Saturday, April 26, 2014

Taking a new approach to managing work / life stress

I go back to work on Monday, after a fortnight of annual / public holiday leave which was proceeded by almost a week of sick leave (I have, in fact, only been in the office 2 days since 4 April). This is by far the longest period of time I have been absent from work since starting in my job last July.

Right now, I feel quite detached from work and emotionally recharged. I am able to see with a clear perspective that many of the things that were causing me angst before I commenced leave were really not worth investing emotional energy in. I have a pretty solid view of what are the essential things I need to get onto when I get back, what are the nice-to-haves-but-no-one-is-going-to-die-over-it items, and what are the things I should dump without ceremony into the also-ran pile.

This is good, but I am not silly enough to think it will last once I plunge back into the fray. I have enough self awareness to realise that if I don't take active steps to manage my work and the impact it has on me, I will burn out, and this would be bad news for me, my family and my employer.

I have been reading lots of things around about the place on work stress - what triggers it, how to manage it, and so on. The key factors that seem to be implicated in work stress are:
  • Fear of being laid off
  • Excessive workloads
  • Bullying 
  • Bad cultural fit / interpersonal conflict with manager / colleagues / workplace
  • Unrewarding work / tasks
  • Feeling of being taken advantage of / used
  • Inflexible / rigid work scheduling and expectations
  • Pressure to perform to meet rising expectations but with no increase in job satisfaction
  • Pressure to work at optimum levels—all the time!
Looking at this list, it's quite easy for me to pinpoint which ones are relevant to me. Most of them emphatically are not - my work is an excellent cultural fit for me and I get along very well with colleagues and managers; my tasks are mostly rewarding; there is a high degree of flexibility; I am absolutely not being bullied; and I don't fear being made redundant (ie I do not worry about job security).

For me, it all coalesces around workload (mine is very heavy, likely to get heavier, and quite difficult to moderate) and my perception that I am expected to bring my A game every single minute because everything is significant and nothing can be let slide. This perception is almost certainly partially within my own head - I am afflicted with a huge amount of Puritan work guilt and, not to put too fine a point on it, anal retentiveness when it comes to work - but that doesn't make it less of a thing for me to manage.

So because I do not want to crash in a blaze of glory in 3-6 months, I have consulted the boundless resources of Madame Internet and put together a few tactics that I am going to try to roll out over the coming two months to see if I can get this rocking along comfortably for me while still delivering for my workplace and prioritising my family. After all, it's a marathon, not a sprint, right?
  1. Self-care: Walking every day, including at least once in the work day; having stress reducing scents in my office; listening to music on headphones when I am engaged in writing work; weekly lunch or coffee with work friends; drinking enough water and tea; no weekday alcohol; getting enough sleep; and when tasks get overwhelming, stepping back and stepping out.

  2. Permission to treat work time AS work time: This sounds contradictory to the first point above, but really it isn't. I have been guilty, if that is the word, at times of allowing my colleagues, of whom I am fond, to spend a lot of time discussing things in circles with me - usually, but not always, work related things. It's definitely essential to talk issues through, but my primary job is translating thought bubbles into useable documents, and conversations are the first stage of this, not the bulk of the process.

    While it is absolutely important to support your colleagues and friends, and I have drawn on their support too, I cannot keep giving up massive chunks of time to pulling apart every issue that besets the whole organisation when I have a minimum of 8h worth of deliverable work that must be done every day. If I do, I either take work home (bad) or fall behind (worse), both of which stress me a lot.

    So from now on, I am really going to enjoy my weekly social thing (coffee / lunch) and other than that, I'm going to try to restrict my non-meeting, non-planning work conversations to 10 minutes in length. As a corollary, I am going to try to bring my lunch from home at least 3 days a week and eat at my desk those days, to make it possible to get through work and therefore be able to leave a little earlier.

    It won't always work, but if it works even half the time, it will be a net gain for my stress levels.

  3. No bringing work home in the evenings or at the weekends: This one is aspirational, and I doubt I'll be able to stick to it completely, but I'm going to try.

  4. Keep remembering to not sweat the small stuff (and most of it, at the end of the day, is small stuff): Very little is worth the adrenalin I expend on it. I am working hard on realising that.

