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Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The pursuit of work–life balance


I remember the first time I had to study through the whole day, stopping only once I climbed into bed, defeated and dreading starting all over again the next day. I had been plagued by a particularly bothersome high school assignment for my least favourite subject, biology. It was the early noughties, and my household had no internet access; our only reference books comprised an outdated encyclopedia collection that pre-dated World War I. I particularly remember the intense dismay I felt at the knowledge that I wouldn't be able to play my recently acquired copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that night.

I've been teetering on a tightrope between work and life ever since. This has sometimes meant submerging myself in work for short, intense periods during university and postgraduate training, surfacing only for lunchtime ramen breaks and weekend woodland walks. Over the past few years, the work has been steadier, more constant, with time off apportioned and set aside. Still, while the demarcation between work and life has become more defined, full-time work has been uniquely draining. With noon starts and late-evening finishes that often bled into overtime in my copy-editing job, my days felt as though they were cloven into two, without enough hours left at either end to feel as though I had true mastery of my time.

The 40-hour work week has never felt natural to me (I've often felt that I'd be much more at home with Sweden's former 6-hour work days). The notion of having to spend my youth working to live comfortably in older age seems counter-productive, and the drive to 'live [only] for the weekend' feels wasteful. The spectre of work also has a nasty habit of hanging over what's left of the day. I've spoken to too many people who admit to crashing out on the couch after their work day, too depleted to manage much more than an oven meal and TV gameshow session before turning in. Likewise, spending my days at a desk looking at words on a screen (to explain my job badly) has made me somewhat averse to writing in my spare time, like an allergy developed from overexposure.

'Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living.' -- Kiki's Delivery Service

But, despite feeling fundamentally off balance, I reasoned that it would only be a short-term arrangement. I needed to establish myself in my role, I told myself. I needed to pay my dues, drudge in the short term to set myself up for the long term. My employer even dangled the promise of more standard hours once the business expanded and recruited more staff to share the load. So, hooked by the security of a full-time wage and wary of making any demands that might cast me as 'difficult', I settled.

A few months ago, however, the opposite happened: after deciding to spread the staff out across the hours more thinly to maximise coverage*, my shift was pushed to an even later time. It began to feel like my partner and I were living in two different time zones. Once I finished my shift, it was all we could do to snatch a couple of hours together before he went to bed. By the time I awoke the following morning, he had already left.

Disturbingly accurate.

I told myself that something needed to change. I started to consider the possibility of reducing or negotiating my hours, and, if given no choice, leaving. But I felt immobilised by fear. While UK employees have the right to request flexible working, I read that such requests are often frowned upon and viewed as a lack of commitment to the company, decreasing the employee's chances of receiving a pay rise or promotion. I felt like I should have a more concrete excuse, such as childcare or long-term illness, to justify my decision, as though mental well-being and spiritual balance didn't count. After all, people my age don't typically volunteer to earn less.

Worse still, what if my employer decided to hire someone more agreeable? What if I couldn't find something that paid as well or as well suited? I constantly discussed wanting to make a change, but kept finding inventive ways to procrastinate making the leap, like a deluded chain-smoker. After the busy Christmas period, I told myself. No, after New Year, or when I've finished my driving lessons. Against my better judgement, I persevered in a situation that was sapping my energy and joy. Because, on some level, I craved the safety of my work, despite the fact that I was allergic to it.

The turning point came when I explained my situation to a friend. Written down, my reasoning for holding off seemed weak and unconvincing, even to me. So I arranged a time to talk with my employer at the end of the week. Fully expecting resistance due to how small and understaffed my workplace is, I was surprised at how receptive they were to the proposal of part-time, earlier hours, and my new schedule went into immediate effect.

'You're not especially financially motivated, are you?' my employer observed towards the end of the meeting. The question felt like a trap; if I agreed, they might assume I was willing to work for less. I answered something to the effect of caring about receiving a fair wage, but valuing job satisfaction more. My employer confessed that until then, they had worked on a system of financially (read: rather than satisfaction) based employee motivation: the greater the productivity, the higher the salary.

However, after I reached a point where I was earning a comfortable amount, this paradigm ceased to make sense. I sensed that, while accepting, my employer had hoped I would pursue this ever-shifting goalpost ad infinitum – a model not unlike that in most workplaces. Was I so unusual for willingly departing from the pursuit of ever-more money in return for ever-diminishing life balance?

Afterwards, I felt extreme relief and elation. After over two and a half years, I'd finally made a stand to reclaim a small part of myself. However, this high was followed by crippling self-doubt as I guiltily indulged in my first extended weekend. Some acquaintances even gave me some noticeable side-eye when I told them about my decision. Had I made a mistake? Should I have asked for less? The extra time felt as though it did not quite belong to me, and I felt almost felonious in taking it when I knew I might otherwise be working, like a child bunking off school, regardless of whether I needed the extra money.

'The question isn't "What are we going to do?" The question is "What aren't we going to do?"' -- Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Something my brother later said resonated with me: 'It's crazy how used to stress you become without even realising it.' I realised that years of working into the night had seeped into me. The culture of 'presenteeism– being the first one in and the last one out, working through illness, constantly monitoring my work email – had become, if not fulfilling, normative. Society pushes us to earn more, have more and thus be more – placing our value in these indicators of success. It can be compulsive, and it's something I'm still learning to wean myself off.

But more than that, having (and choosing) more time can be frightening in the same way a blank page is. Ironically, the pressure of using the empty space productively and meaningfully is something you're relieved of to a certain extent while in pilot mode at work.

Now, I have more time to write and plan projects, spend time with people I care about and generally feed my soul. I'd be lying if I said I don't still procrastinate (an occupational hazard for writers) and feel guilty for doing so or that I have achieved the perfect ratio of work and play everyday, and I recognise that not everyone has the luxury of taking a step back from work. But I feel justified in making this small, essential choice: to prioritise life balance and not just my bank balance.


*As we deal with many international clients, copy-editors are on call throughout the day and early night.

2 comments:

  1. After I got into part-time work, it surprised me how daunting extra free time is. I have certainly felt pressured (even if only by myself!) to fill up those blank hours with more "productive," even work-related, things... It's hard to learn how to be still, or even how to switch from that "zone out in the evenings after work" mentality in free time to something that is genuinely more fulfilling.

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    Replies
    1. Exactly! Switching gears can be surprisingly difficult - even when you want to - when you spend so much of your time focused on targets and quotas. Hope you've adjusted somewhat to your work sitch since then. x

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