You are a decision maker. That’s what you do. You make decisions. All day, every day. What time to wake up, what to have for lunch, who to trust, who to love, where to cross the road safely, whether to have ketchup or brown sauce.
When I first began my venture into speech radio, I had a decision to make. What was I going to be about? Why was I doing this? What was my contribution going to be? I landed, somewhat loftily, on trying to make sense of things. So that’s what I do now. I stay up overnight on a national speech radio station, talkRADIO, and I try to make sense of the world. Sometimes with experts, sometimes with commentators, sometimes with the audience calling in and telling me how something looks from their perspective. Then I’ll tell them how it looks from mine. And, ideally, more often than not, we’ll end up with an entertaining, engaging, informative radio show that people want to be a part of.
Then, last week, things stopped making sense. Decisions became harder to make. My vision felt clouded. Things that should have been mildly concerning felt like they posed an existential threat. Things I would have batted away a week earlier made my heart flutter and my stomach churn. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being awake. What time I didn’t spend on the radio, I spent in bed.
Brief and hassled conversations with my girlfriend, Michaela, shed a little light on the reasons I’d started to feel this way. I live on the dark side of the day, for a start. Hosting an overnight radio show means that you seldom see daylight, you are perpetually tired and eating habits, or habits of any kind, are hard to pin down. Worst of all, when you wake up at 4pm, the world rushes in like you’ve smashed through a glass-bottom boat. If you don’t manage it properly, it’ll sink you. A sudden onslaught of notifications. Texts. Missed calls. Emails. News alerts. I also spend my working weeks a couple of hundred miles away from Michaela and family. It’s just me, frantically trying to stem the rush of the water with a small bucket. This is fairly manageable, until it isn’t. At which point, your bucket becomes a sieve and there is no holding the water back.
A week ago, I did a monologue on my radio show about the singer Duffy. A few hours earlier, she’d posted a viral Instagram update explaining why, after a successful debut album, she’d disappeared off the face of the earth. It had been months, years, without a new release or a gig or a media appearance. She’d become something of a footnote, occasionally referenced with a ‘huh, I wonder what happened to her?’ Except Duffy hadn’t faced the classic difficult second album syndrome or produced a dud and faded into obscurity. The post explained that she had in fact elected to take some time out after being drugged, kidnapped and raped. It was a startling revelation. The bravery of going public with something so traumatic and personal was one thing, I proclaimed on my show, but to have the discipline to take time out to heal, recover and reconnect was braver still. We operate in a world that demands so much of us. We’re all encouraged to build personal brands and to be content creators. It often means being ‘on’ a lot. Constantly creating, performing, looking great or being hilarious. There will have been a tug, tug, tug on Duffy to keep making music, keep doing the chat shows, keep the record bosses and the fans and the promoters happy. Tug. Tug. Tug. This is fairly manageable, until it isn’t.
Good for her, I professed, and those around her for letting her take a break. We have to take better care of ourselves and others. We simply must.
Little over a week later – as the noise and the hours and the loneliness drove me to another day spent mainly in bed – I realised I hadn’t followed my own advice. I wasn’t processing properly and I had to stop.
It isn’t hard to see why – the news is on fire – and the rolling coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak proved the straw that broke this particular camel’s back.
The news has a couple of key objectives – but let’s be up front about the main ones. It is there to make you watch, click, buy, engage and share. The people who own the news are looking for power, influence and cash. It’s becoming harder and harder to acquire all three, but high numbers of clicks, views and engagements are their best bet. It’s also an incredibly noisy room. News moves fast and it screams loud. Content is in an abundance – tussling over our time and attention. What better way to do that than scaring the living sh*t out of us? In a room full of people talking at you, your attention is going to be pulled to the guy waving his arms and shouting hysterically that we’re all going to die. Even if, when he gets talking, he tells you about a ‘majority of people getting mild symptoms’ and calculations of a ‘fairly low death rate for this particular bug’ – your heart is pounding and your head is still swirling with worst case scenarios. I don’t say this speculatively. It is my job. I host a news-based radio show and my objective, really, is to get you to listen to me instead of the other people talking at that time of the day.
Interestingly, it seems the practical reaction to the recent hysterical headlines is to buy copious amounts of toilet roll. Even my anxious brain hasn’t quite pieced that one together. How much can people really defecate in a fortnight’s isolation period?