  5. Celebrate the victories: Despite feeling like I am climbing Mt Everest in slippers most of the time, I do actually achieve things; tasks get finished, documents get published, projects get completed. Instead of getting frustrated that I'm not achieving more / faster, I'm going to take a moment to enjoy and recognise these successes when they happen, whether via a coffee with a colleague or just a mutual happy-dance phone call with other project team members.

  6. Fake it til I make it: I am actually good at this, because I am a workplace trainer (among other things) and I know how to put on my game face, despite what I may be feeling, for my trainees. I am going to extrapolate that ability into the rest of my work. We all have bad days, but I don't need to drag my colleagues down with me, and I will actually lift up a lot faster if I don't waste energy complaining.

  7. Keep my priorities straight at work and in life: I am not going to be, or feel, apologetic for prioritising my family commitments. My children and husband come first, and they always will. I am also going to make sure I give priority to the other things in my life that matter to me - the volunteering I do, reading, my writing life. As part of this, I've decided to treat myself to attending at least part of Continuum, the Melbourne SFF fan convention on the long weekend in June - just because I want to, and that is a good enough reason.

    Further, I am not going to second guess myself anymore about the priorities at work. There is an organisational direction that has been established, and it is OK for me to say "No, I can't" or "Not yet" to task requests that do not feature in that vision. I cannot do everything, so my best bet is to make sure the things I do do are the most useful and productive possible.

    Part of this is going to be a triage model that I saw on one website that I'm going to try. Instead of letting things bank up and cause stress, the idea is to to decide at the outset how, when and if you are going to handle them, and respond accordingly within 24 hours. The response could be "I can't do this for you but X might be able to"; it might be "I am not able to do this for 2 weeks but could get you something by X date"; it might be "I am working on this, I will get you something by Friday". I think this will help me manage the reactive / responsive part of my work (maybe 30-40% overall) much better, not to mention being a professional approach to managing expectations.

  8. Keep my eyes on the prize: Why am I doing this? Not "this particular job", but any job? Every night when I pay bills, I'll remember. Every time we plan another activity to do on our Great Barrier Reef holiday, I'll remember. Every time I get a superannuation statement, I'll remember. Every time my girls talk about what careers they want to have, and how they will combine them with parenting, I'll remember. 
Got any other tips for me? I'd love to hear them!

Friday, April 25, 2014

The autospy (poem)

the little toe of the right foot protrudes. see,
you can see the splay, see the deep corn pressed upon it by years of leather shoes.
(I imagine it hurt her, often, in life).

no ink on her, but several scars -
most abdominal. you can see them, here, can't you,
silver-ropey, testament to surgical births and an extracted appendix at least,
perhaps more than that. we'll see when we go deeper.

fairly generously provided with adipose tissue, especially here and here
(yes, of course, you're right. women do tend to carry fat on buttocks and hips.
there is nothing so unique in that).
It's hard to me completely certain, but I suspect the face was quite deeply lined, when animate
I don't think she carried her years lightly, this one.

hair, grey. eyes, hazel. a broad mouth, very few original teeth
(certainly, check dental records. there's some expensive implant work in here).
her upper spine slightly curved, note that
it would have appeared quite a pronounced dowager's hump, when she walked the world

she was a white woman, skin damaged by years of southern sun
DNA suggests Scots-Irish heritage, and oh yes,
flicked up a few blurs that might help you
she was a Coeliac, she was heterozygous for haemochromatosis -

age? well, well, you tell me. the equation isn't so hard, is it?
75, you say? not a bad guess, but I'd put her a little older than that
perhaps closer to 80. there is a slump, here, in the chinline,
I have seen that acquiescent tell before. she was - tired.
full of years and ready.

now, the big question - this is the one you want, isn't it.
what killed her? the what, before the who, because perhaps there isn't a who -
in this case, though,
you'll be looking for the who.
see this staining, here - just around the base of the tongue -
yes, it's poison. unless self administered - and I doubt that - it was given to her
it would've taken her quite quickly, I imagine,
night would have fallen apace.

well, yes, I suppose you must go about your tasks now. I'll finish here -
yes, yes, I'll send the report. and any further clues I find
to her, or to the one who killed her
but don't hold your breath -

so it's just you and me now, old dear,
let's get you open to the sky
requiescat in pace

- Kathy, 25/04/14

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Barilla Gluten Free

Disclosure: I was provided with the pictured sample pack for review purposes by Bite Communications on behalf of Barilla. No financial incentive was offered or accepted for this post, and all opinions expressed are entirely my own.

