Written by Rosie Miles
When your job involves flying in helicopters, putting collars on darted lions and walking with wild cheetahs it’s hard to convince people that my job is not the most interesting thing about me.
For the most part, I only have a vague idea about what my friends who are outside of the conservation sector do for a living. My decades of working in the field mean my understanding of the real world is limited, so I can’t even begin to imagine what a normal day at work looks like for my friends that work in finance or systems management. This doesn’t mean I find them any less interesting people. I talk about them all the time – about all the other incredible things they do, like running ultramarathons, hosting podcasts, and making furniture for a hobby.
When it comes to my friends in the conservation industry, however, I find I talk a lot more about what projects they are working on. This is partly to do with the fact that I understand what my conservation friends do, their jobs are within my frame of reference, I understand the purpose and what activities that might involve day-to-day, and am genuinely interested in their work because it is a passion of mine.
But I think there is another factor at play – the fact that working in conservation can be all-encompassing. Particularly for those of us working in the field, a conservation job seems to (inevitably) involve working long and unsociable hours, in remote and isolated locations, for little to no pay. All these things combined leave us in a situation where we don’t have the time, energy, money or accessibility to do much of anything except our jobs. I fully acknowledge that there are many other industries where people are working long hours and for little pay (we can all sympathise with anyone working in the healthcare sector at the moment), but the majority of people go home at the end of their shift to a world that is outside of their work. For many field conservationists we live at work, with our colleagues, so there is no escape. The working day never actually ends.
Not only can this make us surprisingly boring people to be around because conversations at the dinner table often end up centring around work, but it’s also not good for mental health or productivity. Being able to step away from work not only allows you to refresh your body and mind, but also allows you to gain perspective and see what is important and achievable. Not letting your job define you, will ultimately make you a better conservationist.
Unfortunately, as this is not the industry norm, I have found it is down to me to set my own boundaries and be accountable for sticking to them. Whether that’s having separate work and personal phones, getting up an hour earlier to go for a run before everyone else is awake, or blocking out my calendar and putting an out-of-office message on for the days I am supposed to be off. At times I have been lucky enough to have a dog in camp and that gives me a great excuse to go for a walk at the same time each evening, demarcating the end of my working day (with the added bonus of fresh air, exercise and time to decompress). I once had a colleague that wore a t-shirt that said “Don’t talk to me, I am off” on the back – this might be a bit blunt for most, but it was an effective and humorous way of setting a clear boundary on her off days. Small things like this can easily be justified even for those in the early stages of their career where the confidence to stand up for yourself might not yet be there. The key is being consistent to ensure they become part of your routine and the routine of everyone else around you. People will quickly become accustomed to you going for a walk every day at 5 pm and anticipate that you will not be available at that time.
In an unexpected turn of events, Covid has actually made this easier for me. With the rest of the world being forced to live in isolation and have restricted accessibility to extra-curricular activities, everyone has gone online. Not only did I suddenly have social gatherings with non-conservationists to attend via Zoom, but I was also able to participate in online Pilates classes from my tent in the Kalahari desert. Having activities like these, with predefined timings and interactions with live humans that I am not working directly with, allowed me to have a life and a routine outside of work.
Having small, consistent activities work great for me in finding a work-life balance. But it doesn’t make me a much more interesting person beyond what I do for a living. So, I took the opportunity of Covid lockdowns to do something about that too. I signed up for an online writing course and wrote and published a book, called Girl of the Wild – Misadventures in the African Bush. Ok, so the book is still about the trials and tribulations of working in the African bush because that’s all I really know about. But writing it was the most cathartic distraction from work and has given me a sense of identity beyond my day-to-day job. I am now a published author as well as a conservationist and I have found most people outside of the conservation bubble can relate to me writing a book far better than my life in the wilds of Africa. I accept I am not going to have time to write a book every year, but because I enjoyed the process so much and the emotional reward of having my own book in my hands is so great, it has inspired me to continue working on side projects to keep my life interesting.
Being in my 40s and having (to at least some degree) established myself in the world of conservation, I arguably have more bargaining power to set my own boundaries. I certainly didn’t do that when I was younger and frequently burnt out and resented my job as a consequence. But this shouldn’t be the case. Every single person, no matter what stage of their career they are at, has the basic human right to have a life outside of work and will be a better – more effective, resilient, committed – employee as a result.
So, don’t give up your personal interests and hobbies in order to be a conservationist. Make time for them and you will be a better conservationist for it.