Unemployment month seven: end of my tether

The campaign aimed at destigmatising mental health issues spearheaded by the young royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, has received a lot of media attention lately. Prince Harry went public about his own struggles following the loss of his mother at a young age, making the point that bottling up negative emotions can have grave consequences to your psychological health.

This applies to the unemployed too. When you’re not part of society’s workforce, by default you’re marginalised from it, and this can be detrimental to your confidence and self-esteem. Not having an income impacts your social life. As bonding with friends at the pub no longer becomes an option, you may have become isolated from your usual social circle, and loneliness can have devastating effects on your psyche.

A job gave structure to your day – you had to be up and out of the house by a certain time – but not having a job to go to means it doesn’t matter if you never get out of bed, sleep during the day or stay up all night. Empty days roll into empty weeks, empty weeks into empty months. The loss of a sense of purpose in life can make you go literally crazy.

In January I had reckoned I’d have a job by end of February, just because the first month of the year tends to be slow. In February I told myself by March I’d be working, and noticed, slightly panicked, that the balance on my bank account was reaching critical point. By end of March I had stopped leaving the house for anything other than local grocery shopping , using public transport only for my fortnightly trips to the JobCentre and any job interviews. I cut down my meals to one and a half a day and, for extra reassurance, made nominal savings wherever I could – I cancelled my Netflix subscription and switched my facial cream from Liz Earle’s to one sold at Lidl for less than two pounds.

My JobCentre adviser reminded me my contribution-based jobseeker’s allowance would run out at the end of May. “How are you getting on with your job search?” It was more an admonition than a question.

By then my CV had been submitted to all recruitment agencies in town and most online job sites. I’d been to several job interviews that led to…nothing. Even attempts at being ‘proactive’, such as sending speculative letters directly to prospective employers and hounding friends in the industry to ask about vacancies, had ended up in a black hole.

Losing My Mind
Anyone who’s been unemployed for a length of time knows  how soul-destroying job hunting eventually becomes. The amount of time you spend preparing a job application doesn’t seem to be compensated by the outcomes. You may have expanded your job search to include positions that are beneath your qualifications, only to be met with a wall of silence. Or you dared going for your dreams and applied in an area you have no experience in but would love to get into. Those are called ‘dream’ jobs for a reason.

Well-meaning friends trying to be helpful can end up sending you further down the dark hole. A comment meant as a compliment can have the opposite effect and make you feel totally inadequate: “But you have loads of experience, you’re good at your job, and you speak five languages! How come you can’t find a job?!” The sympathetic ones won’t make accusations but would like you to meet them for lunch in town so they can comfort you, forgetting that lunch isn’t free, and London has the most expensive transport system on planet Earth.

The positivity tips I wrote about on this blog in the New Year no longer motivated me on a day-to-day basis. I’m known for being a steadfast optimist, but how long can one go on feeling motivated writing letters saying how good you are at a job, when all you get back is one continuous rejection. And, if, additionally, you suffer any upsets in your personal relationships during unemployment, they are bound to hurt twice as much and add to your feelings of inadequacy and failure.

Gradually, I started losing interest in tidying up the house, stopped going to libraries, stopped exercising, stopped answering phone calls and emails that weren’t strictly related to job search. All I wanted was the world to leave me alone. I had nothing to say to anyone anyway. The less I did, the more exhausted I felt, the more sleep I needed, the less I wanted to leave the house.

My day-to-day was starting to resemble that of a prisoner observing the world through the grid of a cell’s window, talking to birds and clouds because there is no one else to talk to. In my confused mental state, I wondered if being a prisoner would be more sociable than life as a jobseeker. There would be inmates, even wardens. I’d have no rent nor electricity bills to worry about, and meals would be provided for. I wouldn’t have a job, but I wouldn’t have to feel guilty for not having one either because my job would be to feel guilty for my crime. I wouldn’t have to prove myself in endless cover letters because I’d belong to the lowest rung of society anyway. I’d be a permanent reject rather than a potential on-and-off one.

It could be jobseekers’ fatigue, but some days I feel as if I’m losing my mind.

Meaning of Life
Being unemployed for seven months, utterly broke and heart-broken, with no family nor partner to rely on for support, made me question what the meaning of life is. What is the point of staying alive?

The other evening a friend said to me, “Do you realise most of our jobs will be taken over by robots soon? There’ll be no jobs for any of us!” According to this article by Yuval Noah Harari, by 2050 there will be a new class of ‘useless’, unemployable people because artificial intelligence will have replaced their jobs. The author says there is no meaning in human life, except what is ascribed to it by our minds. In order to generate meaning, some resort to computer games, some to virtual reality games, others to religion or to consumerism, which, Harari says, are ultimately also fantasy games.

But if I’m not interested in Pokémon hunting nor in collecting points to go to heaven, how do I fill my existence with enough purpose to keep me from slashing my wrists? It’s no wonder so many jobless people end up falling into depression.

If you’re unemployed and think you may be suffering from, anxiety, depression or any other mental health issues, you might like to know the charity Shaw Trust has a programme called Aim4Work, which offers support in getting you back into work for up to nine months, and even after you start working. You can call them on 0800 389 0177 or email Aim4Work@shaw-trust.org.uk to check your eligibility.

Tipping Point
As part of our upbringing, we are taught to put on a brave face and march on even when things become unbearable. We live by the motto “I can’t go on. I will go on,” as Samuel Beckett put it. Sometimes we can go on for a long time, unaware of our pain, until something breaks us open.

For me that moment came when I was queuing at the till of my local Lidl a little over a month ago. A young Muslim couple was standing in front of me with a large trolley. I had a full basket myself, but the wife turned to me and kindly offered me her place in the queue, as I had less shopping than them. I had given up my place in the queue to other shoppers countless times before, but this was the first time anyone had offered me the same. Lidl tills can scan incredibly fast, and trying to shove all my shopping into three small cloth bags within seconds proved to be an inefficient idea. I started dropping my groceries everywhere while I fumbled with my wallet under the chilly look of the woman at the till. Her judgement of my clumsiness unnerved me. The faster I tried to put my shopping away, the more things I dropped, the more ridiculous I felt. Before I knew, the husband of the Muslim woman was picking up my groceries from the floor and helping me bag them, as if he was my bagging assistant.

As I paid for my shopping, profusely thanking the man for his help, my eyes caught his wife’s. I saw her face, framed by her scarf, her eyes dark, warm and sparkly. She was smiling, but it wasn’t a condescending smile. It was a look that said “I know”, which brought me instant comfort.

