Overwork or Die
When I was working my old corporate job, I was told in no uncertain terms that I would not get ahead in the advertising industry if I wasn’t prepared to overwork.
It had nothing to do with the work you actually do. There was little encouragement nor room to go the extra mile and try and show off some creative work when you really should be staying in your lane as an accounts person. No, this was just about staying in the office late enough for the managers to see you ‘working hard.’
I mean, what bullshit?
I’ve watched colleagues stay in the office until late, pushing paper around, just to leave after the boss. I’ve furiously apologised for needing to leave the office at 5:30 on the dot for a doctor’s appointment even though that is my contracted finish time. I’ve had countless lunches at my desk because you could not afford even twenty minutes to eat in peace.
There is an expectation to always be online - particularly on social when you can just as easily do your work from your phone while you’ve finally made it out to dinner with a friend. I’ve also been told that I should be readily available at night because my client used his agile working hours to work at night; even though he was still based in the same time zone as me.
It was no wonder I burnt out so completely after just 2 years in the industry.
I rationalised it so much throughout my time in the industry. I was a workaholic anyways, ambitious and willing to drink the kool-aid. I wanted to stay the extra hours. I was busy enough that I often needed to.
But I resented a culture that made it mandatory. I resented the fact that it was completely normalised and encouraged so openly. And staring down the next 20-30 years of a career in an industry that rewarded long hours more than hard work, I felt scared.
Burnout took me to a terrible place. I would come home every day crying, unable to stop. Rock bottom was me, sobbing in the dark of my room, foetal position on the floor. I was a menace to be around because I was quite simply depressed. And I never wanted to go down there again.
But I thought there was no solution, just a mandate on me to be better.
If you hate a situation, you either change your situation or your mindset. And I had no conception that work in an industry I was passionate about could be tackled in any other way.
When I had the opportunity to leave, I thought it was finally a chance to take a break. I honestly believe I was only off on a bit of a sabbatical. How wrong I was.
The thing is, remote work was not only a chance to escape the routine of my past but an opportunity to see work as a completely different thing. It was a window into what I truly believe should be the future of work.
It’s already happening - corporate companies have long embraced the open plan office and even agile working. It’s hinting at the acceptance for a more flexible office environment that allows for more economical use of office space and improves work performance.
So why aren’t we embracing the next step in this progress - remote work?
Working remotely is not that different. Sure, there is a poor misconception that all we do is sit on the beach with our laptops, sipping coconuts until it’s time to switch to sunset beers. But that is utterly untrue.
There are rarely any plugs or decent wifi on the beach; let alone the unavoidable sun glare on our screens or constant overheating that makes it impossible to spend any more than 20 minutes in the sun.
What it really looks like is hours spent inside cafes ordering coffee after coffee, or in coworking spaces, eyes glued to our screens for longer than the conventional work day.
And yet, why do we chase it? Why is it still the choice that I put all my faith behind? Why does it still feel like paradise?
It all comes down to freedom; the freedom to choose.
It’s been well documented how agile working increases productivity, creativity and the possibility for work-life balance. But more than that, it’s the mentality of control. When we have control over our own decisions and way of work, something clicks in our mind and makes us better. The active role we play means that we are more engaged and committed to its success.
We might still be making all the wrong decisions, ignoring the research of the Pomodoro Technique or still wasting time procrastinating. But it’s the mentality that changes and propels you further. I’ve worked more hours in the past few months than I would in double that time in Sydney. But because I am choosing this, it doesn’t seem quite as bad.
We may never truly escape ‘overworking.’
We overly celebrate the hustle and are can often feel the need to pick up more hobbies and side hustles because we can.
What we can change is the attitude we have towards it. Either we are mandated because there is no other way to get ahead in this world. Or we choose it and use it to design a life that we are active participants in. We can choose to set the hours that work for us, even if they’re long or choose the job, clients or projects that actually make us want to sit at the computer for hours on end.
Digital technology may have created a culture of always-on work. But it has also allowed for a culture of remote work - where we can work anywhere and any time we feel we can.
So embrace the change and think about your relationship with work. Are you being active in your work life?