The Futility of Overwork

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My 13-year-old daughter approached me a few months ago and said she was having an existential crisis. Apparently she’d been binge watching The Office to such an extent that she had seen Pam go from a single receptionist, to a married sales associate with two children, in the span of three months – all at the same job. Our conversation went something like this.

“She’s still there – at a paper company. I mean, it seems so boring and pointless.”

“It’s just a show.”

“You used to work in an office. Is it really like that?”

“Um. Yes. Especially when you’re first starting out. But it’s good to get that experience and move on.”

“But they don’t move on.”

“No…some people don’t.”

“You did.”

“I had to – I got laid off and started freelancing. Otherwise I’d be stuck in a typical job just like Pam.”

Let me step back for a moment and tell you about my daughter. If anyone is entitled to have an existential crisis, she is. She was diagnosed with cancer when she was eleven and nearly died. A liver transplant saved her life. She was incredibly sick for a year, but the transplant saved her and it looked like she’d get to resume the business of growing up almost normally (except for having to take anti-rejection medication forever), but then her cancer came back. Two more operations followed to remove more tumors, and more. Now she’s got too many tumors in her lungs to be a good candidate for surgery. Her cancer is rare, and shown to be resistant to chemotherapy. Her disease is slowly progressing. She was on an oral chemotherapy drug that stopped the progression for a while, then it didn’t. She started a different drug in January which wasn’t as effective, had more side effects but is currently her only option – besides the five rounds of radiation she received last month.

She is constantly reminded of her own mortality with each CT scan she gets – but she continues to talk about going to high school, going to college, getting a job.

And now she’s wondering, what’s the point of working in an office? A place where people clearly aren’t happy, advancement is tenuous, and there is a constant fear of losing your job? Admittedly, Dunder Mifflin (the fictional paper company in The Office) is a miserable place with a particularly miserable work environment. As a self-employed entrepreneur, my first instinct is to tell her to run the hell away from jobs like this. Run as fast as you can. But where should she run to? Does she have another option? I believe she does.

I didn’t start freelancing just because I got laid off. I’d dreamed about working from home, being self-employed and spending more time with my then 2-year-old daughter on a near-daily basis. It had been a very hard transition going back to work full-time when she was six weeks old, and trying to keep up with my mostly childless colleagues (or the men whose wives stayed at home). Even though I liked the work, I now had something way more important in my life -my daughter.

Now, twelve years (and another child) later, I’m sad that things seem to have gotten even worse for young families, particularly in my industry. I mean, we occasionally had to pull an all-nighter at the agency where I used to work, but now it seems to be the rule rather than the exception. It’s expected. If you complain about it, you’re ridiculed and told to find another job (check out the comments on this article about former Apple managers citing Apple’s 24/7 work culture).

And forget about it if something goes wrong. If I was working in a regular salaried job within my industry, I would’ve been fired – or had to quit – when my daughter got sick. She spent the first forty days after her diagnosis in the hospital and after that she was hospitalized regularly until her liver transplant. This is just the tip of the iceberg, really. There was so  much work involved with her care – hours on the phone with insurance companies and doctors, hours and hours of research that replaced sleep, and her life truly depended on it. There was no room for THE COMPANY – not even my own.

When I read stories about people dying at their desk , or struggling to keep up with longer and longer hours in order to prove themselves, I am baffled. It feels like we’re getting it all wrong. From my perspective out here in my home office, the priorities seem pretty screwed up. When did we stop working for our families and start working for THE COMPANY? Where are our C-Level executives learning this? Don’t they know we don’t have an endless amount of time – and neither do they?

My daughter mentions Google sometimes, or Apple – dreams of working at these shiny new companies where she’s heard they have coffee stations and free food, laundry on the premises and nap nooks. And I tell her, sweetie, they do that because they don’t want you to LEAVE. They recruit young college kids and divert their lives, make them all about THE COMPANY, discourage things like parenting and sleeping. And she points out that I make most of my money from Google – I am a Paid Search Marketing consultant. Yes, I say, but I don’t work there. I make my own hours. No one is grading me on my ability to pull in an all nighter, work through lunch, stay conscious on the free coffee they provide and proudly call myself a Googler (which is creepy and dystopian, if you ask me).

But getting back to the existential crisis here…what’s it all for? Is it worth cutting your life short to put in fifty or sixty hours a week when studies have shown that anything above forty hours is basically useless? It’s you staring tiredly at your screen, or listlessly working through your to do list, or robotically checking and rechecking your email, when when you should be home unwinding with your spouse, or eating dinner or, I don’t know…RESTING…so that you can be productive the next day.

I’ve worked with literally dozens of companies over the last twelve years and can safely say that the best companies, the ones with the most dedicated and intelligent staff, are the companies that value work-life balance. They don’t email me over the weekend, they don’t launch campaigns at midnight on a Friday, they plan things out in a thoughtful way and give people the benefit of time – both time on and time off – so that their minds are fresh, and their motivation remains strong.