It’s true – social work causes causes tight-fitting clothes, breathlessness, sweat patches, awkward moments getting out of chairs, the need for breaks halfway up staircases and a real affinity for elasticated waistbands.
Not only has weight gain been a phenomenon experienced by Social Work Tutor, but reading the comments his recent blog has drawn shows this to be a battle shared by many in the profession.
But is it fair to blame the profession itself for our wandering hands around the biscuit barrel? Well, in short, yes. But maybe not in the way you’d think.
On the podcast last week I made reference to The Happiness Track by Emma Seppälä in which she explores (among other things) how work pressures impact on our general wellbeing. It’s an excellent book and well worth a read in itself, but of particular interest is the concept of self-control.
According to Seppälä, we have a limited resource of self-control. What’s more, if we use all our self-control up in one pursuit, we have nothing left to discipline ourselves elsewhere. Researchers have even found that people who resist eating chocolate before completing a mentally challenging task, quit that task much more readily than those who merrily gorge themselves beforehand.
And this isn’t just about blood sugar levels, caffeine or whatever else is in chocolate – this is definitely about people fatiguing under the strain. Two hundred further studies backed up the same findings.
From this it’s not hard to draw parallels to social work. We are constantly disciplining ourselves in what we say, how we act, what we do, when we do it, while simultaneously resisting the temptation to take a break, finish on time or even just say what we’re really thinking to an irate family member or obstinate colleague. As the day wears on our resources dwindle and so does our ability to keep our hand out of the cookie jar – despite whatever we’ve promised ourselves otherwise.
The result? We’re soon online buying the next size up in pants.
So the solution goes beyond taking in a basket of fruit and vowing to restrict yourself to rye bread and pumpkin seeds. You have to get to the root of the problem, and that’s one of self-care.
Seppälä suggests that to resolve this whole situation we switch focus from working as intensely as possible to working as calmly as possible. This may seem alien to a profession dominated by senior figures demanding more and more, but the secret apparently is to give less. Give less, stay calm – eat a banana.
Something like that.
Of course, all this is much easier said than done, but if you want to look after yourself physically you have to look after yourself emotionally first. Conversely, when you rush headlong into work and throw yourself into each and every task, it’s all too easy to find yourself pulled wildly beyond your own limits and into the realms of gorging on calories in a desperate bid to stay energised and emotionally intact.
How to get round this is probably the subject of a whole other blog, podcast or maybe even a book. But if there is one tip worth focusing on in the short space left here, it’s to reflect on how much time you spend at work frantic and worried.
Apparently it isn’t so much the sheer quantity of work that exhausts an employee as so much the worry and mental anguish this generates. ‘When will I get all this done?’ ‘How am I going to get all this done?’ Questions like these rebounding around your cranium will burn up your reserves fast and, importantly, far from motivating you to achieve more will do absolutely nothing for your productivity.
Again, senior figures don’t exactly help this, shovelling more and more ‘high priority’ tasks onto their staff and emphasising how critical each and every item is. What this guarantees is a terrified workforce pushed into the realms of paranoia about what happens if, God forbid, they don’t get everything done. No wonder, then, our offices are scattered liberally with chocolates, biscuits and cake.
The answer? You eat the cake, put on a few pounds and lose a few years on your lifespan. Or you make the bold step of detaching yourself from an unhealthy work culture. Ironically, if you succeed you’ll probably get much more done. And you’re more likely to stay away from the vending machine.
Matt Bee is a social worker and writer.
He also co-hosts The Social Work Tutor podcast.
You can listen to latest podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Castbox, Podbean, Tunein and all other podcast streaming services,