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Last week, I wrote about how my coworkers treated my vacation “Out of Office” message as if it were not there. Communication kept crashing into my inbox — the way you see a bad guy speed through construction barrier after construction barrier in a Hollywood police chase, zero fucks given. I continually received emails with subjects “URGENT REPLY NEEDED ASAP,” “PLEASE CALL,” and most infuriating, “Last Question, promise ;)”
When the email assault was not responded to in a timely enough manner, my phone began to receive a steady stream of texts and calls. Unbeknownst to my office, I happened to be getting married (eloping) during this particular “vacation.” My point in the article was that it shouldn’t effing matter — getting married or not — “Out of Office” means “Eff off.”
As I sifted through the all of the posted comments and personal emails I received (if someone takes time to thoughtfully comment on something I’ve written, I do my best to see they get a response — no matter what), some large themes jumped out at me.
This is common. Really common. Too common. Depressingly common.
I heard from readers who missed family weddings, were harassed during bereavement, texted with requests for shift coverage (while the vacationed abroad), had their management suddenly decide Saturday was to be a regular work day (in addition to the five-day work week), forced to stay to finish a client project as their wife went into labor, and finally, were in labor themselves — work laptop in the delivery room.
May, who works in B2B marketing, received tragic news last month that a close family member had passed away. She took a week off work with assurances from upper management that she could “take as much time as she needed.” She set her out-of-office message apprising clients and coworkers of the situation and headed to her family’s home state.
No sooner than the arrival of the sympathy card with accompanying floral arrangement at the family’s home did her phone begin to buzz with new assignments from the very coworkers who had assured her to “take as much time as you need.” May said:
In the midst of an emotional roller coaster, here I was glued to my phone reading every email I received in efforts to keep tabs on my accounts and be a ‘team player.’ The founders of my agency sent me flowers and notes and assured me to take all the time I needed, but ironically it was somehow OK that my teams were hounding me with emails. I KNEW the piles of timely work I had left unfinished were piling up (untouched by my ‘team’). I broke down feeling as though I was failing because I was unable to manage life and work. At the same time, I was angry that none of my team had stepped in to help.
Eventually, May broke free, but it wasn’t because her office came to understand that their behavior was extremely inappropriate. A rational and intelligent young woman, May turned to locking her laptop in a closet. She had to create a physical barrier to her work in order to gain some emotional freedom from the situation.
And then there was Sarah. Sarah’s husband works as a roofer. She went into labor three weeks early with their second child two months ago on a late-July afternoon. He was in the middle of finishing a job. When he called his supervisor to excuse himself to get to the hospital, he was told he couldn’t leave the customer with a hole in their roof, and that they couldn’t pull a coworker off of another job to cover and that it wasn’t the company’s responsibility to call someone on in on their day off and pay the overtime to replace him on the job. He was scheduled to work that day, and it was his responsibility to finish the day’s work.
Thankfully, Sarah’s husband arrived about eight minutes before the birth of their daughter. $270 speeding ticket in hand.
I felt the ultimate example was Jayme. Pressured to work 12-14 hour days right up until the day she went into labor, she was actively giving birth as she fielded work emails from her laptop in the delivery room.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
The second biggest question I got was, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” There are several people who assured me they “wouldn’t take that kinda shit.” And would “tell them to fuck off” and “quit on the spot.” Their strident assuredness reminded my husband of this Richard Pryor sketch.
When it’s not actually your norm, it is easier to detach and bolster about what you would do — in any situation.
For everyone else who does not experience this level of encroachment on their time by their work, I say I am glad you have an office where this is not the culture. You may also be a certified boundaries master — good for you. (And I sincerely mean that. Boundary-setting is a vital life skill that eludes many people for their entire lives.) It seems we can likely rule out “it’s fun and gives my life purpose” as a reason for allowing the office to bust in at any time like Kool-Aid. Matt writes:
Some nights, depending on what is going on, I am unable to enjoy my evenings, and instead spend most of my mental energy trying to prevent the feeling I get in the pit from my stomach from thinking about work from overtaking me entirely.”