It was the end of March. London was still in shock from the terror attack on Westminster Bridge the week before. A few days later several Muslim women had formed a human chain on the bridge in solidarity for the victims. I’d felt ashamed at the bigotry these admirable women have to suffer daily from those who think all Muslims are terrorists, and I had silently apologised to them. It occurred to me that the human soul works in mysterious ways. Maybe the Muslim woman at Lidl knew something about my pain as I knew about hers?

As I walked out into the street, laden with bags, thick tears started streaming down my face. I took the back streets and sobbed all the way home. The kindness of two strangers had saved my day. Someone had cared enough to reach out and help when I hadn’t even asked. Because asking for help is so hard.

Unemployment messes with your head big time. I’m clearly at the end of my tether.

1 Comment

Filed under Coping

7 tips for the unemployed for a happier New Year

At my last visit to the JobCentre I was heartbroken to witness an advisor kneeled on the floor trying to comfort an older black guy, who appeared to have burst into tears during his appointment.

When you’re unemployed it can be so easy to slip into that abyss of despair. Some days you feel more gung-ho about the future, on others you don’t even have the energy to come out from under the duvet, especially now, in winter, with such short daylight time.

I too have had weeks when I felt so overwhelmed by life, I had to pop some pills just to get through the day, but I never went back to the levels of depression I was in when I was last on the dole. I’ve mastered the art of keeping the scary Black Dog at bay.

Two days before Christmas I received a letter from my flat’s management agency saying my rent would be going up by £40/month in 2017. That’s £480 more I will have to earn per year to cover my living costs! I felt sick in the pit of my stomach, and angry at the agents’ insensitivity in sending such a letter just before Christmas. I ranted about it on Facebook, which got me my friends’ sympathy and made me temporarily feel better, but, come to think of it, why should the agency even care whether I’m despairing about not having an income? They’d probably say they were only doing their jobs.

Some battles you simply can’t win, so what’s the point in causing yourself stress by resisting them. Rents, energy bills, train fares, the price of groceries, they all go up in the New Year. It sucks, but, right now, there’s nothing I can do to change those things.

I know when it’s useless to wage war, rant, scream, swear, cry. These actions only produce more stress, not resolution. Just because I’m out of work, the world is not going to stop throwing unpleasant situations my way. I cannot control what will happen in five minutes’ time, tomorrow or next week, but I can make a conscious decision that I’m not going to let these things affect my cool. The image of me becoming a pauper because I cannot pay my bills is a projection based on fear of a future that may never come. It’s a fictional movie of myself I’m watching, not reality.

Choose not to suffer.

Suffering is what happens in our minds when we resist what is, when we think something is happening that shouldn’t be happening. When we allow ourselves to be open to the idea that everything is happening for a reason, even things that are seemingly adverse, even the loss of a job, the lack of money, the illness, the end of a relationship, whatever it may be, then we can return to a place of acceptance, peace and serenity.

It’s taken me years of working on expanding my self-awareness to achieve this state of surrender, but I’ve learned a thing or two along the way, and I’m now much less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.

To help you kickstart the New Year on the right foot and avoid the winter blues, here are a few practical tips based on what’s worked for me. These are mainly tips for keeping a sane mind and do not include TLC for the body, such as exercising, eating healthily, etc, but I figured you knew about those already.

    1. Stop being a victim – This is important. Feeling sorry for yourself will only attract more circumstances that will make you feel sorry for yourself. Ever heard of the Laws of Attraction? What’s happening now is happening for a reason that has to do with the totality of your life, and the world/people are not “out to get you”, even if it feels that way. You didn’t lose your last job because someone wanted to punish you, even if you had the boss from hell. It was meant to be that way. If you didn’t get the job you interviewed for, it wasn’t the right job. You missed a bus because the bus drove off before you could reach the bus stop? The driver may well have been a grumpy old fart, but their action wasn’t aimed at harming you. Who knows…on the next bus you may bump into an old friend, who happens to know of a job vacancy. Stop blaming your ex-boss, the government, the JobCentre, your mother-in-law for everything that’s wrong with your life. Your life is perfect as it is right now. Your job at the moment is to look for a job, so assume that role with dignity. Trust the mysterious ways of the world, accept each moment for what it is without labelling it as good or bad. Instead, keep your focus firmly (and by that I mean 24/7, not only when you’re in a good mood) on the future you wish to see, and feel the joy and gratitude associated with it. Tip no. 6 will help you with this.
    2. De-clutter – You finally have the time to go through junk you’ve accumulated over the years, and get rid of everything you no longer need nor love. If you need inspiration, Marie Kondo has a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising. The UK edition was called Spark Joy for a good reason: purging things that no longer adds anything positive to your life creates joy! You can check out this piece in The Guardian to get an idea of the content. I haven’t read the book, and doubt I could ever be as radical as the Kondo method advocates, but since I stopped working, I’ve been taking great delight in tidying up one corner of my home at a time and made several trips to charity shops and the local dump. When you clear your space of things that no longer serve you, you make room for new things to enter your life, quite literally. It is like an unblocking of life’s stream, a mental detox of sorts. Try it. If you notice no positive effects, at least you’ll have a very tidy house!
    3. Re-arrange – while you’re on the de-cluttering, why not re-think the layout of your favourite room? I never paid attention to feng shui, but last month I was donated a small bookcase by a kind neighbour, so I decided to move the position of the sofa in my living-room and placed the new bookcase next to it. It made all the difference in the world! The room now looks more spacious and warmer, and I am LOVING my flat for the first time since I moved in. Sometimes a little move goes a long way.
    4. Connect – when you’re not working, it’s easy to end up stuck at home. Leaving your home means spending money. You need money to take public transport, and once you’re out, you’re likely to buy things you don’t need so it can be more economical to stay at home. Or maybe you do the opposite, you go out everyday and get drunk or high to forget how hard your life is. …Or is it? Remember tip no.1? Be NOT a victim. I’m of the former type. I love solitude anyway; I can go days without speaking to another human being, except on social media. But I’m also aware that connecting on social media does not replace actual human contact, and social isolation can bring on a bout of depression. Therefore I make sure I do a programme once a week, even if by myself, usually a classical music concert, a trip to the library, or a visit to a friend, just to get me out of the house. I also discovered local social network Streetlife is a lovely way of meeting nice neighbours you wouldn’t have met otherwise.
    5. Read (books you can learn from) – you may have a long Amazon wishlist or a pile of books by your bedside you never had time for because your job was too busy. Now is the time to catch up on your reading, and I don’t mean just trashy novels. Time not working is precious time for learning and reflection. Pick up books with depth that make you think (in a different way?), inspire you, challenge you, enlighten you. Your future new job is as an opportunity to start a new phase of your life, so why not enrich yourself mentally during this “interval” life has awarded you. No money for books? Look up libraries near you under Local Library Services, and plan a visit to each. I’ve got memberships in three now, and I’ve read more books in the past couple of months than I have in any year for the past few years.
    6. Meditate – It’s an excellent tool for getting focused and calm before a job interview, for instance, but it can also be life-changing. Meditation has been proven to help reduce stress and anxiety, relax mind and body, increase concentration and improve overall health. Most people’s excuse for not meditating is lack of time, “I’d love to but I’m too busy to meditate.” In truth, if they meditated even for a minute, their productivity would improve and they’d end up with more free time. Why not start the habit now, while you’re unemployed, and learn to have a “zen” attitude towards life (remember tip no.1?). There are several free (at least for the basic functions) meditation apps that can get you started, including the well-known Headspace. Or do it free style, with no app. Relaxing background music can also help, and YouTube offers a large choice of meditation music. A long meditation is not necessarily better than a shorter one so don’t worry if you can only sit still for a minute or two at first. The trick is to persist with it and often. Finding your inner stillness is the quickest way to a more enlightened and consequently happier life.
    7. Embrace change as your friend – we tend to see change as a problem, an obstacle to our progress, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When you embrace change, you’re embracing life itself. Not having a paid job isn’t convenient for anyone of course. But can you see it as a grand opportunity for change that may have a domino effect and lead you to places you may not have imagined would be possible to get to? What kind of person do you envisage yourself to BE in the next stage of your life? Don’t waste this chance life is offering you to step UP. Not in your career, but as yourself. Now is the time for you to dream big, think big, act big. I will leave you with these beautiful words from author Neale Donald Walsch:

