Downstressing: How to get out of the rat race

We speak to three people who decided enough was enough and changed their lives for the better

Sherna Malone and husband Brendan McCormack, with twin daughters Ella (left) and Zoe in Rosscarbery, Co Cork.  Photograph: Emma Jervis Photography

Sherna Malone and husband Brendan McCormack, with twin daughters Ella (left) and Zoe in Rosscarbery, Co Cork. Photograph: Emma Jervis Photography

 

Nobody ever decides to join the rat race. But it has a way of creeping up on you. One minute you’re in college, cramming for exams, and happier than anyone forced to live on baked beans and sleep in a hoodie and scarf has any right to be.

You blink, and 20 years have passed. The student flat and weekly travel pass have been replaced by the house, the car and the job you dreamed of – and the mortgage, bills and crushing, low-level anxiety you didn’t.

You’re replying to work emails between bites of dinner, stressing about your imminent performance review, and counting down the months until you’re finally free of the mortgage.

The internet and email arrived to revolutionise our lives about two decades ago, promising to make everything more accessible and more immediate.

The first generation of always-on employees are reaching the mid-point of their working lives right about now. And some are beginning to wonder what price they might have paid for the convenience, speed and availability of technology.

Irish people are particularly at risk of long hours, according to research

Although the average working week is steadily shortening – mostly down to the growth of part-time work – one-third of workers say they are forced to perform to tight deadlines and at high speed, according to the Sixth European Working Conditions study.

The study, which surveyed people working across Europe in 2015, paints a picture of a gradual erosion of free time: half of European workers work at least one Saturday a month; 30 per cent work on Sundays.

One in five now has to use their free time to catch up several times a month; 7 per cent work out of hours “several times a week”, and one in five works between the hours of 10pm and 5am at least once a month.

Workplace stress

Workplace stress is compounded by long hours. In 2013, 55,000 workers in Ireland were affected by a work-related illness – one in five suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute.

Those working over 50 hours were at three times higher risk of these conditions.

Strikingly, one in four of those who work in technology in Europe say that, rather than being freed up by it, they have a poor work-life balance.

Irish people are particularly at risk of long hours, defined in the European study as more than 10 hours at a stretch: we work an average of 3.5 of these “long” days per month. Overall, 30 per cent of workers in Europe say they would like to do fewer hours.

Some are taking steps to make that happen.

Just as people close to retirement consider whether the time has come to downsize their homes, people at the mid-point of their working lives are making a decision to “downstress” – or downsize their stress.

For some, a health crisis triggers the decision. For others, it’s about lifestyle. For some, downstressing means moving to a new place, starting a business, finding a more enriching, meaningful job or simply rediscovering a passion.

Here are the stories of some downstressors.

JOANNA BOURKE (THECHOPPINGBOARD.IE)

Cook and life coach Joanna Burke, who formerly worked in Silicon Valley. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times
Cook and life coach Joanna Burke, who formerly worked in Silicon Valley. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

In the summer of 2014, I was living in downtown San Francisco, working a “dream job” in finance at a tech company in Silicon Valley. By that autumn, I was back in Ireland, staying in a cottage at Ballymaloe Cookery School, and doing the 12-week course. It was a culture shock, but it was fantastic.

My dad had a fast-food place when I was growing up. I’d always been really into cooking, but that had stopped when I moved to the US. I loved San Francisco, but I was burnt out in my finance role, working long days and commuting up to three hours daily.

It’s not weak to say 'I don’t want to do this anymore' or 'I’m okay earning less'

I needed a change of direction and to start looking after myself again. So in early 2014, I started a food blog, thechoppingboard.ie. I started buying wholesome food and cooking for myself again, and I realised this was what I wanted to do.

Decision to move

Not long after that, I made the decision to move home. I didn’t have a clear plan but after Ballymaloe, things just fell into place. I started doing some private catering, and now I do cooking for events and retreats, and host cookery workshops. I’m running cookery weekends in Ireland, with a focus on mindful cooking and eating.

