Small Life, Slow Life: Overworked? Underpaid? You’re Not Alone. {Link}

Illustration: Mark Matcho

Feeling wrung out? It’s not just you. {Illustration: Mark Matcho}

I read a fantastic article a few days ago and just had to write about it, since it hit so close to home in terms of what I experienced in my last job.

Tell me if this sounds like you:

You haven’t gotten a raise (or may have even taken a paycut), but your list of responsibilities seems to be growing. You get emails at night and over the weekend that you’re expected to answer. You’ve stopped taking lunch (and 10 minute breaks? What are those, anyway?) and scarf your food at your desk. Your company let workers go, and you were expected to absorb their responsibilities without an increase in pay. Your boss says she needs more. The vibe at work is tense. Sunday nights feel like mini-tragedies as you imagine the week ahead of you.

This all happened to me, too. In my last job, I ran an office that easily needed two or three people working to accomplish everything I did. I never took breaks, never left the office for a walk, and worked tons of unpaid overtime. Still, my boss seemed unhappy, reminding me that the girl I’d replaced got more done than I did. Eventually, completely exhausted and resentful, I quit.

Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffrey’s recent article, “All Work and No Pay: The Great Speedup” articulated this phenomenon better I’d seen it elsewhere. It is an absolute must-read.

Mind racing at 4 a.m.? Guiltily realizing you’ve been only half-listening to your child for the past hour? Checking work email at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed? Dreading once-pleasant diversions, like dinner with friends, as just one more thing on your to-do list?

Guess what: It’s not you. These might seem like personal problems—and certainly, the pharmaceutical industry is happy to perpetuate that notion—but they’re really economic problems. 

Bauerlein and Jeffrey outline the ways Americans have been overworked and underpaid for the last several years. Despite people calling this a “tough economy,” corporate profits are near pre-recession levels. And yet we work harder for less than we ever had before.

In all the chatter about our “jobless recovery,” how often does someone explain the simple feat by which this is actually accomplished? US productivity increased twice as fast in 2009 as it had in 2008, and twice as fast again in 2010: workforce down, output up, and voilá! No wonder corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute. To repeat: Up. Twenty-two. Percent.

When I returned from Japan, I knew it was a tough job market and that I might expect to take a paycut. I had no idea that it meant that after months of job searching, I’d end up accepting work for a wage I’d made in high school, with no benefits, sick time, vacation time or paid overtime. My boss broke tons of labor laws, but no one who has worked for her in the last few years has complained – they all feel really lucky to even have a job, just as I did.

Luck runs out quick. In less than two months, I’d become so miserable that I often cried for no reason several times a week. I snapped at my boyfriend and gracefully bowed out of time promised to my friends, feeling too exhausted to even manage a smile at the end of the day. I’m amazed I made it as long as I did. So many of my friends are in the same situation, it doesn’t seem like an oddity to be completely depressed about work anymore.

“If energy were currency,” I told my friend Marianne before I quit my job, “it’s like I only have $100 a day per day to spend, and $95 gets spent at work. Once I’m home, I don’t even want to talk to anyone. Forget the energy to cook, exercise or socialize.” She nodded her head vigorously in agreement. At her job, droves of employees have either left of their own accord or been laid off, and she’s been expected to take on several of their roles.

This will keep up as long as we buy into three fallacies: One, that to feel crushed by debilitating workloads is a personal failing. Two, that it’s just your company or industry struggling—when in fact what’s happening to hotel maids and sales clerks is also happening to project managers, engineers, and doctors. Three, that there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

So what can you do about it?

Tell your boss that you are available to him every hour during the workweek, but for your own productivity and peace of mind, you are going to take your lunch break. You will answer emails and calls during the workweek, but weekends are time spent with your family and completing other obligations. Tell him you love your job, but that you’re intent on finding a healthy work/life balance. This is absolutely necessary if you want to have a healthy relationship to your job and increase your personal freedom. Learn to draw boundaries, babe.

Of course, you may not get the reaction you’re hoping for. When I told my boss what I needed, she was livid. She reminded me that she’d spent twenty years growing her business and that she needed me to continue to come in early (this came in a text at 11:30pm). When I reminded her that even Wal-Mart employees get paid overtime for more than eight hours worked during a day, she lost it.

It stung to have her angry with me. And yet, I could no longer turn back. I’d compromised too much.

Look, getting approval from your boss is nice. But if we’re wanting to live a smaller, slower life – is that approval for doing a 50 or 60 hour workweek really getting you there? And if you’re told to put up with the way things are, don’t you think it’s worth investigating how you can rearrange your life to support your personal freedom?

I thought it was. And let me tell you: I succeeded. I researched and was hired at a company that doesn’t encourage more than six hours worked in a day. “Full time” is considered 32 hours a week. Employees work out together, have excellent benefits and generous sick/vacation time. These companies might be rare, but I can promise you that they’re out there.

In your next interview, explain how important life balance is to you. Ask what the company policy is on hours worked and if employees are expected to answer emails or calls over the weekend. Remember: you are interviewing them just as they are interviewing you. Set up healthy boundaries from the beginning.

You might feel stuck, but you never are.

{Link: All Work and No Pay: The Great Speedup}

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