“Change is not a break in the flow. It is the flow. Change is not a shift in direction. It is the direction into which all of life is moving.”

Hurrah to change! Happy New Year and happy job hunting!

 

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

How one ice-cream can change the world

It’s been a month and a half since I became unemployed. My bank account is starting to feel the strain but so are my nerves. Round-the-clock job hunting can be soul-destroying, and all the days in the week seem to blend into one long despondent journey…

One of the few luxuries I still indulge in regularly, for the sake of my mental health, are classical music concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. I am such a classical music aficionado, if it ever came to a choice between going to a concert or eating, I’d happily starve for the music.

Luckily, such a drastic measure hasn’t yet become necessary. The main reason I now frequent the RFH more than any other venue is that it offers cheaper tickets, at the lower end of the scale, than the Barbican, the Cadogan and the Wigmore Hall. For £10-11 you can get a seat at the back end of rear circle or top of balcony with unobstructed view of the stage and great acoustics. It’s a small price to bear for a two-hour immersion in classical heaven and incomparably cheaper than shoes-and-handbag shopping.

The RFH also offers heavenly ice-cream tubs in multiple flavours at £3 a shot. Ice-cream at concert halls is like popcorn at the cinema – junk food you know you shouldn’t be having but whose consumption enhances the totality of your experience.

A few weeks ago, however, I made a decision to abstain. I convinced myself that if I ate an ice-cream every time I attended a concert, I’d put on weight, and there could be nothing more degrading than being unemployed and fat.

But that isn’t the main reason I sacrificed ice-cream consumption. I reckoned if I didn’t buy one, I could suddenly afford to give away £3 to at least a couple of the homeless people that gather along the Southbank’s Golden Jubilee Bridge in the hour before and after a concert.

I never used to give money to beggars before I lost my job. But the moment I realised that no matter how little you have, you still have enough to give to others, was hugely empowering. Instead of feeling sorry for myself that I no longer had an income and might soon be so impoverished I’d have to give up on my concert treats, I gained back control…over my capacity to make a difference in someone else’s life.

One ice-cream not purchased was all it took to make a couple of rough sleepers happy and make me feel a little wealthier (and healthier). Of course I have no way of verifying these men and women are indeed homeless. Some of them may be using the money to purchase alcohol or drugs; even then, they’re less fortunate than me.

This attitude has kept me in a mindset of “enoughness” and has greatly helped reduce my anxiety over work and money. I stopped suffering in anticipation from the effects of a tragic destitute future, which may never arrive. I stopped starring myself as the heroine of a tear-jerking movie. In other words, I got real: things are a little bit bad, yes, but in relative terms, if I think of Aleppo, or if I think of the homeless population in town, I still have enough to be grateful for

The secret is this: remind yourself circumstances don’t create unhappiness but your thinking about them does. Stop being a victim.

You can choose to be anything but unhappy whether you have a job or not. It’s not so much about thinking positive(ly) as it is about being positiv(ity).

When I go to the JobCentre to have my dole signed off, I’m not thinking, “I hope my advisor will be nice to me today.”  I am cheerful and courteous regardless of her attitude towards me. Whether I’ve been having an amazing day or I’ve accidentally stepped on stinking dog poo on the way to the JobCentre, I’ve got enough sense of humour left to share in case anyone’s having a tough day.

Compare the two perspectives below.

  • Thoughts of lack: I’m so poor I can’t even spare £1 let alone £3. The homeless may not have a roof over their heads but I may lose my roof soon too, so my situation is just as dire, why should I help. I don’t have. I may lose. It’ll be taken away from me.
  • vs. Thoughts of sufficiency: I didn’t buy ice-cream. I have £3 to give away. I made someone happy today. I’m happy too. I have. You need it more than me. You can have mine, there’s enough.
  • Thoughts of lack: I’m unemployed = I need everyone to have compassion for me = I’m not in a position to give compassion to others = how come you’re not feeling sorry for me?!  I don’t have a job, money nor status; I feel like a nobody, poor poor me.
  • vs. Thoughts of sufficiency: I’m unemployed = yay, new opportunity in life = I’m compassionate and understanding = who can I offer my compassion to today? I suffer, therefore I understand your suffering. I have compassion. How can I help? 

Can you see the difference? When your perspective is one that focusses on having maybe not much but certainly enough, the power’s back in your hands. You’re not waiting to receive anything from anyone (except your benefit payment..) and looking for opportunities to give what you have enough of: money, security, love, kindness, compassion. When you’re in “give mode”, you don’t feel life (with all its hardships) is happening to you but that you’re in charge of your destiny, making life happen through you.

