The 40-Hour Work Week Is, in Fact, Life
Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to [email protected]. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.
No More 9 to 5
I am 27. In the last year, I landed my dream job. My job has purpose. My skills and qualifications are used and challenged. My co-workers and supervisors are unparalleled but alas: 40 hours a week is not sustainable. I have hobbies. I have creative pursuits and therapy and laundry, and I own a small dog, so I am busy. My partner and I are considering starting a family in a few years. Because I already feel like there is not enough time in the week, I wonder what getting away from the 40-hour workweek looks like. I have considered self-employment, trying out the artist lifestyle, going back into academia, mildly rejecting capitalism, but maybe I should just get over it? Thoughts?
— Brit, Indianapolis
At 46, as the workaholic daughter of immigrants with an intense work ethic, I am inclined to tell you that this is life. You have to get over it and find a way to balance your professional and personal lives. For many people, only having to work 40 hours a week at one job would be a dream. It’s important to acknowledge that. But we do live in a country obsessed with work to the detriment of our collective well-being. You ask an important question and one many of us struggle with. Is this all there is? Are our lives destined to be consumed by work? It is kind of maddening. Work is a means to an end. If you’re lucky, you enjoy what you do and thrive professionally but we’re not working for fun. We are working in a capitalist society that demands our participation.
Many European countries model more reasonable work/life balance. In July, Iceland shared results of a four-day workweek trial that showed great results. So there are alternatives to working a 40-hour week. You should know that most of the other options you list are more demanding than you might think. Academia is demanding; you just have more control over where you spend your time when you’re not in the classroom, though that is if you’re one of the very few academics who gets a tenure track position. As an adjunct, you do essentially the same job for a fraction of the compensation.
I don’t want to discourage you, but there is no magical way to earn a full-time salary without working full-time. You have to decide what your priorities are and what you’re willing to do to nurture those priorities. If you want to pursue an artist’s life or reject capitalism, how will you pay for housing, food and health insurance? What are you willing to forego to have a more fulfilling life? That is the question; it’s an unfair choice until we, as a culture, decide there is, indeed, more to life than work.
When to Clap Back
I am a staff member at a predominately white institution. The other week my colleague asked me to welcome a new employee to our university even though we’re working remotely and I do not work with this new person’s team. This employee is a person of color, and the colleague who asked for my help is a white woman. In the email, my colleague apologized for “singling out my identity.” Still, she thought I would be a great person to welcome the employee to the team and “spill the tea” about our university. She said maybe I could suggest a church or a place to get a haircut. A close work friend said I should’ve clapped back. I regret not speaking on the issue. I’m not a confrontational person, and I assumed this colleague was operating in good faith, despite the questionable language. I’m wondering how you would have responded and what you would say to the employee of color. I’m planning to reach out to this employee and share my honest experience, which has been a mixed bag.
— Anonymous, Kansas
Most of us who have worked at predominately white institutions have been forced into this position of Minority Ambassador and navigating these inane microaggressions. It’s tokenizing at best, though like you I assume your colleague was operating in something resembling good faith. I don’t know what I would have done in your position. We’re not always able to clap back; it depends on power dynamics. Now that I’m tenured, I would have written back and said, “You are, indeed, singling out my identity,” with a snappy retort clarifying where the person went wrong.
Before that, I probably would have said nothing and taken my frustrations to the group chat. Regardless, I would also, on my own, reach out to the new employee to introduce myself and be collegial, offering any assistance they might need joining a new community. At every institution I’ve joined, I’ve been incredibly grateful to the Black staff and faculty who welcomed me, gave me the lay of the land, and, yes, let me know where I could get my hair done. Wherever I am, I try to do the same for others who join a community I’m part of.
I took a new job right before the pandemic and my boss is a complete dingus. He’s a nice enough man and good at the high-level parts of his job but he’s disorganized and a poor communicator. This makes a job I otherwise love very challenging in stupid ways. We are scheduled to return to the office soon and I have no idea how I am going to control my facial expressions around him. Working from home, I got used to rolling my eyes and cursing aloud at him. Any tips on how re-up that “work filter”?
This situation calls for maturity. We all work with people who are incompetent or infuriating or otherwise intolerable. But we can’t go around emoting our displeasure at them. It’s unkind and it can, indeed, jeopardize your career. What matters more: rolling your eyes or receiving your paycheck? Ask yourself this question every time your boss does something ridiculous and grit your teeth accordingly. That said, perhaps you’re asking the wrong question. Might it be possible to gently approach your boss about these organization and communication issues? If he’s nice and good at some of his job, he may well be open to constructive, considerate feedback. I don’t think this is an all-or-nothing situation.
Delta Doom and Gloom
My company is requiring that employees return to the office after Labor Day. Three days a week in the office, two days a week at home. I would normally be OK with this but I have a child who is too young to be vaccinated. With cases surging again, I’m likely pulling her out of preschool until she is eligible for a shot. I’ll have to home-school her in the meantime. And that seems incompatible with working in an office. My partner also works full time, and child care is a burden we will share until we can vaccinate our child. Any advice on how I should approach this issue with my employer?
— Anonymous, Austin
So many parents are facing this untenable situation. I’m sorry you must make these impossible decisions. Ask your employer if you can work from home until a children’s vaccine is available. Explain your reasoning as it is entirely reasonable. If that isn’t possible, can you and your partner trade days at home and in the office? Given the way things are going with the Delta variant, I imagine your employer might be changing plans to return to the office.
Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at [email protected].
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