My husband Aaron and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary. I look back on the weekend we were married with so many fond memories. And, as is typical with happy occasions, even the annoyances are coated with rosy hindsight. The late and rude Uber driver resulted in the creation of our impromptu silly wedding hashtag (#MoussaSucks) and the unseasonably frigid Chicago afternoon added humorous irony during our outdoor ceremony when our celebrant mentioned, “we’d no longer feel cold.” The mud at Riot Fest from all the rain earlier in the weekend blew our plans to shoot our photos at the music festival as we so looked forward to. But, on our way back from the ceremony, our amazing photographer Candice Cusic spotted the rockin’ David Bowie exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and we took our striking (and later award-winning) wedding photos.
However, there is one irksome occurrence that I cannot paint with my “All’s Well That End’s Well” happy brush.
I was bombarded with work email during my entire wedding weekend. And when I didn’t respond in a timely enough manner? One coworker turned to blowing up my cell phone with incessant texting and calling.
When we arrived in Chicago the Thursday prior to our Saturday wedding, Aaron and I nearly missed our window to dive into the Cook County Clerk’s office to get our marriage license in the allotted time. Why? Emails with subject lines from clients and coworkers reading “URGENT REPLY NEEDED ASAP.” When the emails from these senders were met with my out-of-office reminding them of the vacation they were well aware of, follow-up emails and pings were sent to my cell phone entreating me “Hey, I know you’re on vacation but, xyz, abc, PLEASE. It will take just a minute! Thanks!”
Multiply this by multiple clients and multiple projects, and we’ve got a problem.
Thankfully, we ended up getting our license in the knick of time. Crisis averted.
The next day, Friday, Aaron and I took a run through Lincoln Park to scout our ceremony location for the next day. It started to pour, and we sought refuge in the Lincoln Park Zoo. Safe from moisture, I reflexively took out my phone to check messages. My beloved, hardworking, and earnest coordinator had emailed that she’d be offline for just a bit while she dealt with the police. A man had just broken into her apartment as she worked from home alone. She narrowly escaped a violent robbery and assault.
But she’ll be offline for “just a few hours” and “will make up any hours over the weekend!”
Our wedding came the next day, but judging by what dominated my email and text notifications, it seemed more like the day belonged to a community event one of my projects was hosting. The amazing photographer snapped the above image as I checked my phone for what I promised her “would be the last time” before getting into my wedding dress.
How did we get here? Why does a 24-year-old woman who is minutes off a traumatizing experience feel the need to take care her employer’s needs first and promise to “make it up to them over the weekend” before the police have even finished questioning her?
I eloped, and only my immediate boss in my office knew what I was up to that particular weekend (for the record, she only texted me to say, “Have a Great Weekend!”). However, when did we start steamrolling over “out of office” notifications, vacations, and weekends as if they did not exist? Does it matter what the fuck I choose to do on my vacation? Getting married, attending a wedding, watching Netflix for four days — your time off is your time off to do just that: “be off.” There shouldn’t be a sliding scale of validity.
We have become so self-important with our “little pieces” that we ping coworkers on much-needed breaks to “Please just do MY own thing! It will only take a second!”
Why did I continue to answer? Social pressure, the “I have to” feeling. I felt that constant connectivity and immediate responsiveness is what “good” employees at this firm did — vacation or not. My bosses responded to emails while on vacation. It must be what they expect down the chain too, right? I wanted privacy my wedding weekend, and I didn’t feel the need to reply with “LEAVE ME ALONE; I’M GETTING MARRIED” and compromise that privacy in order to just catch a break.
I came back to the office the following Tuesday to the sweetest reception. I loved the people I worked with, but there is no doubt that “constantly on” was a mindset that we were all encouraged to adopt — especially in our department. Their pings and clamoring for responses were not them trying to bug me on vacation to be mean, but rather stemmed from a top-down, client-driven mindset — everyone felt the pressure.
I purposefully took my honeymoon months later around the Christmas holiday hoping volume would die down. It did, and setting the explicit expectation of “honeymoon” instead of just “vacation” helped some coworkers and clients adjust their expectations and timetables.
But then comes the fear of getting behind on email. So then starts the ever-present search for WiFi.
In January, my new boss took an extended family trip to Asia. We had a pretty serious pow-wow on our little team that going forward we were really going to unplug on vacation and not answer email. And she didn’t! An inspiration to us all! My new boss returned after her trip and announced she’d no longer be taking her laptop home at night. She had realized on her trip full of uninterrupted family time that life was too short to “go back online” every single night after a ten-hour day at the office. She encouraged the rest of our team to do the same.
We wondered how long it last.
We knew it wouldn’t.
It was less than a week.
Flash forward to this summer where I now own my own business. I was calling a potential client to follow up on something and got his voicemail. I was stunned by the last line on the recording: “If it is after 6 p.m., I am with my family.”
I love this! What brazen boundary-setting! Who are you?! I like you! But, is this man really a renegade? Or is he the one who is actually the “better” worker?
Recent studies would say it’s the latter. A study by Stanford University earlier this year shows that employees are less effective after the 50 hours per week mark. Yet, all of us current (and recovering) “work martyrs” still give HOURS of (non overtime-paid) work to our employers — because it’s our impression that THAT is productivity.
Okay, so these extra hours do not mean more for the company’s bottom line, but do we FEEL better about ourselves as a result?
Nope. The CDC has an entire website dedicated to the risks posed from overwork.
Do you feel your company is too big or too important? Volkswagen turns off email servers 30 minutes prior to the end of employee’s shifts, and they do not come on again until 30 minutes prior to the start of the work day. Granted this is in Germany only, but it’s a step in the right direction from another work-hard culture.
Back to those catch-up emails. Do they really need your real-time attention or your stale follow-up upon your return? Daimler, another German automaker, encourages employees to set their emails to automatically delete while they’re on vacation (relevant communication will go to team members).
So it doesn’t make the company more money, it doesn’t increase productivity, it isn’t good for our self-esteem, and it’s not necessary for a company to stay afloat. So WHY do we do it? Why does “proving” you can work on vacation, through a crisis, or a significant family event seem to mean admittance to some elusive cool kids club?
I am happy to be with the Soho Dolls with this one, and declare in that case “I’m Not Cool.”
I should have never had to tell anyone what I was doing on my vacation. My client should not have to explain what he’s doing after 6 p.m. if he doesn’t answer your call. It doesn’t matter, and it’s not anyone’s business.
Breaks make us better people. And I’m cool with that. I’d like to challenge anyone reading this to try a fifty-hour work week. Is it even culturally possible for us? I for one, am curious..
Image via Candice C. Cusic