Try starting each day with a prayer of gratitude even before you get out of bed. You can address it to God, Jesus, Allah, Buddah, a dead relative, Tinker Bell or your teddy bear depending on your faith or lack thereof; it makes no difference as long as you actually feel grateful in your heart.

Be thankful for what you know you have but also for what is still to come. By thanking rather than pleading/asking as in traditional prayers, you’re not allowing any doubt to creep into your mind that these things will happen: “Thank you, Tinker Bell, for the new exciting job coming my way, which will be aligned with my values. Thank you for the material abundance it will bring me. Thank you for the opportunities it will give me to fully express who I really am. Amen.”

Unemployment give us all the reasons in the world to be miserable: no job, no money, no dignity. No ice-cream in my case. Depressing JobCentre appointments. Yet when I choose to be what Maya Angelou called “a rainbow in somebody’s cloud“, like magic, a rainbow dissipates my own clouds… I can see clearly again.

Try it. You too may come to the conclusion there are greater pleasures in life than eating ice-cream on your own.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Back on the Dole

Yikes! The unthinkable happened: the merciless axe of redundancy came crashing down on my neck, and I found myself back on the dole queue last month.

The unexpected loss of a job, as opposed to when I had willingly left the job in the past, had the effect of a knockdown punch. I was so numb for days, I couldn’t even understand why my best friend was frantically calling Unite to ask about emergency membership for me while accusing me of being “too Japanese” in not fighting back and standing up for my rights.

I wasn’t being deliberately passive. I needed time to process what had just happened and what that meant in terms of my future. Ranting, swearing, crying, none of these emotive behaviours would help bring what I most needed – clarity. In crisis situations I tend to switch to a zen mode where I say little, remain impassive and allow the turmoil to settle.

Most importantly, I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I’m old enough to know in this life shit happens. A lot. These are the so-called “little deaths”: the end of a relationship, the termination of a job, a financial loss. Most humans don’t cope well with endings of any kind, but we are more resilient than we think, and life has an uncanny way of always working out in the end…if only we can bring ourselves to trust its natural process.

Signing on for Jobseeker’s Allowance is a drag, of course, but it’s the price you pay for the privilege of receiving £73.10/week (if you are age 25 or older; otherwise £57.90/week) in unemployment benefits. Unlike in 2009-2010, when I was last unemployed, all new claim registrations can now be done online, except when the site tells you it can’t be completed online, and you need to call the JobCentre anyway.

Whereas previously you had to handwrite the action points you took to look for work in a paper booklet, you now set up an online account on Universal Jobmatch, where you can upload your CV, look for and apply for jobs and type in your jobseeking activities daily, which your advisor then checks to authorise payment of your JSA every fortnight.

Upon losing your job the best favour you can do to yourself is to stay pragmatic. You may be upset or angry but ranting about it to all your friends, getting smashed, or kicking your dog (no animal cruelty please!) are not going to bring your job back. Think survival of the most practical and promptly take the necessary steps to claim what is yours by right if you’ve been contributing National Insurance for the past two tax years.

  1. Sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance as soon as possible. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) rarely accepts backdating your claim

I made that mistake. I waited for the outcome of an interview I had in the early days after I stopped working, hoping I might get the job and not even need to claim JSA. I subsequently signed on and asked for the claim to be backdated to the day after my last pay as an employee, but the request was bluntly declined. The letter from the DWP simply said: “…the law contains a list of specific reasons that allow claims to be backdated. We can only backdate your claim if the reason you did not claim earlier is on the list.”

What law? What list? I searched online and on http://www.gov.uk for the aforementioned list, but could find no list nor an explanation on the law governing this arbitration. The letter invited me to call or write if I disagreed or wanted further explanation on the decision, so I phoned. “Being available for work and actively looking for work is not one of the reasons we can accept for backdating,” they said. I asked them for an example of an acceptable reason, and where was the “list” mentioned in the letter? “We don’t have to give you any reasons, only tell you that we can’t accept your reason.”

This sounded too arbitrary for such an important decision that can affect the livelihood of an incomeless person. On visiting the JobCentre this week, I asked my advisor if a backdating request was ever accepted. “It happens very seldom”, she said, “and only if the jobseeker refrained from making an earlier claim because they already had a job offer, which was then retracted for some reason”. I can only conclude it is a lame way of saying, we never let you backdate, but we need to be seen as offering you the opportunity to ask. Red tape. Conclusion: don’t bank on backdated claims; they are fiction. Instead, sign on fast. (How to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance)

2. The “waiting days” have been increased in October 2014 from three to seven days. This means you’ll not be paid for the first seven days of your claim.

For instance, if your claim started on 21/11/2016, you would not be paid for the period between 21st and 27th November. I also asked my advisor why the DWP withholds payment on those days. “It’s the law” she said. “Waiting days” is then a misnomer. They might as well re-name it “waiting for Godot” since nothing ever arrives.

As the festive season approaches and job ads start drying up, I notice the not-coming-out-from-under-the-duvet days start to outnumber the I’m-going-to-kick-ass days. Emails from friends go unresponded for weeks, as my brain is at overcapacity and can’t digest what they’re saying. My social life has disappeared because eating out is out of the question and “drinks before Christmas” is a cruel joke. In a couple of weeks I’ll also be turning off Facebook, closing my curtains, and stocking up on St. John’s Wort. Needless to say, no Christmas cards this year.

Trying to keep upbeat when your future is so uncertain burns up far more energy than going to work everyday knowing exactly when your next payday is. I’m constantly fatigued and overwhelmed these days.

When what we perceive as “bad fortune” descends, perspective is the key to survival. You can either be a sorry victim of your circumstances or the creator of a brilliant reality by staying focussed on the things that matter. But what are they?

In the next few posts I’ll be sharing tips that have kept me from losing my marbles.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Musings on commuting and sleep deprivation

Earlier this month I read an article about chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group’s extended sick leave, which turned out to be stress-related. In the interview with the Evening Standard, Antonio Harta-Osorio talks about his battle with insomnia and says:

“I understand now why they use sleep deprivation to torture prisoners.”

Well, so do I.

Unlike the Lloyds boss, stress does not keep me awake at night, but living in the south coast and  working in Central London, I spend at least four hours a day on trains, and the amount of free time left within any 24 hours is so limited, I am constantly torn between sleeping more and doing less or sleeping less and doing more (of what I want to do when I am not at work), while risking total burnout and a desperate craving for even 30 seconds of shuteye anywhere….sitting, standing, even walking.

Two months into my new full-time job in London, life could not be have turned out more different from my days of unemployment, enforced idleness and ‘escapist’ oversleeping.