One of the more disappointing aspects of being a Coeliac is discovering how expensive gluten free food substitutes really are. These days, unlike when I was first diagnosed 7 years ago, gluten free analogues are generally quite tasty and pleasant - although I am yet to be fully on board with any gluten free bread, I must say - but even now, they are usually comfortably triple the price of regular products, and this can bite quite hard into a family budget.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in staple packaged foodstuffs like breakfast cereals and pasta. I have always bought cheap pasta for the kids (mercifully, none of them are Coeliac - yet) but have to supplement with pricey gluten free pasta for me, taking our cost effective spag bol nights up a notch in ways I don't like. But what can you do?

Well, you can wait until well established pasta makers start bringing out bulk gluten free lines, and then cross all your fingers and toes that they don't cook into mush and taste like rubbish. When I was offered this pack to test, I confess these were my worries, after several bad experiences with rice-based pasta in particular. I was also dreading that rice-y, slightly sour back taste that cheap (er) gluten free pasta often has, that even my rich home made bolognese sauce doesn't fully cover.

I'm happy to report that both these Barilla gluten free pastas pass the consistency and taste test with flying colours. When cooked according to the instructions on the pack, the pasta was nicely al dente, and provided no back taste at all, serving as a very suitable vehicle for the two sauces. (The Medierranean vegetable one was nice enough, but I preferred the tomato pesto - which I liked so much, in fact, that I have bought three jars for my pantry for can't-be-bothered-cooking nights).

The Barilla gluten free pastas are retailing in Woolworths supermarkets for around $3.69, which compares pretty damn favourably to other gluten free pasta available in the majors (I just did a quick brand comparison search and at today's prices, it is actually the cheapest one). This matters when you are a family on a budget, and it matters when you are a Coeliac who doesn't want to not be able to eat what your family eats.

Two thumbs up from me to Barilla for producing a tasty, quality pasta range for gluten intolerants that caters to people on a budget. I will certainly be buying this pasta in the future.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oh we do like to be beside the seaside

My girls and I got back on Thursday afternoon from a 4-day break at Merricks, on the Mornington Peninsula, with my longtime friend J and her two children.

Both families were sans dads, as both the spouses had to work this week, but with two adults to share the "parenting", and five children who love each other and play very well together, it was an awesome little holiday all the same.

Our kids line up beautifully in age - my girls are 10.5, almost 9 and 5, while J's kids are almost 10 (girl) and 4.5 (boy). They have all known each other since birth and are as close as cousins (indeed, my girls consider M and X to *be* their cousins, although this does somewhat militate against my 5-year-old's fixed plan to marry X and live in a cave in the wild where she will be a vet and a rock star and make friends with all the animals ;-)

We were so incredibly lucky with the weather - in the first week of the school holidays it rained more or less constantly, but literally THE DAY BEFORE we were due to leave for the beach, autumnal Victoria finished her cry and put on a happy face, full of crisp mornings and gentle warm afternoons (and not a spot of rain in sight).

This meant, among other things, that we were able to get to beach not once but twice, something that I was honestly not expecting at this time of the year. Merricks Beach is perfect for kids - rockpools to explore, a lovely vast sandy expanse to play ball in and build sandcastles, and ankle-deep water a fair way out to paddle in. (Yes, paddle ... I thought them mad, but they all wanted to!)

I can imagine it would be lovely swimming beach in summer, but sunshine notwithstanding, it was definitely too cold for immersion in April.

We also made it to the Enchanted Adventure Garden in Arthurs Seat, a sort of omnibus maze / garden / rope climbing / tyre sliding multi-purpose activity centre. I was expecting kitschy so was surprised - and delighted - to find it beautiful. The gardens are immaculate and meticulously planned, and the autumn blooms were out in full force. We particularly enjoyed the in-maze game of snakes and ladders embedded into the ground, and spotting the animal statues.

