lives and we are pushing each other harder and harder since the pandemic. The “no commute” benefit of work from home pales in comparison to the increased pressure for productivity; we all now accept back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings, we expect everyone to always be available in a way that we didn’t at the same scale before. Covid fundamentally changed the way we work, and not for the better.
One example that comes to mind is when I recently presented at a conference. Usually, I’d have flown out, spent a day or so settling in and prepping my schedule, then enjoyed the event and wandered around meeting people and being away from my day-to-day worries. This year, I presented for an hour and had meetings on either side so had no time to mentally prepare before or take a moment to download afterwards. How is that reality for so many of us? And in our day to day, why don’t we have five minutes at the beginning of meetings to find our seats, get a cup of tea, take a second to not be switched on? It’s a rare treat now that I get to travel across London to meet people in the flesh, and get the energy from being with other people. I just close my emails and open my Zoom.
We have to face it – we’re pushing too hard, expecting too much of ourselves and, in turn, everyone we’re working with. Many messages I’ve received from strangers across the world talk about tyrant bosses but I work for myself, so I have only myself to blame. I am that walking cliché – “working mum pushes herself too hard and has a terrible health scare”. In New York, of all places.
But it’s a cliché for a reason. Terrifying events bring life into stark relief, and suddenly you can see where you’ve pushed too hard.
And I have one message for anyone out there, reading this, thinking “well I am busy, but there’s so much to do I can’t drop anything”....
SLOW THE FUCK DOWN!
Health can be taken from us at any point, when we least expect it. It’s time to acknowledge that work is only one part of our rich lives. We can’t allow it to shorten the small time we have here. And trust me, cardiac arrests are no walk in the park. Only one in 10 people survives them outside hospital, so I am very much the lucky one.
So here are my questions to you: what meetings can you delegate or miss? What super-important deadline isn’t actually that important? What can you leave as good enough instead of perfect? And how can you help your colleagues and clients to see that life is more than Powerpoints and circling back? Whatever you do – do something now, so you don’t end up like me, wishing you’d let a few things go and learned to say no sooner rather than later.
Emma Harris is chief executive of Glow London