Beyond a boundary
December 10, 2013 4:52 PM   Subscribe

We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom.
posted by latkes (23 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

Protip: The world's graves are full of indispensable people academics.

Sez someone who will have worked a 14h day today, and yes, is you guessed it, an academic.
posted by lalochezia at 5:31 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have an incredible amount of sympathy for the author - it’s a story I’ve heard a few too many times. I’m living through my own variation right now.

I'm a self-employed professional. I’ve worked 19 years in my chosen industry, the past 4 under my own flag. Last week, I informed my primary client that, come the new year, I'll be working an enforced 20-hour week. Why? Because over the past four years, I've kept no boundaries - and done so under the delusion of ‘professional freedom’. I’ve effectively been on-call 18 hours a day, 7 days a week: 'because everyone does it, because it's what you do to get by'.

The net result has been a severe aggravation of an existing mental health issue, taking me into psychiatry and medication for the first time in, gosh, 20 years. Even time taken off has been an exercise in message-checking and email monitoring, and the continually compounding stress has left me incapable of dealing with even normal, small problems.

But that's the 'big' problem. Smaller problems include: wearing 1-month contact lenses for over a year because the last 4 optometry appointments have been cancelled; cancelling my last 2 dentist appointments because something was ‘urgent’; working through sickness and not making appointments with the doctor because ‘we’re sorry, but it’s vital the client has this on her desk tomorrow morning’.

And, as a self employed professional, the insult added to injury is that much of the on-call time isn’t even chargeable; you can cancel all your appointments, spend the entire week in a froth and somehow still come out the other end with only 20 billable hours.

Take care of yourselves, people. Or someone else will end up doing it for you.
posted by not the fingers, not the fingers at 5:37 PM on December 10, 2013 [21 favorites]

A former boss once said to me that I should work overtime as a new hire, because I was still hourly and could collect overtime, and because the corporation liked to see people work 50-60 hours a week. "My boss commented that you never seem all that busy, and he wants his workers to be busy." Granted, my work habits at the time were not prompt, but I was still being asked to bring work home when I had time to finish it at work.

I've seen my parents stress out because of work. My dad worked for the same company for 15+ years and was laid off because they could replace him with younger, cheaper labor. I learned at an early age that working beyond one's means or boundaries bleeds into other areas of your life, and the company may, at any point, decide you no longer fit.

I've since left the aforementioned job (which wasn't bad, but I outgrew it and did not like that expectation) for a position in which I was told "We expect you to work hard when you're here, but everyone leaves at 4:30 and nobody takes their laptop home." I wish I had developed better work habits earlier to help honor this rare opportunity; I think the pressure to overwork influenced me to linger around until late hours to appear "hard working", but in reality, I was surfing the web to kill time until that later hour. Unfortunately, it seems that work-life separation is the exception.
posted by Turkey Glue at 5:39 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

When I tell people I don't check work emails after 5:00pm on weekdays and not at all on weekends, they are generally aghast that I could or would do such a thing. I assure them that, given the field I work in, very nearly nothing is so important that it can't wait until the next workday morning.

Even my co-workers find this perspective revelatory: that, to set boundaries, one must actually set boundaries and stick to them. Granted, I work in a field and specific workplace where I can do that, but I think that many workers could improve their quality of life both away from and at work by judging what boundaries for their time and energy are reasonable and acceptable in that workplace, and then enforcing them.
posted by LooseFilter at 5:49 PM on December 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

Organize a union in your workplace. Until you do, the bosses will laugh as we race one another to the bottom.