May, the bereaved woman, continued in her email:
“The work environment is so competitive for our generation — uncertainty fuels chaos and we forget to take care of ourselves.”
I graduated in 2008. I saw friends who had signed offers months before graduation lose their jobs three weeks into their start date. They had keys to New York City apartment in hand, committed to a year-long lease, piles of student loan debt (saddled with credit card debt from the move), furnishing the apartment, and suitable business formal attire. Many felt hopeless and trapped. Many were unable to simply turn to mom and dad for a bail out or a place to crash because their own parents had downsized to an apartment and/or taken their own strict measures to recoup their own financial losses.
Enter a whole lotta radical self-reliance. The class of 2015 is the most indebted class ever. According to the Wall Street Journal:
The average class of 2015 graduate with student-loan debt will have to pay back a little more than $35,000, according to an analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Edvisors, a group of websites about planning and paying for college. Even adjusted for inflation, that’s still more than twice the amount borrowers had to pay back two decades earlier.
This record amount of debt (plus the months or years many millennials have spent unemployed or under-employed because of the recession) makes ample back-up savings as much of a fantasy for many of us as taking an enchanted ride on Falkor. As a result, we cling to “good jobs” with benefits and generous salaries for dear life and race to the bottom of the barrel to show we are the “best” in a highly competitive environment-staking whatever it takes.
When in survival mode, wellbeing quickly falls off the priority list.
Jayme, who was writing code between contractions, felt the pressure to not miss a minute because she was up for a promotion that would have made a huge financial difference for her family and for the future of her unborn child. She felt she already had a “strike against her” for being pregnant after some passive-aggressive behavior from colleagues and was trying to show that she could “make up for it.” Dan, another dad in the delivery room who was still connected to the office explained that he was brand new and trying to make a good impression.
The truth is, offices do reward this kind of behavior. As one reader commented, when their coworker was announced employee of the month, one of his accolades was how he dialed into conference calls while on vacation. Often panned as lazy, millennials may actually be the hungriest and hardest-working generation there is. Previous generations knew adult life before email, the 24-hour news cycle, and the resulting continual work day. We do not. Employers seem to benefit from that.
Another motivation is personal pressure. However, this personal pressure rarely exists in a vacuum. The workplace culture often contributes. When I posted the original piece, someone commented posting a GIF from one of my favorite movies, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In this GIF, Peter sings to himself about going to a psychiatrist. I believe the poster’s intention was to be acerbic and possibly purposefully insulting, however, I can tell you that going to a therapist was eventually what helped me the most in shifting my perspective about the workplace.
After my wedding, things at my employer actually worsened when it came to time and boundaries. I sat home on New Year’s while my husband traveled to Philadelphia to enjoy the annual Mummers Parade with friends and family. I found myself caring less about my favorite holiday and, instead, more so looking forward to using the time “catch up on work” and for once feel ahead instead of reactive.
Two weeks later, during Martin Luther King weekend, we had dear friends visiting. Once again, I skipped the much anticipated Wizards games and the Trouble Funk concert (let alone our friends’ company) to catch up on work.
A few weeks after that, I decided it was enough. I bought a coconut, put my negative energy into it, and smashed the fucker over and over again in a plastic bag against the back of my townhouse. Yeah, I can get a little new-agey and weird.
In that place, I felt “what was good for me” was not quality time with friends and family, it was to be ahead on my work. As I initially said, a huge part of that was the (critically ill) company culture, and immense social pressure. However, we do need to take some personal responsibility. If you are beginning to feel your job is eclipsing all else, I highly recommend therapy or checking out Workaholics Anonymous (or both).