My day starts at 5.50am for catching the 7am service into London. In the evening, due to train delays and poorer train connections, I am rarely home before 8pm.

It is not unusual for me to be eating dinner at 9.30pm. With a few hours added of winding down and personal work time afterwards,  I am lucky if I can get eight hours’ sleep over two days.

Forty winks on the go
The sleep I miss during the night I try to make up for on my homebound train.

In the first few weeks, as an unpractised novice, I barely managed 10 minutes of light catnapping, before being woken by the conductor checking tickets or someone sitting down next to me. As I learned to relax more, the catnap got extended to a 20-minute uninterrupted snooze, then 30 (the conductor must have given up on me!). I am now able to expertly delve into deep sleep for 50 minutes to one hour and wake up feeling re-energised.

While comparing notes on our commutes and respective lack of sleep, a journalist friend, who travels to his office in west London from Brighton, told me he had become “quite anal” about tracking his sleeping habits and had been using an app called Sleepbot, which logs data and analyses your sleep…with stats and graphs.

Being  presented with a personal ‘sleep infographic’ showing  how awful my sleeping habits are might serve as a mild motivator to go to bed earlier, but in reality, the more stressed I am, the longer I need to stay up in order to feel I have had some quality me-time before calling it a day.

Some people find slumping in front of the telly helps relax, others may prefer to read or listen to music. I am addicted to my emails and my social networking sites, so online is where I go to unwind.

Balance
One of my biggest frustrations right now is not being able to find the time to blog, when writing is the activity that most brings me joy. Between blogging and sleeping I’d choose blogging every time. But until someone invents a pill that can replace sleeping time, sleep deprivation will always get me in the end.

Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to fatigue, impair your brain function and cause weight loss or gain. I once read that when you are tired for not having had enough sleep, your body craves carbohydrates and sugars for the energy boost they can provide. No wonder I snack so much during the day.

Even at the cost of becoming a little bit stupider, fatter and uglier with ever growing dark circles under my eyes and a constantly bloated face, I can’t help pushing my body to carry on with minimum sleep and maximum achievement, and not only in my professional life.

When just travelling to and back from work takes up so much time and energy, where do you find the time to pursue your non-work activities f0r that perfect work-personal life balance?

How do you enrich your daily life when your everyday is so time poor? If you know the solution, please let me know.

Super efficiency
In contract to the slumbering mode on my journey home, I feel driven and motivated on the train into work.  I discovered that checking my (work) emails on the morning commute with a laptop and dongle is very efficient and gives me a sense of achievement. This, I find, is also the perfect time to revise my to-do lists. By the time I arrive in the office, I have already replied a few emails and set the priorities for the day.

How to keep more focussed and productive during the day despite distractions and interruptions is an issue I am still grappling with. Ideally, I would like to get so organised, I’d have the time and head space to write short blog posts during my lunch break, purely for pleasure, to be continued after dinner in the evening.

On the occasional down days, when I feel I can no longer bear the commute, I remind myself  of the alternative: I could be back in that dark hole called unemployment, where there is abundant time for sleep but no light at the end of the tunnel.

Tablets or teleportation?
I find solace in the the thought that I am not alone in this daily struggle. The vast majority of passengers on my morning and evening trains are long-distance commuters, who live in the south coast because they cannot afford a London home. We are united in our shared exhaustion and our sleep-deprived stupor.

For the amount of money I fork out every month on travel cards to Southern Railway – one of my colleagues rents a room in London for less than my train fare – one would expect seats to be fully reclinable with a complimentary pillow and blanket for an optimum sleeping experience.

My sleep obsessed Brighton friend says that if there is a company developing matter transportation he will buy shares in it. So will I. Teleportation Star Trek style is definitely the way forward.

That or a sleep replacement pill.

5 Comments

Filed under Coping, Long-distance commuting

There is more to life than unemployment misery, says a letter from the Thatcher era

Last weekend I unearthed a most wonderful piece a 25-year-old unemployed young woman sent as a letter to the Guardian in 1985, mid-Thatcher era, and which the author recently reproduced in her blog.

Even though it was written 26 years ago, the content is as relevant as if it had been penned this morning.

Fed up with getting nowhere with job hunting through the JobCentre, Kim Blake Baker decides to stop looking for work and, instead, spend her days writing novels on an “ancient borrowed typewriter”.  For that, she becomes a much happier person, who is interested in and enjoys life.

Her insight into the devastating effects of long-term unemployment is surprisingly mature for a young lady. She talks about the impact of long-term unemployment not only on those who suffer its effects directly, but also on the next of kin: the parents’ sense of helplessness, marriages that crack under the strain of financial stress,  even children feeling guilty about birthdays and Christmases.

In the meantime rejections to job applications pile up, despair increases by the day, while everyone labels you a benefit scrounger… Nothing changes.

Baker, now 51, proved by example that there IS an alternative to the endless pursuit of misery. Her letter provoked a “furore”, and “sackloads of letters” came pouring through her door (this was pre-email times) in response. One person “someone reported [her] to the DHSS (the current Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)) for not actively looking for work”…

Baker says in her letter:

“[…] there is an alternative. By refusing to accept the ‘work ethic’, which is not the same thing as ‘a day’s work for a day’s pay’, which measures a person’s total worth in terms of whether he or she works at all, you can stop the rot. If you accept that continually chasing non-existent jobs is harming you, and that by not doing it you can be a healthier and happier person – and have time to devote to whatever it is you would really like to do, be it brewing homemade beer, or reading, or gardening, or learning judo – then you can start to respect and value yourself again. You can truthfully tell yourself that it is not your fault that you do not have a job; you have tried and it did not work out. That too is not your fault.”

Her comment about the government of the time still rings true:

“The last thing that the Britain of the 1980s needs is a government without understanding, without vision, and without even the most superficial regard for large sections of its populace.”

Whether it is actually feasible for the unemployed to follow in Baker’s footsteps in 2011, and be successful, is a debate for another day, but her chutzpah and her resilience in the face of hardship filled me with inspiration and pride.

Kim Baker, I give thee a standing ovation.

Read Kim’s blog in full here.

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Lessons from life on the dole: your job is not your ID

“So…what do you do?” In an age of soaring unemployment and people struggling to find any work at all, nothing can kill conversation as promptly as this seemingly innocent question.

I had a good share of those when I was on the dole. It made me start avoiding all social gatherings requiring self introductions, or I’d attend, but stick with people I knew, carefully avoiding eye contact with strangers. 