The mazes themselves would've kept the kids busy for a day, but my eldest and my friend's daughter also wanted to do the treetop ropes course. I was massively uncertain about whether this was a good idea for my A, who can be very nervous of both heights and new experiences, but she insisted she wanted to try, so I let her.

As it turned out she did indeed have a panic when it came time to go up, but she faced down her fears and completed the course. I couldn't be prouder of her.

The next day we didn't push it so hard, partly because my nearly-9 wasn't well, and partly because a lazier day seemed in order. We did get to the strawberry farm for berry picking, treat eating and strawberry-themed alcohol purchasing, which was rather nice.

Another friend of J's met us at the strawberry farm with her two kids and we all repaired back to the house for an afternoon / evening of rest (for nearly-9), nonstop outdoor play (for 5 and 4 year olds), mixed play and giggling (for the other three), and cheese / olive / grape eating with cider tasting (for the three adults!)

All 10 of us then went out for dinner to the Pig and Whistle, a little pub in Main Ridge. On the drive back to Merricks, I saw a sizeable object in the middle of the road and slowed down to miss it; only when we were nearly upon it did I realise, to my astonishment, that it was an adult koala, sitting immobile in the dead centre of the road, thoughtfully chewing a leaf. We all hope it deigned to move before a speedier vehicle came tearing down the road.

Saying goodbye to our friends on Thursday, we drove home to Melbourne. The kids (and I!) were happy to see their dad, of course, and are looking forward to Easter Day tomorrow. Nonetheless, we all feel that we squeezed the juice out of our little holiday, and for me especially, it was sorely, sorely needed and hugely appreciated after having been very stressed and quite ill in March and April.

Note: I asked for, and received, my daughters' permission to post the above photograph to this blog.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Miles Franklin longlist

I'm over at Global Comment today doing a survey of the Miles Franklin longlist. I'm interested in your thoughts if you want to share them over there!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Reading Notes: These Broken Stars

This review covers the 5th and final book of my commitment to tread and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. I beat the prize announcement for once! So this review also contains my pick for the winner, and my prediction as to what will actually win.

What an interesting mix this YA list has turned out to be. Two really good strong-girl magic-based fantasies; two good, if depressing, boy-against-the-deteriorating-world post-apocalypse dystopias; and this surprising little gem - a really satisfying survival-journey narrative set on a strange and frightening planet.

I'll be honest - based on its blurb, this one didn't overly grab me. The central device (boy from wrong side of the tracks meets poor little rich girl, initial conflict and misunderstanding, growing attraction, you join the dots) is extremely well-worn. I may be one of the least romantic readers in existence - indeed, romance is the only main genre that I never read at all - so this trope does not float my boat if that's all the story has to offer. And in the set-up, I thought Tarver (our young military hero) and Lilac (our daughter-of-the-richest-most-sinister-man-in-the-universe) were not much more than creditable cookie-cutter exemplars of the device. I was prepared, in fact, to dismiss this book as a bit of fluff, and not to my taste.

What turned me around was the clever, deft and intriguing way that the authors unfolded the co-plot, which is a mystery / thriller / truly sci fi based adventure. It has conspiracy, aliens, ghosts (or does it?), energy sources, future tech, and mind games, all of which I approve heartily. It had nice little resonances of some truly great sci fi, including what I think, but am not completely sure, was a smoothly inserted homage to Serenity. (If so, double gold star for you, writers :-) It was complex enough without being bewildering, and instead of trying for gotchas, it contented itself with good quality story development, of which I also approve as a narrative choice.

This secondary plot was much more original than the primary romance storyline, and it was through the exploration of it that both Tarver and Lilac rounded out as characters and became relatable and three-dimensional human beings. Lilac's journey in particular in the last quarter of the book felt visceral and real in a way that the romance didn't, quite, to me. I believed in her struggle and her pain and yes, her attachment to Tarver, while remaining sceptical of the Grand Passion bit.

