You can't balance work and life on your own
The onus of creating a better work-life culture should be on workplaces.
Last week, I forgot to share this illustration I commissioned the ever-talented @saljoonie to make for my new year’s wish. So here it is today, more than two weeks later, because I am grateful for you and the opportunity to be in your inbox. 💌 Thank you for making my 2021 special, and I look forward to discovering new things with you in 2022!
Before I made the leap to freelancing full-time, I sat for a job interview.
Everything seemed to be going well until I asked him what my daily schedule would look like. He paused, cleared his throat, and said, "While we technically begin at 11 and end at 7. But of course, digital is a full-time job, 24/7, so you might even be asked on work on Saturdays or called during your Sunday lunch to work on a trending moment."
I could almost hear the air quotes around "begin" and "end" in his sentence. I knew that his pause indicated surprise because questions like these aren't common in junior roles. You're supposed to dedicate your life to work, to "prove" your worth.
Job perks: Work-life balance
Many companies like to throw around the term work-life balance like a cute and trendy buzzword on social media, to appear like they're with the times. Or that's a term you can find listed under 'benefits' on their Careers page or discussed during your interview with HR.
For all its presence on marketing paraphernalia, work-life balance is usually tricky to come by, especially if you're starting out in any field. The other day, I read a Twitter thread where a publishing hopeful wrote about her experience trying to keep work within working hours. To no one's surprise, she faced some pushback, especially because she was an intern, which I guess is low enough on the office totem pole for seniors to demand unending work dedication from.
When you work with books, it helps if you love reading. But surely, just wanting to work within books doesn't mean you need to spend every spare minute reading the latest release or burning the midnight oil researching campaign strategies to create bestsellers. Publishing has many flaws — from low pay to gatekeeping, and sometimes, if you win the wrong lottery, you also lose any semblance of work-life balance.
Obviously, this isn't a publishing-only problem. In most fields, interns are expected to work long hours for very little pay. I'm not sure how or why we've allowed this to be a thing. Is it because we expect most interns to be young, moony-eyed people right out of college, desperate to prove themselves? So what if they are? Does that mean companies are entitled to make them work so much? Are people who work not entitled to free time outside of chores and familial responsibilities?
Remote work & work-life balance
Ever since the 'rona came around, remote work has become an integral part of most of our lives. Before Omicron came to rob us of our fragile stability, some companies had begun asking their employees to return to in-person work.
This is despite remote work improving productivity and reducing attrition rates. In fact, demands to return to the office are a driving force of The Great Resignation. After all, why should we continue to work for employers who don't value our safety or our time?
There are two prongs to my discussion about remote work and work-life balance.
In good companies, remote work is a blessing. You can get back the time you used to spend commuting and finish work quicker. This gives you more time to focus on your hobbies, spend time with your loved ones, or just relax. We know from past articles that rest and relaxation are key to increasing productivity.
In shitty companies, remote work is a nightmare. Lines are blurred, and you're expected to be available pretty much all the time. The question of paid holidays is thrown out the window — after all, you can work from anywhere with Wifi, can't you? It becomes difficult to set boundaries or go on vacation or even stop working at your usual time. You feel pressured (consciously or unconsciously) to continue working — you can work some more because there's no commute anymore.
Now, leaving the office at 10 pm and coming back at 8 am seems far more reasonable.
Time to de-normalize long work hours
Most of the advice I've come across to create a healthy work-life balance puts the onus on the employee or the individual instead of the company. It's like trying to undo climate change by asking people to stop using plastic straws or switch off the lights when they leave a room. Sure, every small step helps, but none of them address the actual problem — it's systemic.
If you're being given so much work that you keep having to take it home or work long hours, then no matter how much you 'let go of perfectionism' or 'make daily to-do lists', nothing's gonna change. We need workplaces to revisit the amount of work they expect their employees to do each day.
Some employers also have (what I'm calling) an 'ass in chair culture' where no matter how much work you do each day, you have to be seen working for long hours. These companies prioritize visibility — the idea is that if you're in the office for 10-12 hours, you're a hard worker, even if you're playing Solitaire on the pc.
Prioritize yourself when you can
There's a clear truth to jobs that dominate most of your day and your life — they become your identity. When most of your time revolves around work, you start associating your value and your worth with it, and as we all know, that ain't good at all.
It's not easy, cultivating work-life balance in a culture that rewards hustle and overwork. That one interview wasn't the only one where I was dumbfounded about employers' expectations. I quietly bowed out of that 24/7 digital marketing/copywriting opportunity because, along with their horrible hours, they were also offering peanuts for pay. I continued with my existing job until I quit that to freelance full-time.
Obviously, since I had the existing job cushion, I was privileged. I'm glad I didn't take that job. A battered work-life balance aside, I would've never learned everything I did freelancing. A couple of years down the line, I'm more convinced than ever that better opportunities are always around, especially ones that prioritize your work-life boundaries.
Wherever and whenever you can, make a choice to reject opportunities that seem like they won't respect work-life boundaries. Try to speak to older employees or those who have recently left the company to find out what the culture is like — both sides of the interview table paint a rosier picture than reality.
We owe it to us to prioritize our mental and physical health because while companies can replace us pretty quickly, there's only one of us for our loved ones and ourselves.
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Your list of stuff to check out this week! 💌
This past week, I took some time off for my mental and physical health, so I spent time consuming content that made me happy. Not more productive or better at work or anything — I was just chasing happiness, so that's what I've got to share with you too.
Read: Saga by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples. Last year, Saga was on my list of graphic novels to check out, and I finally blazed through the giant tome last week. It was a phenomenal read, full of heart and hope — an epic space opera for the ages.
Don't have the time, patience, or inclination to read 1300+ pages? I got you. Here's a list of ten short but captivating stories that you could devour instead.
Watch: Minnal Murli. I watched this Malayalam superhero movie last night, and boy was it an entertaining watch. It tells us the story of two people struck by lightning (Minnal) and how they are both two sides of the same coin, but circumstances have them fighting on opposite sides. Also, the "villain" in this film has been painstakingly fleshed out, and you end up understanding exactly why he did the things he did — I thought both the hero and the villain's arcs were very well written, and it's a great (albeit a bit long) watch for the weekend.
If you're not in the mood for superhero movies, here's a cool website that will give you movie recommendations based on your mood, the platform you choose, and your preferred genre.
Heard a song in a show that you really like? If Shazam didn't help you find it, maybe this handy website might — it's got a lot of TV show soundtracks you can browse through.
Short-term solitude can make you a better thinker. You can focus on things that matter and use that alone time for some quality independent thinking.
Here’s your weekly reminder, one of my favourite quotes from Saga:
That's all for this week — thanks for reading! Don’t forget to like this post below if you enjoyed it — it helps more readers find my work. ❤️
If this edition inspired you to prioritize yourself and create a better work-life balance, then please forward this newsletter or subscribe below if you haven’t!