Burn-out Culture is Winning

By Neva Knott

In my last post I asked myself and you why we work. I meant that to be a little series as I began a new job. Three months later, here I am, finally back at this blog. Ahem. All the little things…too tired when I get home, dogs to walk, dinner to cook, no internet in the break room at work so I can’t blog on my hour lunch. Don’t want to buy a coffee every day at Starbucks to sit there and write at lunch. Blahty, blah, blah. I hate this cycle. I hate how it affects me.

In my last post I cited Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American, which came out in the 1990s. As I re-read sections of the book, I witnessed my work life reality come to life on the page—and that of so many Americans, those of us who came to work life maturity in the age of globalization, NAFTA, the dismantling of pensions and the need for a two-income household. Those phrases fly by in the news, but little is done to connect them to the lived lives of most Americans.

We work and thereby live in a scarcity, fear-based culture that allows employers to take away any security and to ask for more, more, more. Even good companies do this—I know, I’ve worked for a few. And, I have seen, felt really, two of them change drastically from being very employee-centered to toxic.

Just after my last post, this was posted on Instagram by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton School, author, and TEDTalk-er.

“True commitment to work-life balance is giving people permission to take other priorities as seriously as their jobs. In burnout cultures, people are expected to drop everything for work. In healthy cultures, people are encouraged to protect time for family, health, and leisure.”

Grant and Schor are speaking of the same thing—people need time for leisure, which in this context is anything that is not paid work at your job.

I like to work. I’ve been doing it since I was 14 and had my first summer job, running the snack shack at the local baseball field. I am curious and a good job for me enacts that characteristic. The job I have now is pleasant—I have lovely co-workers, there is no toxicity to the environment, in general we are treated well, and for the work I do the pay isn’t bad. But the schedule…

OMG. The first month I regularly worked 6 days in a row with split days off. Even after that glitch was fixed by setting perimeters in the app, I regularly worked close to opens, or shifts in this order: Friday 12-9; Saturday 11-8; Sunday 10-6; Monday 9-5. Look closely at this progression and you’ll see that my time off between shifts decreased each day. I was living on this rotation of 10 hours a day committed to work (that includes my commute), eating and sleeping, getting up to get ready for work, working, eating and sleeping. With split days off it is impossible to do anything more than run errands. All my family is a day’s drive away to various points in the state. Getting out of town for any reason takes a good chunk of a drive. This is burn out culture.

I wasn’t able to negotiate a change and stay in my position, so I stepped out of leadership. Now there are 20 hours a week available to me on the schedule, lower pay, no benefits. But I took it. For the first time since switching careers b/c COVID, I feel like I have work/life balance, like I can breathe. Like I can live my life with my job as part of it.

Our culture needs to change, in many ways. This is just one. I don’t know the solution, though as I said above, across my work life time span, I have seen most of the structures that were hard won in the labor rights movement tumble.

Juliet Schor explains the mechanism of burn out culture and loss of leisure as the corporate focus on the bottom line, regardless of how earning profits affects the workforce. This has never made sense to me. Any quality study will tell you that happy, healthy workers are more productive and the company sees less turn-over. And it just makes plain sense that the more people working, the better the overall economy.

We said we were going to come out of the pandemic with new values, but have we?

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