“Workaholism” is a legitimate condition in which the sufferer has an uncontrollable desire to compulsively work. Like any addiction, the cause can be rooted in depression or seeking a form of escapism. If you think this is you, take a moment to look at this questionnaire put out by Workaholics Anonymous and seek professional help.
I do realize though some employers just do not respond to or accept boundaries and you’re faced with a quandary. In the end, the only real way out of it for me was to quit — therapy is what helped me realize that and make my better aligned next step. Mine was to becoming an entrepreneur. Who knows what yours could be?
Okay, so how did we get here?
I think by now we all agree that overwork is a huge issue in contemporary America. In 1926, shortly after being one of the first to adopt a forty-hour workweek for his employees, Henry Ford declared, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” Manufacturers all over the country, and soon the world, followed suit. Today, 40-hour work weeks are still legally considered “full time.” However, a recent Gallup survey found that of the more than 1,200 adults surveyed, 21 percent said they worked 50 to 59 hours while 18 percent said they worked 60 or more. Another 11 percent estimated 41 to 49 hours.
However, in the late 1700’s, Benjamin Franklin predicted we’d work a 4-hour week. In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour workweek by 1985 and a 14-hour work week by 2000. We kind of went the other way on that one.
Personally speaking, a huge contributor at my previous job was being understaffed for the sake of cost savings. Our upper-management and ownership made it clear that they never wanted to have to lay anyone off as they did during the down turn, yet — business had increased drastically. We had too many projects and tasks and too few people. Evaporating personal time was not the only issue. During group meetings, everyone in my department often brought their laptop with them to work right through the presentation of an important vendor or fellow team member in order to “keep up.” As a result, we’d all miss a great deal of vital content. So much for productivity.
We know the impact of overwork is terrible for us, why does work week continue to grow its octopus tentacles? First, there is the adage that “hard work equals more money.” However, a 2015 survey from Ernst & Young states:
Employees report that their responsibilities at work have increased while wages have largely stayed flat. And while technologies like company-provided smartphones and remote-work software have bought workers some flexibility, they also keep ‘people tied to work seven days a week’.
Then there’s the double-edged sword of technology. My uncle loves it because it allows him to answer emails from his kayak without taking a vacation day, yet it acts as a tether. It gives your employer constant access without paying you a cent more. Additionally, the study covers globalization as a reason.
There really isn’t any downtime any longer where people could sign off for the day and be done.
You can be done for the day but it will be morning in China and you need to be responsive to that. China, LA, London. Take your choice of what is going to mess with your schedule.
So, what do we do?
We invite Dee Snider and the rest of Twisted Sister out of retirement to storm our offices and perform “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” then we charge their fee and take them out to beers on our company AmEx. Here is their agent. Start booking.
Next, here is what I am doing/plan to do to watch out for my personal time boundaries in our new tech-heavy, globally interdependent world.
Communicate. The last thing your employer likely wants to do is lose you. It will take a long time, cost a lot of money, and be really fucking annoying in general to replace you (hell, maybe they even like you). If the culture is eroding your soul, speak up. It may not get you everything you want, but could start some important wheels turning. If you are interviewing, do not be afraid to ask some candid questions of current employees (not HR), about the culture — keep you bullshit meter handy. Do not be afraid to get specific.
Treat others how you want to be treated. My kayaking uncle has a wonderful saying, “Your lack of planning is not my fire drill.” He does not answer meeting invites for morning meetings sent at 11 p.m. nor does he reply to “URGENT” emails at 6 a.m. Try to avoid doing this to your coworkers if you do not want it done to you.
Don’t feed the beast. Try not to play the game. Skip the bragging masked as commiserating group huddle about how late everyone worked/how busy their upcoming day is.
Establish boundaries. I know this is hard, especially if your office culture ignores them. Start by dipping your toe in. Try no emails after 8 p.m. If that is met negatively, see number one. If that fails, commence your job search.
Good luck out there, everyone. If you find a strategy that improves your situation, let us know. .
Image via Shutterstock