Monday, January 16, 2017

Borrowed Time

Most of us are probably familiar with the phrase "living on borrowed time." It is typically used to describe a person who has lived beyond their life expectancy. In other words, they are borrowing time from the universe. People who live on borrowed time feel like every day is a gift, because they know that they may not have much longer to spend on this earth.

Lately, I have started to develop a new framework around the idea of borrowing time. I think a lot of the people I care about are borrowing time, but not from the universe. They are borrowing time from their employers. Asking for time off to go to their child's soccer game, take a vacation, or even to allow themselves to be sick for a day or two.

And its more than that. The employer also defines how you spend your days, including the hours you work and when you have to stay late. They choose the people you spend your time with each day, whether it is your boss, your co-workers, your customers, and any other people you may encounter. Even if these people make you miserable, there is very little you can do about it except to leave and hope to start over again somewhere else.

It seems like this is something that people just take for granted as "the way things are." It is so ingrained in our culture that this is just what we have to do. It never occurs to us that there is something wrong with this picture. That the rules we play by don't make any sense.

I was talking to my brother who works a lot of hours at his job and he seems to hate every minute of it. It has been that way for years, and it is even worse right now because he is going through a job transition. He worked most of this weekend and he worked today, even though it was a company holiday and the offices were closed.

When I asked why he was working so much, he said that he has no choice. He is starting a new job in a few weeks, so he has to be ready.

"They can't expect you to just walk into your new job on Day 1 and know how to do everything," I said, assuming that he was just being too hard on himself and trying to do more than was expected.

"Oh, yes they do!" He exclaimed. "That is how it works with internal transfers. The person who is leaving the job trains you and then you take over and start doing it on your own when they move to their new job."

Basically, during this transition my brother is expected to do his current job, while teaching another person to take over his job, and also while learning his new job. And the other people involved in this situation are doing the same thing. Which means all of them are working nights and weekends just to keep up, because that is what's expected.

"So it's like a domino effect, with everyone stuck working all of these extra hours," I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

"Well, that's what they are paying me for," he said matter of factly.

"I am not sure that's true," I said. "They are paying you a salary that is based on 40 hours a week. That doesn't include nights and weekends."

My brother and sister both looked at each other and shook their heads, exchanging a glance that said It's ok, she just doesn't understand our world.

"Well, I made 50 bucks today, so what do I know," I said, trying to laugh it off, even though I felt like they were somehow implying that they are wiser or more mature than I am. It has been that way ever since I left my corporate job and started freelancing. Everyone seems to think that what I am doing is all fine and good, but it's not how the "real world" works.

And I guess they are right. I don't understand their world. And I don't understand why anyone would want to put up with it. Being one of those people who used to work long hours and give so much at the office that I had nothing left for myself, I feel like I have the license to say that enough is enough.

The idea behind a salary is that the employer is paying you a standard amount of money for a certain time commitment. They are buying time from you in exchange for a fee. And your salary is generally based on a 40-hour work week. There may be times when you are asked to work a little more, or maybe you even choose to work a little more to get something done. But that should be the exception and not the rule.

Somewhere along the line, this idea of a salary translated from 40 hours per week to an unlimited amount of time. And yet the salaries remained the same. Everyone is expected to do more with less. People leave and their work is divided among the people that are left, instead of filling the open position. Employees are given laptops, cell phones and other devices to help them connect at all times. And people feel like they can't get away.

A few weeks ago France passed a law suggesting that all employers with over 50 employees create policies that allow their employees to disconnect. That means setting aside times where the employer cannot call or send emails or texts, whether it is on weekends, holidays, or even after a certain time in the evening. There was a wonderful quote in one of the articles that summarized the issue perfectly:
"Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash - like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails - they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down."
I think it is a sad commentary that we need a law telling people that it is ok to disconnect from their jobs, but if that is what it takes, then I fully support it. Employers buy a limited amount of our time. They do not own all of it. They don't own us. And until we start to recognize our own power and start to say no to unreasonable demands, they will not stop asking (or telling) us what we have to do.

Of course, no one wants to be the first person to stand up to their employer - especially not my brother. He is convinced that if he refuses to do something, they will just fire him and fill his slot with someone else who is willing to make those sacrifices. And maybe he is right, although I seriously doubt they would fire him.

It is all about expectations. If you come in and work all of those extra hours, then your employer will expect you to do it. And if you don't, then they won't. I know it may sound like I am oversimplifying the situation, but it's true. When I got sick, I stopped working nights and weekends and limited myself to only eight hours a day. And no one said a word about it.

I made it clear that I wasn't going to pick up the extra slack and they simply moved on to someone else who would. In fact, once I stopped doing all of that extra work, things started breaking down. Soon they began to see how much work there really was and they brought in at least three more contractors to help finish the project. No one fired me. There really weren't any negative consequences to me at all. Maybe at some higher levels of the company, my name was quietly removed from the promotion list. But that isn't really a list I wanted to be on anyway.

While I can understand why people are afraid, I also know that nothing will change unless we start to speak up. It may not be a full-on revolution. It may start by just taking a stand on one small issue or injustice. But whatever it is, we need to start somewhere. No one should have to borrow time from their employer to live their life.

If any of us were truly living on borrowed time, in the traditional sense of the word, then I have to imagine that work would be one of our lowest priorities. I hope everyone out there who is working too hard can find a way to put work in its proper place.

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