Matthew’s Story: The Work-Life Balance Logic of a Full-Time NHS Key Worker – It’s a Science, not an Art

Work-Life Balance Profile 8 – Matthew*

This has been the year for recognising the value of healthcare workers. As we ride the wave of a global pandemic, the world’s population is leaning on their skills and services like never before.

I interviewed Matthew, an NHS key worker, some months ago and my write-up has sat in my drafts ever since. Unaccustomed to the spotlight, he felt uncomfortable about me publishing his story, and said that he found the interview process to be somewhat of a personal revelation and not for public consumption. But we recently caught up and he’d changed his mind about adding his story to my collection of profiles, on the condition that I would anonymise him.

At the time of writing this post, we are in the depths of the UK’s 2020 winter. Cases of Coronavirus are once again climbing, and people’s Christmas plans have been cruelly dashed by the country being plunged back into a new kind of lockdown. One might think there are more important things to focus on right now than the work-life balance reflections of one of our ‘NHS heroes’.

Yet, how often do we pause to consider the personal lives and wellbeing of those that are providing essential healthcare to others in these unprecedented times?

Each subject of my Work-Life Balance Profiles series has in one way or another expressed the tremendous impact that their time spent outside of work has on their contentment and productivity at work. No more so was this poignantly captured than in Soli’s story on self-care for caring professionals.

In his autobiography This is Going to Hurt, Adam Kay subtly portrays the personal impact of a junior doctor’s lifestyle. Hidden amidst the situational comedy and quips about patient care and hospital mishaps is the tragic storyline of Kay’s long-suffering personal life and the breakdown of his relationship as a result of the all-consuming nature of his work.

Applauding NHS key workers on our doorsteps is all well and good, but the demands on them persist long after the clapping stops.

Given the critical role that NHS key workers continue to play in tackling the impact of Coronavirus, it seems as apt a time as any to share Matthew’s story, and I am grateful that he decided that there was value in contributing to my blog’s patchwork of perspectives on work-life balance.

In Matthew’s case, his mathematical mind and scientific training have influenced him to apply a logical approach to establishing a fine balance between his work and personal life. As such, he weighs up his choices in stark calculation and is able to achieve an enviable balance in his life that sits in contrast to the intense pressures and demands of his day job.

There is something quintessentially heroic in that mindset alone, and certainly lots for others to take inspiration from.

Work : Life Ratio

60: 40

*The names and some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes

A full-time NHS surgeon with a side-line private practice, Matthew is married with three children and is the main breadwinner in his family, working up to 60 hours per week. His working hours can be unsociable – over weekends and late into the evenings – but this is balanced out with having sporadic time at home during the week, making him available for childcare, domestic tasks and some time to himself.

Outside work, Matthew enjoys spending time with his family and friends, and pursuing fitness activities and voluntary projects. He loves to travel and considers being able to afford indulgent family holidays and weekends away with friends one of the perks of his stressful, but rewarding, job.

The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted his working life significantly, adding pressures and hours that have been reminiscent of his times as a junior doctor, when frequent weekend and late shifts were par for the course. Nevertheless, he says that his family anchors him to keep positive at work and maintain perspective. He has enjoyed the extra time he has been able to spend with his wife, who works part-time (now exclusively from home), and his young children, who are more homebound than they would have otherwise been at this stage in life.

Of his work-life balance, Matthew says: “I really think that I have it all and feel very blessed – I’m incredibly proud of my career but it would mean nothing without the rich family life I come home to at the end of the day“.

“You live, you live, you live, you live, and you die” 

When I interviewed Matthew about where his work-life values stem from, he shared the above quote, which he had recently picked up from Louis Theroux. This quote resonated with Matthew, who as a child growing up in Canada, had observed the relationship that the adults around him had with their work and, subconsciously or not, reached a logical conclusion that it was possible – and preferable – to enjoy a rich life without working all hours of the day: to work to live rather than live to work.  

His father, a historian and university lecturer, seemed to live comfortably and be professionally accomplished without succumbing to an exhausting workload, often making it home for lunch in the middle of the working day. Meanwhile he saw other adults in his extended family living far less balanced lifestyles with little additional benefit, working long hours under pressure and suffering stress-related poor health. 

His observations also taught him by example that working hard and taking pride in your work was important and valuable in and of itself. His mother runs her own consultancy business, and he described to me how he learned a great deal from her professional conscientiousness, drive and self-belief. 

Despite his parents’ divorce when he was 12 years old, Matthew’s upbringing was one full of family love and warmth. He always wished to have a family of his own one day and, having experienced the pain that comes with the breaking up of a family, had high ambitions that when the time came, he would be a devoted husband and a hands-on dad.

