Drainage Contractor

Features Guest Column U.K. Update
U.K. Update: Finding – and keeping – balance

I cannot complain, and I will not complain.

November 5, 2018  By Rob Burtonshaw

An exceedingly wet and loss-making spring – which stopped virtually all of our contracts dead, and had everyone talking about record rainfall – turned into the warmest and driest summer anyone can remember which caused lots of chatter about drought.

What’s more, autumn has been remarkably dry so far too, providing perfect conditions for installing pipe, which means profitable months. A terrible start was turned on its head and overall it has been a balanced year, albeit a strange one.

Maintaining balance and avoiding knee-jerk reactions is difficult, perhaps impossible, when so much is dependent upon something you cannot control. I need a double-sided motivational picture: on one side an optimistic message telling me to relax, things will change and it will be OK; and on the other side, a dose of reality reminding me the good times will end and to calm down and stop spending.

Our business is seasonal; like all contractors we have extreme peaks and troughs in our workload. By far, our busiest time of year is after harvest. If we had double the workforce we would still struggle to keep up, and by contrast in the winter we could manage half as many staff. It has been a problem for years and one that we have not been able to answer. I do not believe that hiring and firing people is an option. It is difficult to recruit and the last thing I want to do is do more of it. A well-trained, committed workforce is worth a hell of a lot and is something I spend a great deal of time trying to maintain and improve. Good short-term temporary or contract staff are almost impossible to find; so much so that it does not seem like an option. Trying to diversify and do something else in the winter has also failed in the past. We are willing to turn our hand to whatever we can, but many others have the same attitude, and competition can be strong. It is also difficult to commit to another venture when you only really need it for a few months of the year. Once again, it seems the solution is accepting the rough with the smooth, stomaching the losses during the winter to make profit in the summer. It all works out in the end.


Balance is also something I have to bear in mind with my home life. I’m lucky enough to have a wife and family. My children are still relatively young and take up a great deal of time. At this time of year it is easy to focus on work, to keep my head down and work longer and harder, to not switch off at home and always be on call, on the go and always thinking about the next contract. Easy it may be, but it does not help home life or work. I don’t want to give a false impression: I do fail sometimes but it is rare that I’m so late home that I miss my children’s bedtime. I’m often up earlier and miss seeing the children in the mornings but I try hard not to miss seeing them in the evenings.

Work does take over somewhat after harvest, but not in the winter. I take holidays, spend time away, and think of ways to help me forget about work when I’m not at work. Not only does this make me a better husband and father, but it helps the business too. Some people try to deny it, but the longer you work, the less efficient you are. Mistakes get made and focus gets lost. Holidays and time away are as important for the business as they are for home life.

There are no easy answers to maintaining balance in our job – whether it be work-life balance or juggling heavy and slow seasons. It’s not something you think that much about when running from one site to the next, desperately trying to keep the promise you made before the plow broke down. But maintaining balance and keeping all the wheels spinning – not just the one that is immediately in front of me – is one of my goals, and I encourage you to consider it too.

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