“Maite, you must have a ton of spoons!” someone told me the other day, after hearing about my day-to-day work/personal life. No, I don’t have a ‘thing’ about cutlery; they were talking about Spoon Theory.
Developed by Christine Miserandino in 2003, she used spoons to explain what it’s like living with chronic illness, using one spoon to represent one unit of mental or physical energy needed to complete everyday tasks. When you’ve used up all your spoons, there is no more energy left do anything else. The theory’s popularity has grown to cover not just chronic illness but also to explain the challenges those with mental illness, disabilities and neurodiversity face trying to get through everyday activities with limited energy (being spoon deficient).
Most of us don’t ever stop to think about whether we will have enough mental or physical energy to get us through a day
We don’t have to. We’re lucky we can take our energy levels for granted and race through each day, juggling multiple priorities at home and at work. However, we should be more mindful of the energy we need and use.
In the market research industry, we’re experts at juggling – so many clients with differing needs, so many simultaneous projects to set up and manage, fieldwork to complete, data to analyse, debriefs to deliver, fast turnarounds, tight deadlines, ever-changing priorities, ever-changing minds, things that go to plan, others that don’t… the list goes on and on. Long hours, heavy workloads, tight deadlines and increasing demands on our time and energy have become the industry norm. ‘Circus-level juggling skills’, ‘extreme executive function’ and ‘endless spoons’ should be shown as essential skills on job ads for market researchers! We need a huge volume of spoons to deal with our research workloads, often at the expense of our personal lives.
We have lives to live outside of market research - as parents, partners, carers, friends
How many times have you felt your work/life balance is out of kilter? How many times have you felt exhausted, stressed, guilty that you’re compromising your loved ones’ needs over your work commitments?
As the parent of two neurodivergent children, I have always been acutely aware of the challenges they face by being spoon deficient without ever thinking about my own spoon levels. Till 2021 when my dad had a stroke. I spent many months living with my parents as a carer, helping them adjust to living with my dad’s disability where even the simplest daily task was now impossible for him without our help. All the while, I continued to juggle my work with round-the-clock care, supporting my parents and my children through their own challenges. Making time for me was bottom of the priority mountain.
The physical demands of 24/7 care is tough. The emotional strain is tougher. As the weeks and months rolled on, it felt overwhelming. At times I even wondered if I would have to leave my life in Leeds behind to move back to my hometown permanently; whether I might even have to give up the job I love.
It really didn’t feel like I had enough spoons each day
Throughout, my Boxclever colleagues, my boss and my clients were amazing in their emotional and practical support. Many companies talk of a good work/life balance, but these aren’t empty words at Boxclever; there is a genuine passion to make that balance a reality for all who work there, and it made all the difference to me in those darkest days.
The ad hoc nature of research projects makes our work unpredictable. As an industry we want to attract, nurture, support and retain great talent. Companies can and should help keep workloads manageable, reduce stress, physical or mental health issues, and avoid burnout. How? With good resourcing levels, recruiting well ahead of workload crises, having detailed forward-planning, having honest client/agency discussions about what is essential or feasible, and giving staff the autonomy to say ‘no’. And we all need to take responsibility ourselves for monitoring our own energy levels to keep things in balance.
It takes a ton of spoons to juggle research work and personal lives. It’s easy to lose sight of how many spoons we need each day but we’re not superhumans with an infinite number of spoons. I no longer take for granted my physical or mental energy levels. Neither should you – keep an eye on your spoons!