This is, apparently, the first book in a trilogy; I enjoyed this one enough to have a squizz at number two when it comes out, although I wouldn't describe it as a must-read.


So, having read all five of the YA nominees, I think the prize will probably go to either The Sky So Heavy or These Broken Stars, not because I think they are the best or most original of the nominees, but because they both have a red hot go at Big Themes, and speculative fiction awards, more than most, love the big themes.

If I was awarding the prize, though, I'd give it to Fairytales for Wilde Girls. I think it the most interesting, complex and fully achieved book on the list, and the one that's likeliest to stand the test of time.

We shall see!

UPDATE: Wow, I did better than normal! The prize was a tie between These Broken Stars and Fairytales for Wilde Girls. Warm congrats to all three authors.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Reading Notes: The Big Dry and The Sky So Heavy

This double review covers book 3 and 4 of my commitment to try to read and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. 4 down, 1 to go, and the clock is ticking as the prize is announced on Saturday night! I'm going to try to get the last one reviewed and up on Saturday, but we'll have to see how things work out.

The first two Aurealis YA nominees that I read, which I reviewed on Sunday were both fantasies featuring magic, strong but beleaguered female protagonists, and happy (ish) endings. Both were, basically, fun to read; both, although gruesome by patches, were essentially hopeful books.

Little did I know when I randomly grabbed the next two off the list that the mood of my Aurealis reading was about to plummet sharply. Because the two books I'm reviewing here are different kinds of post-apocalyptic dystopias, and both are, frankly, pretty damn depressing reads. This is not a criticism - I'd suggest that any post-apoc worth its salt is going to conjure up a few paranoid sads - but it is something of a reader advisory. Dear Reader, do not follow my example and read these back to back within 48 hours while also fighting off a cold and coping with multiple life stressors. You will be a very, very sad panda indeed if you do. (Ask me how I know...)

It's interesting to me that both of these books feature young male protagonists motivated largely by the need to care for younger male siblings. It's almost eerie, how similar the set-ups are if you consider the four books as two paired sets. The girls got the sweeter end of the deal this time, with the two fantasy heroines, Isola and Ash, emerging into decidedly brighter futures, while the best these bleak sci fi landscapes have to offer George and Fin is the weak sauce of "Not dead yet, and neither's the kid brother!"

Claire Zorn's The Sky So Heavy is a very classic post-nuclear apocalypse story, set in the Blue Mountains and Sydney, and featuring the quest for survival undergone by Fin, his younger brother Max, and their ally Arnold (Noll) and Fin's love interest, Lucy.  The book is pretty scary in all the ways that a post-apoc is meant to be scary - bombs far away, rapid nuclear winter, the failure of essential services, the absent (presumed dead) parents, the rapid loss of access to food, the fear and despair as people turn on their neighbours. It's convincingly chilling in its storyline - well, it does require a small suspension of disbelief to go along with the mere fact of Fin and Max's survival given some of the events of the story, but if you can allow that one gimme, it works. It's not a desperately original story - I felt all through that the tropes and themes were very, very familiar, and the story takes no unexpected turns - but it's extremely well executed, and will freak out unprepared readers quite nicely, I think.

The Big Dry's catastrophe is different - climate change induced drought, leading to various and many disasters, but its story arc is astoundingly similar to that in The Sky So Heavy. The cast of characters are younger here - main protagonist George is 13 and his little brother Beeper is 6, contrasted with Fin and Max's 17 / 12 - and the tone and style reflects this, with simpler language and less time spent speculating on the ways of man and so forth. Indeed, to me, these books illustrate the range of readers targeted by YA - a 9 year old strong reader could manage Dry, while Heavy definitely has an older feel to it. As an adult reader, I found Dry less satisfying, although I acknowledge the craft with which it was constructed and I do think it a very good book of its type. It's just that it felt like it wasn't getting down to business often enough, but as I am not the target audience, that's probably an unfair criticism.

Overall? These are both good books, neither is a stand-out of its type or radically original, but both are worth a read. I'll be giving The Big Dry to my 11-year-old to read, but I'll hold The Sky So Heavy back for a while, I think. Post-apoc is scary, and my own brain has been too tenderised this week to want to inflict that on my kid!