Having been unemployed for a long time, I can relate to that sinking feeling you get when, upon revealing your jobless status, the enquirer suddenly changes the subject of the conversation, or worse, they swiftly switch their attention to someone else who does have a job they can talk about. 

Columnist Oliver Burkeman wrote in a Guardian magazine that, in troubled economic times, the question ‘what do you do’ “is far more likely to draw attention to the fact that someone’s out of a job, or tolerating one they’re not proud of”.  I couldn’t agree more. 

“What do you do?” is no longer an icebreaker; it is a humiliator, a self-esteem destroyer. How do you explain to someone your occupation is….to look for an occupation? And why do we feel so guilty about it? No wonder there are so many sociophobes among the jobless.

Yet people can’t get out of the habit of asking it. Have you ever scanned delegate badges at a conference, looking for “the right” people to talk to? We feel compelled to classify and label people to increase our chances of associating ourselves with the right crowd. We need to know where we stand in relation to them, whether they have anything to offer us, anything in common with us. 

Being a terrible liar, when asked, I usually told people I was a “freelance journalist”, which is not entirely untrue, as I am NCTJ qualfied and am regularly involved in several journalistic activities. But the next question always tripped me up:  “What type of freelance journalism do you do?” “One that does not pay and keeps me going to the JobCentre”….is what I was tempted to reply.

There is no denying our job titles pigeonhole us into some type of definition of us as people. Think about how differently you react when someone has just told you they are a doctor (“must be educated and knowledgeable, wealthy”), or an actor (“never heard of you so you must be unknown and therefore poor, probably waits tables to supplement income”) or an accountant (erm…fill this space yourself).

We are going through the worst recession the world has seen since World War II, and many highly educated professionals can be found driving buses, stacking shelves or cleaning toilets in order to feed the family because they aren’t enough jobs in their field. There is no room for misplaced pride in the age of austerity. You do what you can in order to survive. But can people accept that? Can the unemployed accept it themselves?

During my many months of unemployment, I came to realise how much of my identity is defined by what I do as a job. Because without one, I felt like a nobody, I felt embarrassed and ashamed, as if I no longer deserved a place in society. 

The sentiment behind the stock answer: “I am between jobs” is like an apology on a train’s PA system: “We are very sorry for the interruption to your service. Normal service will resume shortly.” Like train services, we don’t actually know when normality will resume.

If losing a job blurs the borders that delineate who we are as people, if we can then no longer be defined by association with a profession, I wonder whether we should not use that time to reassess who we really are when we are not playing roles described on business cards.

I now have a job again, at least for the next few months, and a job title I can proudly announce when asked what I do. The irony is: I no longer identify myself with my title. That alone may have been the most valuable lesson I took away from life on the dole. Having experienced first-hand how transient jobs can be (here one day, gone the next), I now don’t take titles nor jobs for granted.

The new me is “dedicated but detached”, a healthy balance, come to think of it, for someone who has been overcommitted to work all her life.

I am no longer enamoured with concepts such as “career”, “promotion”, “progression”. I am, of course, immensely grateful for my current job, but what I do is not what I am, nor necessarily what I want to be remembered as when I die.

No experience, however mundane, teaches us nothing. Unemployment has taught me my real value lies in what I have to offer as a person, the things I can see and understand beyond the job, exactly because I am not blinded by the false security of one.

It is quite a nirvana. 

Do you have a lesson to share too?

6 Comments

Filed under Unemployment

Off the dole; what next?

I squealed with delight when the P45 form finally arrived in the post from HM Revenue & Customs, confirming my long awaited news: the JobCentre had officially sacked me.

In other words, I am off the dole. Off to a part-time freelance job.

Bizarre as it may seem, while you are claiming any benefits during uenmployment, the JobCentre Plus is technically your employer, the employer of the unemployed. Once you are off their books, you are “fired”, you get your P45.

And what a pleasurable dismissal it was too.

Signing off
On my last sign-on day, my amiable personal adviser Dennis greeted me with his usual enthusiasm: “How are you this morning, Mrs Elliott?” In keeping with our fortnightly routine, he moaned a little about the pain on his frozen shoulder while typing into the computer and preparing papers for me to sign.

“Oh dear. Is your shoulder still bothering you?” I asked, as sympathetically as I could, trying not to betray my glee at the prospect of never having to attend a  sign-on appointment again.

For once, the JobCentre didn’t feel like a dreadful place. I was actually glad to be there, glad to see Dennis, glad to talk about the hundreds of jobs I had applied for and didn’t get.

It is funny how drastically one’s mental status can colour the glasses through which you see the world. The security guard had smiled when I handed in my “dole book”, my latest personal adviser was friendly and helpful, even the JobCentre manager had shown a wacky sense of humour: a short time ago I had noticed the advisers at my local JobCentre were seated in clusters of two, with a sign above each pair named Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello… That’s right – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Whether this was meant to entertain glum jobseekers or provide comic relief to their own staff from the drudgery of their jobs, I do not know, but I appreciated their attempt at humour when there is so little for the jobless to be amused about.

Random acts of kindness
My adviser made a note of all the information he needed for closing down my jobseeker file and asked to keep the protective plastic pocket into which I used slip my “dole book” – the government had cut their supply to JobCentres.

Then he stretched his hand and wished me good luck.

“Thank you. Thank you for all your help,” I said.

“That’s what we’re here for,” he replied.

“I hope your shoulder will get better soon.”

I must have been grinning like an idiot as I exited the building. As I walked past reception, T., who had once snapped at me for arriving too early for an appointment, stopped chatting to the security guard to say goodbye. I saw both their eyes were smiling too.

Later a friend left a hilarious comment on my Facebook page: “You should have screamed ‘cowabunga!’ before somersaulting out the window like a true ninja turtle…”

I laughed, but I felt the panic rising inside. What exactly was I somersaulting into?

Expressions such as “career dreams” and “professional aspirations” have now left my lexicon…I am no longer unemployed, yet not fully employed, living in a vacuum I struggle to describe, where all that matters is food on the table, heating for the winter and a little spare cash to buy a present or two for Christmas.

Having only just left the dole queue, it feels as if I am already standing in line again at the back of another long queue. Where it will lead me I do not yet know, I’m afraid of knowing.

3 Comments

Filed under Unemployment

The blog that made me ‘come out’ as a closet depressive

Last week there was a change in my fate: I was offered a three-day-a-week sales job locally, starting at the end of the month. It is miles away from what I had envisaged as a longer-term profession but it will help tidy me over nicely, while I wait for a more permanent and career-boosting opportunity to arise.