Work hard, play hard 

Whilst he knew from a young age that the workaholic’s lifestyle was not for him, Matthew was not put off by the prospect of the tough demands of pursuing a medical career. Logic dictated that part of living life to the full was fulfilling your potential; and he was encouraged and confident in his abilities to take on this challenge. A naturally academic child with clear potential, he learned early on that if he worked hard at school, he could get good results. Again, logic prevailed: he was self-motivated to study hard enough to pass his exams well and pursue the medical career he aspired to from a young age.  

Having moved from Canada to England after his parents’ separation, Matthew had taken some time to adjust to a new home and culture and by the time he reached his mid-teens, he had settled into a crowd of good friends. A curious, adventurous and impatient person by nature, Matthew instinctively felt that there was more to life than just passing exams and he enjoyed a healthy social life during his sixth-form years, without compromising dedication to his studies.

Later at university, he took a similar approach, studying diligently, whilst enjoying a sociable student lifestyle. He went travelling at every opportunity, saving up his earnings from menial holiday jobs to fund his trips abroad.

Clearly uneasy about coming across in our interview as arrogant, Matthew explained to me that he had seldom experienced failure: academically, he was always able to do well (“even if I wasn’t always top of the class“) because he was bright and applied himself; and his family’s warmth had equipped him to be emotionally intelligent and resilient when things don’t go to plan.

Matthew took a measured approach to coping with the pressures of medical school, focussing on doing his best and putting his studies first when necessary, but not succumbing to the pressure of excelling at the cost of his mental and physical health. He graduated from medical school not just with excellent academic plaudits (though he slimly missed out on the coveted final exams top score prize), but with a close group of what have proven to become lifelong friends.

It took some probing to get to the bottom of what enabled Matthew to manage such a balance; he genuinely had never considered the question before as this was instinctive behaviour. After lengthy discussion, we agreed that what it came down to was that he possesses a remarkable and fortuitous combination of character traits and skills: a gifted blend of intelligence, determination and speed. 

In his professional life, he has continued to maintain a similar degree of balance, though it requires tougher self-management. These days, he follows his heart as well as applying a healthy dose of logic. The care and responsibility he carries for his patients, colleagues, and the wider impact of Coronavirus on his organisation and profession, have the potential to be all-consuming and anxiety-inducing. So he disciplines himself to detach from work once his immediate tasks are taken care of. He makes a point of not staying on site later than necessary, and is mindful of how many extra projects and responsibilities he voluntarily takes on above and beyond his surgical duties. When it comes to his private practice, he sets himself clear boundaries about committing to extra cases on weekends and evenings.

When home with his family, Matthew is adamant about being “present and undistracted” in their company, at times silencing Whatsapp notifications, or even going so far as removing social media and news apps from his phone to remove temptation: “Every day is precious and I don’t want to miss out on my children growing up”, he told me.

Investing time and energy in his community and neighbourhood are also important to him, and he volunteers in numerous local activities. Though at times he feels overwhelmed by the number of things he puts his name to, he says that these commitments enrich his – and his family’s – life significantly and he would not consider letting them go.

He described how he and his wife had jointly crafted their career plans purposefully to enable them to both realise their work and family ambitions, acknowledging that “there is no way I could have the career and family life that I cherish so much if my wife wasn’t as driven as she is to manage her career around being the primary carer of our children“.

As has been depicted by others in my previous posts, like Sam’s story on part-time working fatherhood, and Sarah’s story about marriage, self-employment and primary care-giving, career planning in partnership seems to have a positive impact on creating a shared sense of work-life balance in marriage.

Life is precious: no one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time at work 

Not many people witness the ending of another person’s life but, throughout Matthew’s professional training and work, he has on many occasions done so, and this has made him acutely sensitive to the fragility of life. During our interview, Matthew described numerous moments when he was involved in what will have been the darkest and saddest moments of people’s lives.

One story that stuck with me was when he was working as a first responder, and was called to the home of someone who had collapsed while preparing dinner. While the team tried without success to revive the patient, Matthew couldn’t help noticing the vegetables on the sideboard that were half-way through being chopped when tragedy struck.  

Such experiences have left him with an insight into how life can change in an instant and that it shouldn’t be taken for granted. This has certainly influenced Matthew’s work-life balance choices as an adult. Sensible and a pragmatist at heart, however, Matthew lives up to his responsibilities and always acts with integrity, but he is willing to cut corners, take risks and make mistakes too – life’s too short to always play by the rules.  

If any of the issues raised in this post relate to your situation, feel free to “like” it and comment below. If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch. To receive further updates, follow @afinebalance_blog on Instagram or subscribe below.

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