This isn’t to play down the seriousness of the news – or our reaction to it. The things that make the news are often very serious. Covid-19 needs our attention and it needs action. There are some handy primal instincts at play when we become fearful of something. It’s fight or flight. It kept our ancestors from being eaten by wild boars and now, ideally, it will make us wash our hands a bit more.
The problem comes when we are bombarded – and that primal filter in our brain becomes worn down and we can no longer differentiate between a serious threat and a mild one. With Covid-19, it has become all-encompassing. It’s our health and the health of our family members, the stock market, supplies of toilet roll, productivity, sporting events, the value of the pound and the impact on the Canadian tourist industry. Yesterday I woke up to a notification about concerns over the impact on the Canadian tourist industry. It was the first thing I had to process that day. Pushed to me on my phone with a swoosh and a dramatic jingle. The impact on the Canadian tourist industry. I just do not have the bandwidth to panic about the Canadian tourist industry.
With what I do, there is little escape from news. I stay up late and wade through the noise and try to make sense of what is going on. It’s fairly manageable, until it isn’t.
Last Friday, I sat in the talkRADIO studio and looked up at the screens mounted to the wall in front of me. Each of them, as always, churning out a different 24-hour news channel for us to keep our eye on for any breaking stories we might need to cover. BBC News. Sky News. CNN. Al Jazeera. It suddenly struck me that I sit here, all night, being bombarded by the dramatic graphics and inflammatory language. Pandemic. Crisis. Emergency. Battle plan. War-footing. Mortality rate. Panic buying.
In his superb book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt Haig describes it as having too many tabs open on a computer. Eventually, the computer will crash.
And so… I had to stop. I needed a couple of days to close down some tabs and hit reboot. I am writing this now, as I return to the show, because I am feeling better. Credit to Lauren from the talkRADIO management team for being so quick and helpful.
Do you need the notifications? Do you need to scroll through the relentless shouting and speculation on Twitter? Find a reliable source, tap into it when you need information, take the action and move on.
I am not at crisis point because I didn’t let myself get there. Not everybody is so lucky.
The Covid-19 outbreak will teach us many lessons – including how inexplicably itchy your face becomes when you’re advised not to touch it. But one of the main takeaways must be how fragile a work landscape we have built for ourselves. The isolation period for those who suspect they may have the bug is about a fortnight – give or take. Two weeks to either figure out you don’t have it or let it pass through your system, recover and get back on your feet. For millions of self-employed people, or those on zero-hours contracts, that is time unpaid. If that fortnight creeps into three, or four weeks, they face the very real prospect of defaulting on the mortgage. That’s potentially millions of people in the UK who are a fortnight away from destitution. Right now, that’s a challenge for our handling of this current outbreak. For the rest of the time, it is the often-unseen challenge in our handling of a mental health crisis.
I am one in those millions of self-employed people and while I am far from flush, I am fortunate in that I can absorb a couple of days unpaid to give my brain a rest. For those presented with the choice of taking a couple of days off or being able to continue paying the mortgage – well, they aren’t given much of a choice at all.
I write this article with two intentions. Firstly, to encourage you to stop too; to have the confidence to step back, no matter how much the world demands you keep moving forward. The example of the singer Duffy is extreme – but it’s a cautionary tale. The world will demand you keep making music, and if you don’t, somebody else will. My radio show doesn’t stop while I’m off – Kait Borsey hosted the show in my absence. She is really good. Brilliant, in fact. She could replace me in a heartbeat. But we have to take a deep breath and line up our priorities.
The second intention is to encourage you – if you are a boss or employer or leader – to treat people like people. People aren’t numbers on a balance sheet or pawns in a game, there to be swapped out or brushed aside if they can’t keep moving forward for you. Give the time and the space for them to close down some of their tabs. We’re not going to reshape the employment landscape with a post on my website – but we can, all of us, make a small contribution to a change in the climate of work.
My friend and fellow broadcaster Iain Lee is brilliant in this area and has, perhaps unknowingly, played a huge part in giving me the confidence to stop. He often writes about how he feels on his website – click here.
Get a load of the brilliant Matt Haig by clicking here.
And if you need somebody to talk to urgently, Samaritans are superb and they are at the end of the phone right now – just dial 116 123.
Stop. Breathe. Reboot.March 15, 2020 | No Comments