I have a learned fear of being unemployable.
It started in college when the economy took a plunge and no one wanted to discuss anything else.
Now, I don’t actually know anything real about the economy, so as a purebred Millennial, my only choice was to believe the worst as told to me by the internet*.
The fine folks on the internet (all averaging 3 years my senior) let me know that after graduation I could look forward to a string of unpaid internships before enjoying a long tenure as a Chili’s server.
In reality, joining the workforce was less bleak. I freelanced writing gigs while waiting tables and trying to figure out where I was going to get a “real” job. Four months later, I had a full-time job with insurance and everything. I should thank the career gods forever, right?
The short answer is yes. Anytime someone wants to pay you for your brain or talents, you should be thankful. But the long answer is more complicated. Because, of course it is.
The problem with someone accepting a job offer after 2008 is that we assume that it’s a fluke — that we’re not going to get another one so we should take what’s in front of us, no matter how unfair it might be. The economic crisis forced people to take jobs that gave them overwhelming workloads with inadequate compensation.
But why is it still happening now that we’re out of the crisis?
Turns out, fear is a hard thing to abandon, especially when your livelihood is dependent upon it.
But it wasn’t just the fear that became a nasty habit. We also adopted this attitude towards our coworkers that we called competition but is more accurately labeled sabotage. Survival of the fittest in these conditions, you know?
Our behaviors might not look like traditional sabotage (deleting important files, gossip, stealing ideas), but we feel it in the same acutely threatening way. Now sabotage isn’t just threatening our jobs, it’s coming for our actual health, too.
Because we’re terrified to lose an opportunity, we’ve started to guilt ourselves and our coworkers into working longer hours, taking on more responsibility for less pay and eventually burning out on the career we’d loved for so long.
Creatives especially are prone to focus on the output rather than the hours a project costs. We get married to the idea we’re trying to create and something as silly as the budgeted hours won’t stop us from executing. And direct reports rarely have enough time (or heart) to reel anyone in. They seem to think, “if you want to, who am I to stop you? Just make the deadline.”
So we sit and we work and we bail on friends and we cry to our moms and survive on coffee and Postmates. We romanticize our unhealthy habits by calling it grinding instead. At best, it’s just a fast pass to a mental breakdown and physical exhaustion.
We all see it, we all know it’s happening and yet none of us want to call uncle. We don’t want to look weak or worse, unproductive. We’re conditioned to think that our spots aren’t guaranteed and we will be replaced by the younger (less-expensive) generation of talent. So we keep our heads down and our mouths shut.
I have a former coworker who I was lucky enough to befriend. She’s smart, talented and endlessly loyal to her workplace. It’s incredible. This friend also has bi-monthly doctor’s appointments because she’s suffering from a mystery illness that leaves her tired, irritable, unfocused and depressed. She acknowledges that (in small and large ways) the stress from her job is contributing to her general state of unwell, but she loves what she’s doing and she doesn’t have a solution to ease the stress anyway.
And as her friend and her coworker, I let her down. We would do our best to look out for each other. We’d plan lunches to check in with each other and commiserate, but those would get canceled for more pressing “emergencies”**. When we were no longer coworkers, I stopped helping altogether.
Then we’d meet for an occasional happy hour and I could see the deterioration immediately. The slumped shoulders, distracted eyes, pale skin. It’s a standard uniform of the perennially exhausted, whose time is measured by deadlines instead of days. She would sit down and I’d know she’d love to vent about work stresses, just to get it out, but by the time she’s out of the office, work is the last thing she’d want to talk about.
I wouldn’t press.
I let her continue to suffer. That’s just what we do in this grind-based economy.
The worst part is of this story is she’s not special. I have a dozen other friends who could replace her in this story and it would still be true.
I could be used as the example in this story and it would still be true.
But if we all feel the effects and we all want better for everyone , why isn’t anyone saying anything? Why aren’t we fighting for our friends to maintain some semblance of a life? Why aren’t we asking them to fight for us?
For one, direct reports don’t see burnout until it’s too late. They address burnout as an individual problem to solve, rather than what it is — a company issue.
Once, when I was overwhelmed and searching for an answer, I cried to a director of mine. Not my proudest moment, but it was months of hearing my coworkers complain and a particularly disastrous week for me so I cried.
I hoped that what this person would hear was a request for advocacy, a plea to someone who could make a change that might want to. What they heard was a general dissatisfaction with the company. It was a big misunderstanding with terrible repercussions for both me and the company.
It wasn't their fault. If you hear someone critiquing your business, you're going to assume they don't like your business. What would have helped was bringing suggestions and questions before it got to the point of confrontation.
But if you’re not a director or someone with a senior title, there’s nothing you can do to change the company culture or the way burnout is treated. You don't know what solutions are available to you. And without hope for change, frustrations build and confrontations get more frequent.
So what do you do?
You take responsibility for taking care of yourself and those around you.
Sure, they’re your competition and eventually only one of you will be promoted. But, let’s face it. All other things equal, seniority will get you promoted before anything else. And who can predict when a promotion will come up?
Right now, the only thing you can do for yourself and your coworkers is assume the responsibility of take caring of and encouraging the best work from each other.
Allow your coworkers feel comfortable taking a vacation. Let them know that you’ll take care of any urgent matters while they’re gone. Ban them from checking emails, chats, texts or whatever else they might use to let people know they haven’t abandoned their position.
Trust them to do the same for you.
And on a more routine level, force your coworkers to enjoy their day. Invite them on a daily fifteen minute walk with you. Share jokes. Be playful.
Written like that it seems I’m advocating for slacking off or abandoning all responsibilities, but I promise it’s really just suggesting a healthy relationship with work.
Will some people take advantage of this? Maybe.
But if that’s the risk for more people leading less stressful, more productive, playful and balanced lives, it’s worth the gamble. Don’t be afraid of asking for help. Never be afraid of helping someone else.
Always take care.
*This anxiety-inducing tendency to read headlines and not the actual article is one of our more annoying habits, but I don’t have time to talk about that right now.
**As if anything could possibly be considered an emergency as a writer.