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.

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 an office 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 and it looked like she'd get to resume the business of growing up almost normally, but her cancer came back. Two more operations followed to remove tumors, but her disease continued to progress. Her cancer is rare and her disease is slowly progressing though she has been somewhat stable on oral chemotherapy since last June.

She is constantly reminded of her own mortality with each CT scan she gets but she continues to talk about starting 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 away from jobs like this. Run as fast as you can. But where should she run to? Does she have another option? I'm going to leave that question open ended because I think the answer is different for everyone.

The answer, for me, was self-employment. Before I was laid off thirteen years ago, I'd dreamed about working from home and being self-employed. It had been a very hard transition going back to work full-time when my daughter was six weeks old and trying to keep up with my mostly childless colleagues. Even though I liked the work, I now had something way more important in my life - my daughter.

I'm sad that things seem to have gotten even worse for young families since then. Working insane hours is 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 don't even get me started on Amazon.

That may work for some people some of the time, but what if something goes wrong? If I'd been working in an office, in a full-time 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. She was hospitalized regularly in the six months leading up to her liver transplant. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. There was an incredible amount of work involved with her care not including time spent on the phone with insurance companies and doctors or the long hours of research that replaced sleep. 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. When did we stop working for our families and start working for companies that don't seem to care about their employees? Where are our C-Level executives learning how to treat people?

My daughter dreams of working at companies like Google 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 work which is supposed to be all that matters, while discouraging things like parenting and sleeping.

So, 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 thirteen 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.
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A version of this article was originally posted on my blog at twelvethousandllc.com.