In my mind I am still unemployed, but in practice, I can finally sign off the JobCentre, which is almost enough reason to celebrate.

Later, at home, as I busied myself telling the good news to all and sundry on Facebook and Twitter, I saw a friend had sent me the link to a blog post by Bristol-based unemployed journalist Steven Baxter. It was one of those amazing serendipitous moments. Once I opened the link, I instantly knew it was all meant to be.

I read Steve’s blog and cried like a baby. All the anger, the frustration, the sadness and despair that had been festering inside me  for the past seven months came spewing out in one massive flood of tears and emptied me of all the heavy weight I had been carrying around on my shoulders for so long.

It occurred to me it was the first time in months I was crying at all.

Woman on the verge
Only the previous day, I had googled “nervous breakdown” and was dismayed to find out I could tick almost every single item on the symptoms checklist. I had been having inexplicable outbursts of anger, unable to cope with the simplest domestic tasks without injuring myself and screaming my head off each time, partly in pain, partly as a desperate cry for attention… Worst of all, my behaviour pattern reminded me of someone I knew well from my childhood: my own mother.

My mother was an intelligent, ambitious woman, good at languages. Before she married, she had dreamed of becoming a career woman but my father was an old-school Japanese man and would not allow her to work. She was forced into a lifetime of domestic slavery and her frustration at being stuck at home, as I am now, led her to several nervous breakdowns when I was a child. I remember them vividly: the constant screaming and hostility, the hysterical crying, objects flying about in the living-room followed by days in bed shunning the entire family, completely indifferent to the world.

It frightened me to think I could be becoming the kind of woman I had dreaded turning into all my life…

The D-word
I devoured every word on Steve’s blog with the emotional craving of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Every question Steve had asked himself, every thought and every emotion he describes in his blog I had had too. He had translated into words sentiments that had been tormenting me for months but I had not dared express in public because I was concerned about the risks to my employability. What if a prospective employer saw my blog and found me too psychologically unbalanced and unfit for work?

Steve, however, with disarming honesty, goes on to admit on a very public platform that he is on anti-depressants, 40mg to be exact, and gives two fingers to any employers who may find out and object.

“The weeks of not having work have felt like a heavy load. Sometimes it’s felt like disappointment, and sometimes it’s felt like despair. Sometimes it has just felt OK, like nothing, like a glass of water, and that’s probably the most dangerous feeling of all: the time it feels all right to be like this is the time to worry. This isn’t all right. This isn’t good enough. This isn’t what I should be doing. I should be doing something – anything – rather than this. But mainly it has felt sad and dispiriting. I am a little broken.”

His candid words liberated me. Thanks to Steve, I am no longer afraid to share with all who care to read this that, in the past few months, I too have been receiving regular counselling (but not drugs) for what the GP diagnosed as ‘moderate to severe depression’ – a direct consequence of being jobless for so long for the second time in three years.

I am sure I am not the only person, unemployed or not, suffering from this very common condition. But I also know that, unless you have experienced it, you may not be fully aware of what depression actually means (see video at end of this post).

It means your sleep patterns are disrupted, you are constantly exhausted, your zest for life gone, as if the lights in your house were being put out one by one. Women may find their menstrual cycle has gone haywire. Maybe you constantly have digestive problems. You may have panic attacks or feel extremely uncomfortable in social situations, so you avoid meeting your friends; you may feel you are not in control, that each task on your to-do list seems so overwhelming, it can take you weeks or months to complete – if at all.

Depression incapacitates you because, in trying to cope with the extreme stress, your brain and your body slow you down to a halt.

I had promised people I’d write blog posts for them (sorry, Shirley), or do the copy for their website (sorry, Pete), that I’d write an article after I interviewed them (sorry, Glenn), I’d respond to an email query (sorry, Ben). Although I am not one to to promise and not keep my word, I have been pathetically unable to accomplish ANY of those things. I let everyone down, including myself.

You may be a high achiever but currently you feel like an underachiever; you are paranoid people are judging you, labelling you as lazy and incapable, when, in reality, you are simply too unwell to get out of bed in the morning. Some days you may be too down to write a job application letter but some people, even your immediate family, may suggest you’re not finding work because you’re not applying for enough jobs and ‘what do you do with all that free time during the day anyway?’ You know that is not true, but your self-esteem is so low, after so many job rejections and what not, you don’t bother to explain, in fact you are not even sure you are not actually a total failure…

Well, the good news is: it is perfectly okay to feel like that. If you recognise some or all of the signs above, embrace them, own them. Acceptance is the first big step towards healing.

Coming Out
I love the Japanese expression‘kokoro ga arawareru‘. It translates as ‘the soul/spirit gets cleansed’ and it perfectly describes how I felt that day. The cry I had after reading Steve’s blog cleansed my soul of all the resentment I had been harbouring for months. I felt every single ball of pain inside me explode, then dissolve, until there were no more knots left.

It felt so good to know I wasn’t alone where I was.

We feel bad about feeling bad because there is a social stigma associated with depression and all mental health issues. It is almost like a homosexual “coming out”, done with trepidation, unsure of who will accept and who will not.

Unless you are a celebrity like Stephen Fry, whom no one would dare call unfit for work despite his bipolar disorder, admitting you are so low you need medical help can make people nervous. Perhaps you are hiding too?

Bitter Pill
The UK government has just released the latest ONS unemployment figures: 2.51 million without a job, an increase of 80,000 in the three months to July 2011. Last May the think tank IPPR had already reported that 850,000 people had been unemployed for more than 12 months, the highest figure since 1997.

How many of those are feeling the same way as me, or Steven Baxter, or worse and are terrified to say “me too”, afraid to ask for help, confused about where to go for help?

With the upcoming part-time job, I feel slightly more upbeat, less anxious, and definitely less angry, but I still have some way to go until I am completely back to being my old  self.

While I mend, my sincere hope is that this blog, like Steve’s, can inspire others in a similar situation to open up and share without fear of prejudice, to form a community where people will encourage one another not to give in. It may not help you get a job, but it might serve as a little respite from the bitter pill of unemployment. Or your own 40mg.

Dr. John Hague explains the difference between having a bad day and being depressed.

Links that may be useful if you think you may be depressed

  1. Depression self-assessment test – NHS
  2. Depression self-assessment test – Psychology Today
  3. Self-help and coping tips for Depression from Helpguide.org
  4. Understanding depression – Mind

19 Comments

Filed under Coping

Reach for the Skype: tackling a job interview on webcam

In the past few weeks, at least two of my jobhunting friends have had interviews on Skype, from the comfort of their own homes. 

