The Young Money guide to staying sane at work!

Some of us may feel lucky just to get the gig – but that doesn’t make having a full-time job any easier. Whether you work in an office, on-site or mix it up with a bit of home-working, sometimes it’s good to reset the dial and ask if things could be done better. From effectively managing a digital detox and setting new boundaries to getting the recognition (and possibly extra money!) you deserve, Young Money has looked at some realistic but powerful ways to glow up your career – starting today!

Look: I know I wang on a lot about freelancing. As someone who is part of the so-called gig generation, I feel duty-bound to report the ups and downs of this oft-misunderstood way of life. And hey – write about what you know, as the famous adage goes.

Let’s not forget, however, that the self-employed are still a minority of the workforce, even among young people. In fact, official stats actually show freelancers are rare among 18 – 30 year olds – particularly ones who can set their own rates, manage their own hours and generally call the shots. Full-time working (even if it’s under the false guise of zero-hour contracts) is still the norm for those young people lucky enough to get a break in the labour market.

Tricky times

Full-time work has probably never been complicated or hazard-strewn as it is today. The full-blown erosion of boundaries thanks to technology, the pressure to upskill and present a personal brand to the world at all times, the minefield that is office chat and relationships in a post #Metoo era – though god forbid we return to the days of old!

That’s not even mentioning the financial side of things. According to Experian, older millennials are forecast to receive an above-average pay rise of 3.3% this year, beating nearly every other demographic except gen X (who pip us to the post with 3.4%). Overall, our average income is set to rise by 2.7 per cent this year. But that is cold comfort after years of stagnant income and an unprecedented situation where retirees have had more money coming than full-time young workers.

The money warzone

That’s why we’ve been in the money war-zone throughout our twenties. This has affected our prospects in almost every way, from our ability to save for a home to our reliance on borrowing through overdrafts, credit cards and more exotic products like guarantor loans or buy now, pay later.

This can also have a knock-on effect for our careers. Some 87% of 18 – 34 year olds admit that money worries affect them while they’re at work, according to the most recent Close Brothers Financial Wellbeing Index. Jeanette Makings, Head of Financial Education at Close Brothers said:

“The number of millennials that are anxious about money is a real cause for concern in itself, as well as in regard to its knock-on effect on their ability to focus and be productive at work.”

The irony is that we are the most likely to use budgeting apps and other hacks to help us get those worries under control, according to Close Brothers. Hopefully, younger workers can take heart from widespread data that indicates most of us are in line for a wage rise this year. Average real wages (which take account of the impact of inflation) have now risen above their pre-financial crisis level for the first time since the financial crash.

Work: still working for you?

But there is more to this than money. Working in the age of always-on tech, in more complicated roles, with traditional structures breaking down around us…it may be exciting but boy it’s intense. In fact, working 2020-style comes with an array of mental and organisational pressures, some of which didn’t exist even ten years ago.

The question is: how can we get work to work for us? It may sound like a typically self-centered millennial inversion of the famous JKF speech: “Ask not what you can do for your country…”

But it’s definitely not selfish to question whether you are approaching work the right way – and ditto for your colleagues and bosses.

Sure, we all know the biggest attraction of full-time work is daily interaction with others, not just to give us the pleasure of human contact (though dear God I hope you don’t rely on your colleagues for this). It’s also amazing to spark off people for ideas, to enjoy the satisfaction of working in a team and accomplish goals that may have been impossible on your own. And yes, there is a slight discomfort but huge learning process that comes with being challenged by others too.

These are the things I miss most about full-time work. But I wish I could say that professional, respectful and harmonious relations are the norm. During my spells in full-time work, I worked with some absolutely wonderful colleagues and bosses, many of whom are still in my life. Unfortunately, I also worked with Queen Bees, sex pests and over-promoted David Brents who would turn anybody off the real-life Office for life.

Maybe I was unfortunate – though I suspect I could have had it much worse! And even if you have the most enlightened office culture in the world, there will always be a tendency towards deadening conformity, soul-corroding rituals and toxic politics whenever you’re around others for such long stretches of time and under all kinds of pressure.

I don’t pretend to have the ability to ‘fix’ full-time work: some of the issues I describe are intractable and are, quite literally, occupational hazards we have to bear. But I wonder whether we make things harder for ourselves than they need to be. Even as a freelancer, I recognise a huge difference between the periods when I’m feeling recharged, clear and in control of what I’m doing – and when I’m just getting through from one day to the next, reacting to everything and never really setting my own agenda.

If I had my time to go over, I probably would have done things a bit differently in office world – though that’s easy to say with hindsight. Perhaps you can live out that reality for me? Here are some suggestions so you can be the best version of you, rather than a second-rate version of someone else (thanks for that one, Marilyn Monroe). On we go.

