Work has changed a lot in the last 20 years. It no longer holds to the “9 to 5” office hours enjoyed by our parents (or our parent’s parents, depending on where you land demographically), nor is it offering “employment for life”. In some ways this is a good thing; we’ve seen an unprecedented level of innovation in the last 20 years, which is in part a product of more people moving around, working with multiple employers, and having more employers supporting engaging and innovative work. On the flip side, some of that innovation has contributed to accessibility, enabling people to be connected to their jobs in new ways, leading to unprecedented work hours. Depending on your industry the average hours of work can be as much as 60-80 hours per week, in some professional environments much of that is “volunteer” (unrecognized specifically by a program or pay practice). You are expected to put that time in if you want to…”fill in the blank”. That blank is always something specific to the longevity of career and job; it includes things like “move up in the organization”, “have your work be visible”. However, more and more (as employers are asking for high results with less and less) that blank is filled with “be seen as a team-player”, “be considered as a key contributor”, or (in worse case scenarios) “not end up identified for lay-off”.
We see the impact of this on North America employees. Fewer North Americans are taking their vacations, and if they do use vacation time they are using it in shorter spans (i.e. one week rather than two) or working while on their vacation. One contributor to this trend I have witnessed first-hand is the pressure of the “ticking in-box”, the one that quickly fills up in your absence with important and urgent matters needing your immediate attention. Most of us don’t want to return from a great vacation to an exploding in-box; there is a palpable sense of dread (especially when you tie it back to the effort it took to prepare to go on vacation in the first place). Some individuals are afraid that if an employer can see accomplishments move forward without their specific input it will make them redundant. We are living in a world where fear may now be playing a significant part in key decisions about our health and well-being and the balance is trending towards work rather than play. The worst part is, in North America, these things are not being asked of us by our employers (for the majority); these are things we are self-selecting to do. Where this trend is going is really unthinkable.
Vacations and hours of work are two examples, but there is another. Another area that points to “less play and more work” is the under-utilization of professional development budgets. In every organization I’ve ever worked within funds have been set aside for the development and betterment of employees and year-over-year they do not get utilized to their fullest capacity (in particular where this development is self-directed by employees). Why is this? For some people it is the difficulty in narrowing down their choices and committing to a professional development path, but anyone motivated to maximize on development opportunities can quickly overcome that hurdle. When I’ve queried employees at workplaces who have access to self-directed development funds the biggest barrier they face is time. Many employees feel they can’t commit to yet another commitment and sustain their current level of effort. Self-directed professional development is not viewed as an opportunity, but “one more thing to do” in a schedule that is already maxed out.
In some pockets of the working world employees experience an Orwellian level of dystopia, the sad thing is in North America we are creating this for ourselves. Here we have one of the most advanced and pro-active systems of employment legislation in the world. It may not be perfect, but the mechanisms exist to balance our working hours, be properly compensated for the work we do and provides for healthy work practices and environments (both physical and psychological). We have many employers who set aside budgets and are open to long-term development of staff. So why are we are wearing ourselves thin? Why are we letting the relentlessness of work erode the best parts of our lives? It is having an impact, to borrow a quote from Tolkien many people today “…feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”. Frustrated and worn out is not a great space to be in when making life decisions, and yet many people opt to invest in outside help only when they are in this circumstance, only when something has to give because the alternative is unthinkable.
This is a call to understand what really matters to you, in life and in work - and then to act on it now. Your job may not always be there (or you may not always want the job you have), but your health, family and your profession can be when you choose to nurture these important aspects of life. We all need to feel valued and supported, loved and able to make meaningful contributions; these are basic hygiene factors. When they are not present everything suffers, not just at work, but our personal well-being too. Don’t wait for the inevitable crash that takes place when you’ve eroded yourself, made yourself too thin to be able to hold on to it all. Take the time you need to think about what really matters to you, your career and those you love. Work, like the crashing of waves upon rock, can be relentless and (just like waves) will always be there. Work is not going anywhere but you and your career are. Invest in your personal development; the time it takes will re-pay itself significantly, giving you access to so much more than you can anticipate today.