People say “you’re living the dream”, but the reality is not that glamorous. I was 33, and I had to move back into my parents’ house for a while when I came back first. But I’ve never regretted it. I think we don’t have to be so hard on ourselves.

We’re brought up to think that if you’re smart and educated, you have to keep striving to achieve, but it’s not weak to say “I don’t want to do this anymore” or “I’m okay earning less”.

You don’t have to quit your job to be happy – that’s not realistic for everyone. It can just be about finding a passion again. For me, the small thing of deciding to start a food blog led to the life I have now.

SHERNA MALONE

We had been living in Dublin where I was managing director of the family business which had been established by my mum, Bronwyn Conroy. My husband, Brendan McCormack, who is a published poet, was working in property. Life was good, but we were constantly rushing everywhere, and it felt claustrophobic.

In May 2014, we got an offer from a buyer for the family business and it was the first time in our lives when we had the chance to think “Right, what can we do here? How do we really want to live?”

There has never been a day where I have questioned what we did

We were lucky enough not to be in negative equity, so we sold the house in Dublin and in July 2014, we moved to Clonakilty in west Cork. People thought we were bonkers. I got a few questions about how would I cope without Dundrum Shopping Centre.

In fact, I’d only been to west Cork once in my life before, but Bren had spent his childhood summers here, and he had a real grá to go back. We had no work lined up, but I knew everything would be fine and we’d do what we had to do to make it work.

Never questioned

From the minute we arrived, I just felt “this is it”. Everything fell into place, there has never been a day where I have questioned what we did. West Cork is home for us. I am working in the Celtic Ross Hotel Rosscarbery in sales and marketing and I love it.

Our twins, Zoe and Ella, settled into school really easily from the get-go. We rented a house on Inchydoney Island for a year, and then we decided we wanted to be even more remote, so we’ve bought a house in Caherbeg, on an acre of land.

Our weekends are spent in Rineen Woods, in Union Hall, the farmers’ markets, on the beach, or out on the bikes, and the wellies are permanently by the front door. We spend so much time together as a family now. It’s a different way of life; it’s absolute bliss.

GARY BOYLE

Gary Boyle, a former head of HR, pictured with his wife Joan at their home in Porter’s Gate, Clonsilla, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times
Gary Boyle, a former head of HR, pictured with his wife Joan at their home in Porter’s Gate, Clonsilla, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

I was working in HR for a blue-chip multinational based here, eventually heading up the European division. I loved my job, but stress was definitely part of it.

The further you get sucked into that corporate world, the more normalised it becomes. You’re never sure whether you’ve done enough: you’re only ever as good as the last performance review.

Around 2007, I had to move the mouse from my right hand to my left. I thought I might have a stress injury. Over time, my signature had become less legible and there was a slight tremor.

When I was running, I noticed my right leg dragging a bit; my right arm wouldn’t swing at all. It took 18 months to get a diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s. I was 44. I was devastated; absolutely speechless.

For five years, I ignored my condition and said nothing at work. Eventually in 2014, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I told my then boss. After a lot of negotiation, I eventually managed to get on the company’s payment protection plan.

We need to think a bit more about the human cost of this technology-driven world we’re creating

By May 2015, the stress was having a serious impact – the dopamine levels in my brain had receded and the fine motor skills had deteriorated – and I made the decision to stop working. I was very lucky to have my wife by my side through all of it.

Warning signs

From day one, once I knew I wasn’t going back to work, things started to improve immeasurably. I’m not saying I got Parkinson’s because of my work, but it didn’t help.

I think the danger lies in not heeding the warning signs and I now really do believe that stress is real, persistent and a massive factor in the cause of a whole range of diseases.

I wouldn’t have chosen it to happen this way, but I feel I’ve got my life back. I’ve acknowledged to myself that there is no next time round.

I’m on a mission now to make sure other people in my position get the information they need about exercise, and I’ve been working with Ciara Clancy of Beats Medical, who has designed an app for people with Parkinson’s.

We need to think a bit more about the human cost of this technology-driven world we’re creating. It’s a monster we’ve created, and we’re feeding it on both sides.

If you think of Steve Jobs, he wouldn’t even let his kids have the technology he was designing.

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