1. Review your social media strategy

I could harp on about digital detoxes and the benefits of leaving social media platforms for good. I quit Facebook personally in 2016 and Instagram last year: I have never looked back. And hey, if Stormzy can close his Twitter and Instagram accounts, surely we can?

The uncomfortable truth is that Stormzy is successful enough not to need social media anymore. We are not. Sniff.

And yes, there are some people who can easily thrive in their careers without a social media presence. But most of us would lose out, to varying degrees, if we left social media professionally. Profile, interaction, information, contact opportunities…all these fronts would suffer if we tried to pretend that social didn’t exist. Pandora’s outta the box and she ain’t going back in!

That doesn’t mean we can’t all benefit from radically and frequently reassessing how we use social media. Firstly, are your personal and professional profiles truly separate? This is not to say that you can’t be personal on your professional profiles. I love the common advice to “be more human”, as if some of us are intergalactic robots trying to blend in – though a browse through LinkedIn might suggest that is actually true…

But I think it’s crucial to have limits. Firstly, your private life is private. People don’t need or have a right to know what you’re doing and where you are at all times. It isn’t their business and they (mostly) don’t give a monkeys – unless you try to actively catch their attention, in which case, you can never regain the mystique that helped make legends like Kate Moss, the Queen and David Bowie so enduring.

Those three figures might have achieved their reputation in a pre-digital age. But they actually all have a lot to teach us about building lasting personal brands today. Kate Moss hardly ever gives interviews and lets her work do the talking. The Queen’s motto is “never explain, never complain”. David Bowie built an other-worldly aura not just through his incredibly creative work but through his quiet, mysterious public persona.

Compare this to influencers plastering their whole life all over Instagram and Twitter. What is left in the tank?

Okay, so maybe you can’t be quite like Mossy, Lizzy or Bowie. But draw up your own deal-breakers. For instance, I don’t tweet about politics, not just because it’s become a toxic arena but who really cares what I think about that stuff? My expertise is financial, and I’m happy to tweet about that all day long. But I don’t, and have a rule only to tweet blogs, comments, stories or appearances that I think actually add something to the world. I also don’t click on Twitter trends anymore and I try not to scroll down as much.

The number one rule I follow for any postings or tweets is: “Would I feel okay if this was plastered across the front page of a newspaper tomorrow?” If not, I keep it to myself. We’re all allowed private thoughts and beliefs: we don’t need to share them all with the world.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that if you don’t have anything “nice” to say, don’t say anything at all; that stifles debate and independent thought. But my bar for (non-personal) criticism is set much higher than it is for praise, and that’s how I think it should be. Finally, actually log off your professional social media. Like, physically. And carve out times to check it – say at 10am and 2pm each day.

2. Think about your internet habits.

Okay, we’ve already covered a lot of ground with social media, but there are myriad ways to waste your time online!

For instance, internal messaging boards are time-suckers of the highest order. Cut yourself some slack and try opting out of Slack (or at least turning notifications off). Ask colleagues if they can text or email you with anything really urgent. Otherwise, agree that you’ll catch up on your coffee break so you can get some deep work done.

Now onto your email – are you using it as your primary organisational system? If so, create folders with names for the different priorities in your work life – e.g. ‘Client A’, ‘Social’, ‘Admin’ and so on. That will at least take the pressure off your poor old inbox. Check these folders once or twice a day (like your social media) and catch up on correspondence at those times only.

Having a mass of unread, un-categorised emails is inherently stressful but you don’t want to become an email gardener, constantly tending to your messages. Some people swear by an permanent out-of-office message to temper expectations about how quickly you’ll respond. Mine currently states that I’m writing a book and will take longer to respond to people.

Keep your emails brief and to the point. Start adding NNTR to your emails – ‘no need to reply’ – and let your colleagues know they can do the same with you. That saves huge reams of unnecessary e-correspondence. And if email ping-pong starts getting tedious, pick up the phone or speak to your colleague/boss. That often clears up misunderstandings and helps you reach a resolution far quicker!

3. Steer clear of office politics

Do you get drawn into criticising colleagues, attacking bosses, griping about work conditions and gossiping about personal lives?

We all like to bond with colleagues and often, the main (or only) thing we have in common is our workplace. A bit of communal bantz is natural and it’s good to show empathy to colleagues if they’re having a hard time. Occasionally, it’s also necessary to show solidarity with colleagues if you feel they are being unfairly treated (joining your union is a great way to harness that collective power to improve your workplace conditions).