I like the IWW (as my username might suggest), as they're the most democratic and serious about worker self-management.
posted by wobdev at 6:23 PM on December 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

LooseFilter: The labor movement slang for this is Job Conditioning.
posted by wobdev at 6:25 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Unions are not a panacea, but at least it gives you some countermeasures.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:30 PM on December 10, 2013

I've worked 12 years at the same place and have seen dozens of people leave. Without exception, two weeks after they left it was like they'd never been there at all. One day that will be me, no matter how hard I work.
posted by Sebmojo at 7:01 PM on December 10, 2013 [31 favorites]

I have a professional job that I find enormously rewarding, it's important work, I enjoy it, and I am paid handsomely (or at least comfortably). It also demands 60 hours a week of me, including many weekends, some holidays, and the occasional all nighter. I would trade it in an instant -- in an *instant* -- for virtually anything that could guarantee 6 hours of work a day, 5 days a week. As long as I could ensure some kind of housing and food for my family. I'd flip burgers, sort mail, shit I'd probably dump motor oil into rivers, as long as no one ever asked me to do it one second after 3pm.

My wife is in the same field except more academic than me. I just couldn't manage it. After the kids are in bed, I might be lucky enough to turn on TV for 20 minutes. She just opens her laptop and keeps working on her upcoming talk.
posted by Random Person at 7:09 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh look, another article about academia that makes me glad I never went to grad school. Another win for laziness! And fear. And fatigue. And self-doubt. And depression....
posted by maryr at 7:36 PM on December 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

One thing that drives me nuts about this is that (at least in grad school) nobody cares how much you actually get done, they just want to you work crazy hours. I got hassled for not working weekends and evenings during my master's, despite collecting so much data that I couldn't incorporate it all into my thesis, which ended up being 160 pages long (to be fair I took an extra semester, but that was much more about not realizing how long it took to actually write a thesis and starting it during the fifth semester).

A lot of the problem is when people start building up overwork as a laudable thing and a goal unto itself, rather than being concerned with things actually getting done. Even if you love your job, you shouldn't want to do it to the exclusion of everything else, unless it's the only thing you love (and if so, you need to get away from your job more than anyone).
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:53 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry, that was overly dismissive of me. I like to make myself feel better for not challenging myself.

I don't seem to be very sympathetic today. This article is mostly making me want to point out that over-working and over-scheduling is not unique to academia - but I do understand that most academic disciplines really do not reward those efforts the same way that many businesses and fields do. But there's a lot in here that's flipping a 'check your privilege' switch for me which isn't really fair to the author. Especially since I get to take advantage of that same privilege without the stress of teaching or publish/perish. So I'll step back. Sorry for the dismissiveness.
posted by maryr at 8:11 PM on December 10, 2013

My dad was a pipefitter and my mother was a part-time bank teller. They were both in (private-sector) unions, they both had benefits and paid vacation time, and never worked overtime unless they chose to (and got paid extra to do so). They sent three kids to college and university and retired early. All on middle-class wages.

I have a feeling that when I tell my young nieces and nephews about their grandparents' working lives, it will sound like science fiction to them.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:21 PM on December 10, 2013 [29 favorites]

Ah, yes. Right now I'm teaching five sections of English courses with 35 student apiece, with no TAs (by my calculations, I will grade approximately 2000 assignments this semester, maybe slightly fewer). With what time I have left, I've thrown myself into artistic extracurriculars; three music groups and evaluating play submissions, so that "life" is as fast-paced as "work." I think I would probably get things done more efficiently if grading time wasn't theoretically anytime, and so I put down my pen at 7 or 8 instead of 3am. I figured my days of pulling an all-nighter before an exam were over when I graduated, but I did one yesterday before giving one to 130 students. I probably set a terrible example by sometimes responding to student emails very late into the night. This morning I had a student ask where the marks were for the essay exam that 130 students had written FEWER THAN 24 HOURS BEFORE. I'm not sure from where he thought the grading robots were going to appear.
posted by ilana at 8:57 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Working unpaid overtime was a defining factor of why I left private sector law. Not working until 8 or 9 at night was considered weakness. Even leaving the office at 6 when you'd run out of work was not kosher; you would just try to look busy until you could leave without criticism or silent judgment.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:32 PM on December 10, 2013

Guy at the office just got diagnosed with cancer, and sends out an email that he'll be out most of the week for chemo, but he'll be working on the weekend to make up for it. Christ.
posted by Joe Chip at 9:56 PM on December 10, 2013 [12 favorites]

Man, this rings so true to me, as a professor myself.