The Internet made video conferences and web chats possible across all geographical and time zones at the click of a button, so why not hire people that way too? An interview on Skype saves travel time and cost, and it fits in nicely with the Internet-centric, borderless world we live in.

But are there pitfalls we should be aware of?

Anita Isalska, who has just started a new career as a freelance writer/editor, guest blogs below about her recent experience of a Skype interview and shares some tips. 

Excited as I am about my decision to go freelance, I recently saw an advert for a full-time job I couldn’t ignore. An exciting company, a sterling copywriter role, and way out of my league. Applying for the role felt as wistful and hopeless as faxing a love letter to Angelina Jolie, so I was delighted to be offered an interview a couple of weeks ago.

My surprise was matched by dismay when I learned the interview would be conducted on Skype.

Job interviews by Skype, where a face-to-face meeting is replaced by a webcam beaming into your bedroom, are becoming more common in an increasingly global culture. In my case, the company was overseas, looking to start a new UK office and recruit local staff in advance, but many aspirational jobseekers are also looking for their dream jobs in sunnier (or perhaps snowier) climes.

The jobseeker and interviewer could be thousands of miles apart, but Skype trumps an impersonal phone interview by allowing the candidate to demonstrate their personability and professionalism over the webcam. I had never experienced an interview in this form before, but it made the world feel a little smaller: what’s to stop me from looking beyond London’s grey skyline for jobs in Paris, New York, Melbourne?

Dream destinations aside, if Skype interviews become common practice, jobseekers looking for employment further than their hometown (as the government recommends) won’t have to choose between train tickets they can barely afford, and a potential telling-off at the Job Centre if they try to claim transport allowance.

But even the most seasoned interviewee faces new challenges when interviewing by Skype, as you’re not only showcasing yourself and your skills. Assuming you’re interviewing from your home computer (as I did), you’re also putting your interview success at the mercy of your internet connection, as well as giving the interviewer a window into your interior decoration tastes. For me, preparing for a Skype interview was much more than dusting down the sofa and replacing my horror movie collection with a shelf of Tolstoy.

Here’s how I avoided the pitfalls of the remote interview.

1. Warn your family and flatmates.

Simply mentioning that I had an interview was not enough: I pinned a notice on my door, nagged my housemates to tiptoe, and begged them not to imperil the internet connection by downloading Family Guy during my interview hour. A Skype interview can be interrupted by anything from the loud thrum of a washing machine to a well-meaning housemate looking for his shoes. Temporary internet glitches, or your hubby in his bathrobe accidentally wandering within view, may not be fatal to the interview but it will leave you flustered and ensure you’re remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Spare yourself the palpitations by giving your loved ones plenty of warning.

2. Dress as if you’re attending in person.

An interview by Skype is not an excuse to wear your slippers. Granted, the interviewer will only see the view you’ve chosen for your webcam, usually just your face and shoulders. But my posture radiated confidence when I discarded my jeans and smartened up.

3. Groom as if you’re going to a photoshoot.

Webcams have a diabolical way of turning healthy glowing skin into distracting shine (and for the gents, a five o’clock shadow into a grubby-looking beard). Don’t just check the mirror, check how you look on the webcam. If neutralising those shadows or toning down the shine mean extra make-up, a different hairstyle, or adjusting the lights, don’t hesitate: because you’re worth it.

Experiment with the lighting in your room too: I found the window behind me created glare, and the position of the lamp gave me an unwanted halo. A desk lamp pointing towards my face produced a much better result, making me appear brighter (and whitewashing my many imperfections, as an added bonus).

4. Tidy the entire room.

Don’t just clear the area behind you — if the interviewer asks you to adjust the webcam because of the lighting, you don’t want to be fretting that the pile of pizza boxes you swept away has now come into view.

Be aware that aspects of your personality are on display, which could make your job application somewhat ironic. “Would you say you work well with people?” they might ask, spotting your collection of Jack the Ripper biographies. “I’d definitely describe myself as the sociable type,” you nod earnestly, as the framed photo of you dirty dancing with a man in a toga at a university party comes into view.

5. Be time-zone aware.

An early-morning interview with an Australian company may leave you struggling to stay awake, but the interviewer is in the middle of his or her working afternoon, and will expect you to be similarly alert. Wake up at least an hour before the interview, to shower, breakfast, and knock back a coffee. It will be painfully obvious if you’ve just crawled out of bed, so resist the urge to cut corners for an extra few minutes’ sleep. You may not be tempted by a pre-interview 5am scrub-down with Original Source Mint shower gel, the lathery equivalent of an electric shock, but it did give me a vigorous wake-up call.

6. Imagine you’re a newscaster.

My only experience with Skype before the interview was chatting to my boyfriend when one of us was out of the country. Most of these exchanges involved energetic waving, and hesitation over whether to look at the screen or the webcam lens. Have a practice run where you channel Natasha Kaplinsky: focus on the camera, to give the impression of eye contact, while glancing back to the screen quickly every few seconds to check how your interviewer is reacting.

A practice run is invaluable to get this balance right, as you’ll be tempted to fixate on your pores, that weird thing you do with your mouth, and the angles that make you look slimmer. Iron these out in your practice run so you can concentrate on the interviewer, not your appearance.

7. Take advantage of crib notes.

Unlike a face-to-face interview where shuffling through notes would be a disastrous faux pas, artfully taping a Post-it note to the edge of your monitor can be a saving grace for the Skype interviewee. If there’s a question that makes your memory go blank, jot a considered answer onto a Post-it. (I wanted to prepare for the dreaded “what are your biggest weaknesses” question, which luckily they didn’t ask.)

This can be particularly helpful if there’s something you need to phrase with care, such as a gap in employment, a very short time spent at your last job, or a dramatic career-change. A quick look at the Post-it will seem like a thoughtful sidelong glance to the interviewer, while allowing you a quick reminder of your rehearsed answer. But don’t crowd your screen with notes as constant, distracted sideward looks will give the game away.

So did it work for me? After a tense couple of weeks of silence (during which I assumed I had failed and tried to erase the memories), I have now been called for another interview, this time in person. Mood lighting and Post-it notes won’t save me this time, but at least I won’t have to worry about men in pyjamas making a cameo appearance.

Anita Isalska is a freelancer who edits and writes on food and speciality diets, travel, finance and corporate law. She also writes a travel blog at http://wanderingfordistraction.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lunarsynthesis.

Have you also experienced a Skype interview? What worked for you and what didn’t? Add your own anecdote or tip in the comments below.

5 Comments

Filed under Interviews