Even having the occasional moan in the pub with your colleagues about work is normal and unlikely to do much harm. But if it starts becoming habitual, that’s a problem. It won’t make things better and at some point down the line, it may come back to bite you. Plus, getting involved in your colleagues’ battles adds another complication to your working life that you just don’t need. Resolve to be friendly but professional at all times, and try to be constructive if the complaints start.

Remember that nobody is obliged to socialise with work colleagues out-of-hours. It’s not the same as going out with your mates, and you have every right to make the most of your spare time – indeed, you should grasp that chance to recharge and take a break from it all. Dr Steve Peters, author of the Chimp Paradox, reminds us all to be “personable” rather than “personal” in the workplace. Wise words…

4. Value what you do.

via GIPHY

Do you beat yourself up when things go wrong?

It’s vital to remember that things will go wrong from time to time. You’ll misjudge a pitch, a project, a quote, a person – the whole kit and caboodle. But the more mistakes you make, the more you are learning and finding out what’s what. Resolve to have a gentle and curious approach to your mistakes. Separate yourself from the mistake and ask what the main learning points were.

A lot of workplaces like to do things like “Strengthfinder” but to be honest, you can conduct your own strength-finding exercise by asking your friends and family to appraise your good qualities. You may be surprised at how well-regarded and competent you are. Try to take that confidence into your workplace – even if it feels a bit fake! – and hold onto those generous appraisals when the going gets tough. Every time someone gives me a compliment or a piece of good feedback, I write it on a scrap of paper. I have these tidbits in a ceramic container and I get them out when I need a little pick-me-up. Hey, it has worked for me so it might work for you.

Offer to take the lead (or at least contribute more) on certain projects where you know your strengths will come to the fore. But don’t be afraid to try new things that might or might not pan out, like public speaking. People only fear presentations and speeches because they lack practice and experience. I’ve written about the power of mentors in the past: they might be able to help you mine your strengths but also push you out of your comfort zone.

6. Be fair to your employer – and yourself.

Are you curious about future opportunities? You want to give your employer full value, but that shouldn’t stop you investigating what else is out there whenever you can.

Everybody knows how it works. You’ve got to look after number 1 – so don’t feel bad about taking that job interview or meeting up with a potential new employer for coffee.

Think carefully, however, if you are tempted to jump ship. This is especially true if you are being treated well by your employer and feel relatively happy in your job. That’s not a license to stand still, of course, but often recruiters and rival employers talk a big game. You won’t actually know what the job will be like until you take it. Even if you’re not entirely happy in your current job, you still have to consider issues like your commute, hours and increased responsibility (if it is a step up). Can you make the mental and physical changes necessary in your life to accommodate it?

Otherwise, there’s no harm in making the most of your contacts and assignments to learn about other employers, other roles and other corners of your industry.

7. Take ethics seriously

via GIPHY

Do you believe your profession has ethics? I hope so!

The future health of business depends on young workers buying into a commitment to ethics and integrity. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience in the past or you meet a lot of (usually older) cynics who have lost hope. Just because they’ve given up doesn’t mean you have to. You can set an example to your colleagues, however jaded they are. Having ethical goals in your job, whether it’s to help mentor younger employees or lobby your employer to offer healthier options in the canteen, will give you a sense of purpose over and above a job well done.

Plus, behaving ethically can also benefit you personally. Holding a reputation as someone who will always try to do the right thing enhances you in the eyes of colleagues and clients. This is what’s known as enlightened self-interest and it’s the best thing in the world, baby. Come up with a few ways to incorporate ethical behaviour into your work life. Make sure they are congruent with your real values, life experience and priorities. If you’re not sure where to start, try volunteering or dipping your toe in charity work that appeals to you to get inspiration on how to make a difference.

8. Let’s talk pay

Finally, let’s shine a light on the reason ultimately why we all work. Money! Are you being paid what you deserve? I have written about this extensively in the context of freelancing but full-timers also need to suss out where they sit on the salary scale. A bit of tactful networking within your industry should hopefully tell you if you’re at the right level for your responsibilities, experience and expertise.

If you’re not, it’s time to do something about it. When asking for a pay rise, have a benchmark figure in mind but try upping it, say by 20%. That’s because you may already be undervaluing yourself (particularly if you’re a woman). Asking for that much more might not work out, but you’ll feel better for having asked and it will be easier to do next time.

Be clear about what you bring to the job and why, based on the information you have received, £X is the right salary for you now. If your boss says no, ask what you would need to do to be successful next time. Set a goal together with a defined timeline and ask to check in together when that goal is reached. If you fail at the second time of asking, it’s your boss’s problem, not yours, and it’s time to start looking for a second job.

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