Talking work at work
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
In “Leaving Work At Work” I wrote about lots of practical strategies to improve your work/life balance, but I didn’t even think about leaving your work conversations at work. It seems that often in normal life I hear conversations about teaching in unexpected places: someone on a bus talking on the phone a few seats away; a friend at church telling me about their week; a family member at a party. I completely get it, because often it’s been me that’s done this, especially in my own home: you’re so invested in the young people and families you work with, and you pour so much of yourselves into your work, and you want to share that with people you care about. And I know that it’s so, so important to express and process your emotions in a healthy way; there’s a whole chapter on this in my book, and so what I’m saying here is designed to be seen in the context of what is written there. But if you find yourself talking about work outside of work a lot, here are a couple of things to consider.
Firstly, it can negatively impact you, and your mental health. Often we do a lot of thinking work in our own time, especially mental planning and decision-making, and talking about your job a lot makes it more likely that you’ll think about work more at home, making it harder for you to actually switch off. This, in turn, makes it more likely you’ll feel overwhelmed and not actually get a good amount of rest in non-working hours, making you less effective at your job the next day. More mental work also might lead to more physical work: you might decide that as a task is on your mind, you might as well just do it, when actually the better solution by far for your wellbeing is to think about non-work-related things to begin with.
Secondly, the impact on those around you can be very profound. If a person who hears you is struggling themselves, perhaps having just left the profession or having been signed off sick, and you’re talking about teaching a lot, maybe that’s not helpful for them. Maybe they just wanted to have a little bit of time to escape and to not think about the pressures they’re under or the emotions associated with words like “marking”, “planning”, “behaviour”, and “observation”. Maybe your conversation is triggering for them, and brings all those feelings back to the surface, thus denying them the chance to switch off. If they are struggling, they may not have the courage or energy to ask you to stop, but they may still communicate through their tone of voice or non-verbal signals that it’s affecting them. A different scenario is that maybe the person you’re talking to is simply uninterested by that topic of conversation, and actually by talking incessantly about teaching as some of us do without realising, they may lose interest in what you’re saying: remember, others aren’t so emotionally invested as you in the young people and families you work with, so they might be less keen to hear about your story or problem than you are to tell them about it.
Some key principles about talking about work well are as follows:
Have more of those conversations about your work challenges at work: find a colleague who can support you in some way and help you find some solutions. Remember to not just offload your problems and weigh them down too; the idea is to share the burden together. (There’s much more on how to do this well, and about how to debrief well with yourself on the way home, in “Leaving Work At Work".)
If you are talking about work outside of work, limit the conversation’s length. It’s reasonable to expect someone to listen for a short time about your working day, or your occupation generally, but maybe think beforehand about an abridged version of what you want to say: this reduces the likelihood of the person getting overwhelmed or bored, thus making them more receptive to what you actually want to tell them.
Pay attention to the small signals from those around you that they’ve had enough and they need you to change the topic! Don’t be that person that just ploughs on with their story regardless. It can also help to ask lots of questions: this allows you to gauge how others are feeling, gives them an exit ticket to a different conversational topic if they would like, and shows that you’re a good listener too!
If your job takes up a lot of your non-working time and you feel like you have nothing else to talk about as teaching is all you spend your time on, I know what that's like because I’ve been there! Doing at least one thing that's fun for you each night is helpful, perhaps a new hobby or one you used to have but have let slide since you got busy. This should stop you thinking about work so much and should give you more different topics of conversation to talk about.