The irony of me writing this article is almost too much to bare. It’s 7pm on a Friday night. The studio is empty and I’ve still got 2 more articles to bust out before I can eat.

Sadly, this is nobody’s fault but my own. I manage my own hours so must take full responsibility for this latest cock up.

Last week, I worked very few hours at all. By Friday I had 165 unread emails. I stopped checking them on Wednesday. It was sunny, my children were home from school. I’m paying the price this week. It’s not necessarily right, but it is OK. I’m my own boss. I do the work, I pay the price.

I haven’t been someone’s employee for 7 years. I’m not terribly good at it. I don’t like working 9-5. I don’t like working Monday-Friday. Some days I’ll wake at 4am filled with bright ideas. Other days I’ll gaze, longingly at my phone for hours on end, producing nothing more than a Repetitive Strain Injury.

However, I remember my time as an employee with less than fond memories. I remember expectations being placed on my time that I felt powerless to reject. I remember working additional hours I wasn’t rewarded for and I remember making sacrifices to my home life that could never be replayed.
Presenteeism is a real problem for the creative industries. Kudos goes to the employee first in and last out every day. Many companies support this work culture, providing ‘free’ breakfasts and evening meals to those busy bees in early enough, and staying late enough to partake.

But when an 8 hour day suddenly spans 12 (or more if you stay for the ‘free’ after work drinks) you begin to lose all sense of balance. Work becomes your life and your life becomes non existent.

So what exactly should you do if your fun creative studio behaves more like a factory?

Sometimes it’s not all that easy to assess a company’s culture before you’re embedded. However, there are warning signs you should look out for. Agencies who are always advertising for staff are more likely to suffer from a high staff turnover than incredible growth. Bear in mind that this may not be your ‘forever job’ and keep your eyes peeled for your next step.

Sometimes agency culture can change overnight, to accommodate new client wins, or losses. If your agency is growing as rapidly as your working week; don’t be afraid to make your presence known. Now is not the time to fade into the background. New staff will be brought in, promotions will be made, do everything necessary to get your name on the tip of your boss’s tongue.

More complex is the situation where you are expected to work late to rectify a catastrophe. Warning bells should sound if you find yourself working on an unusually large number of pitches and tenders, or ‘self initiated projects,’ intended to bring your agency renewed industry attention. En masse, these are signs of a struggling business.

But what to do when you feel your agency and your chances of secure employment circling the drain. Fight it out? Put your heart and soul into every pitch or jump ship at the first chance?

Awareness is as important as preparedness in this situation. If your boss is looking to save money, your refusal to work late may be the impetus they need to give you the push. Don’t forget, it’s easier to find a job when you already have one. Suck it up and do the hours but get to work on your out of date portfolio and CV. It’s time to open up those options. Your late night brain storms might save the day and you’ll get to be the hero. They also may not and you’re going to need something new (and hopefully better) to jump straight into. Keep your eyes peeled for a disheveled, stressed out boss holding whispery meetings with the finance team. That may be the sign you need to up your hunt.

But don’t forget, regardless of the reason, you do have the option of refusing to work past your contracted hours. Packing up and switching off at 5pm sends a powerful message to the rest of your team, especially if your work for the preceding 8 hours is high quality. I have one friend whose marathon training became the inexcusable excuse she needed to get out of the office at 5 and home, training complete, 2 hours earlier every night.

Sometimes, having a life is all you need to protect your work life balance from creative industry time vampires.