Just in the past year or two, I've managed to impose a 40-hour week on myself. I am in a lucky enough position to do so -- I am in the Australian system, with good worker protections and a saner academic culture, I'm on a fellowship so I don't have that much teaching, and I have tenure. But I made choices that got me here: for instance, I decided to forego even trying to find a job in the US, despite being American and getting my PhD from a very good American university.

Yet in spite of those choices and this fortunate situation, it was very very difficult to fight the internal pressure to constantly be working more-more-more, and to measure my worth by my productivity. Very difficult. I still struggle sometimes.

Nevertheless, I've learned two things from this.

1. Self-limiting like this is one of the best choices I've ever made. Sure, I probably will not be one of my field's biggest big-shots; I'm not going to be the sort of person who they write a chapter about in an intro textbook. But I am a real part of all of the details of my son's life. I am a relaxed and better partner. My marriage is stronger. I take the time to go on vacations, to visit the beach, to go on walks and literally smell the flowers without constantly feeling an inner timer ticking down in my head, or constantly mentally reviewing my To-Do list. I've been there when my son took his first steps and will be there when he says his first word. If I have another kid, which is not unthinkable, I'll be a real part of that kid's life too. This tradeoff is completely worth it.

2. Surprisingly, this has hurt my productivity way less than I thought it would. I got very good at saying "no" to the rubbish tasks, usually administrative, that pile up and get in the way of real research, so I do a lot less of that. It also turns out that being happy and getting enough sleep means I'm actually much more efficient with the hours I do put in. I have slightly fewer students, but not many. I would say the number of papers I have produced is somewhat less, but the quality is no worse, and is perhaps even marginally better. Having the time and mental space to think actually pays some dividends.

The hardest part is facing (or being afraid of facing) the silent judgment from people who know I work "so little." That, and not paying attention to the inner voice that still insists I should be working more. But I'm getting better at both of these things.

I just wish more people were in a position to be able to attain this kind of balance. I made good choices, but I've also been incredibly lucky.
posted by forza at 2:54 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Brad Delong once said that tenured professors are the closest thing that the US has to landed gentry, and I think he was right. That the price of that life is to commit oneself wholeheartedly to an ideal of pedagogical and scholarly endeavor has always seemed to be the point, to me. The problem comes when you ask for the same devotion but withdraw the brass ring, which is the world 2/3 of US faculty inhabit: no tenure, no promise of tenure, and a lower-middle class wage for those same 60 and 70 hour weeks.

This article made me want to look at jobs is Australia. Monash is hiring in my field; anyone know it?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:29 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I knew a freelance IT guy whose motto was, "Your crisis is not my problem." Callouts, emergencies, fluster and panic - he did not partake in them, and if he did deign to make a site visit/consultation etc out of his normal hours, he would charge a truly eye-watering, basically punitive fee.

Admittedly he was surely in a very priveleged position to be able to do this compared to a lot of other freelancers, being an expert in various outdated/obsolete types of system, and he could often be a little obnoxiously smug about it. But when I have to deal with similar issues myself I often think back to him, because he really seemed to have his shit worked out.
posted by Drexen at 5:26 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Going off of Wobdev's excelent link to Job Conditioning, here's some more resources in the form of twitter accounts that might help motivate you to realize your potential at work.

posted by rebent at 7:07 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Anotherpanacea:This article made me want to look at jobs is Australia. Monash is hiring in my field; anyone know it?

It's the home of linguist Keith Allan, a clear thinker and excellent writer. I refer to his two-volume Linguistic Meaning often.

Also, I believe Monash was a pioneer in non-traditional, off-campus, and distance education.
posted by Herodios at 8:38 AM on December 11, 2013

As written by not the fingers, not the fingers, last night:

Take care of yourselves, people. Or someone else will end up doing it for you.

I think that's the best advice I've seen all year. Thanks for writing that.
posted by math at 10:12 AM on December 11, 2013

Monash is an excellent university.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:36 AM on December 11, 2013

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