You’re reading Life-Work Balance, a series aiming to redirect our total devotion to work into prioritising our personal lives.
Imagine your boss texts you at 8pm asking you to quickly send them an email, or check or create something. And then they get fined for doing so. That’s what happens in Portugal now, thanks to a new policy in which bosses face sanctions if they contact employees outside of their office hours.
In the UK, we are seeing the launch of the first 4-day work week campaign, with 30 firms signing up. Monzo Bank now offers three-month paid sabbaticals to its employees who have been there for more than four years. Twitter employees can now work from home forever.
These countries and organisations are realising one thing (though there is a long way to go) – work cannot be our most important focus, it must be a complementary part of our lives, with our happiness and wellbeing at the forefront. But while some make the small step towards better work life balance, others are struggling.
And where there is a divide in how to approach work, relationships can sometimes crumble.
While 29-year-old Kim* from London observes healthy work practices as a fashion merchandising consultant, her ex lawyer partner was seldom able to switch off.
And, she says, his devotion to work hijacked him from her: “We were doing long distance, and when he got a new job, our relationship got harder as we wouldn’t talk and slowly I called him less because I knew he was busy and didn’t want to overwhelm him. When we did talk he always seemed stressed and distracted. So I felt that our relationship was slowly getting weaker.”
Lawyers are notorious over-workers and it’s not uncommon for some attorneys to do 80 hours per week. But this kind of devotion comes at a cost. For Kim, that meant her relationship.
“He warned me about how he would have to work late hours and weekends with this new role (and it really did flip over night when he started), but I hoped when lockdown lifted it would get easier if we could see each other face to face.”
Unfortunately it didn’t and Kim found that her own stresses were taking second place in her ex’s life.
“I started to feel like just another thing on his agenda, rather than a chance to engage with someone I love. In the end, it didn’t feel like the relationship was making either one of us happy anymore, with his schedule being so full so we broke up.”
Following their break-up, Kim heard that her ex had a breakdown and went back to therapy because of the stress.
Separation due to conflicting work schedules and ethics is a tale as old as time, but as a new anti-work mentality emerges, many of us are untethering from the shackles of capitalism, or at least attempting to, and inserting boundaries where there previously were none.
The pandemic has left many of us with time previously spent on commuting, regular socialising, and staying back after work, giving us an opportunity to recalibrate and rest, all the while prioritising our hobbies and in turn, our mental health.
The last few years have given rise to anti-capitalist movements. The subreddit ‘anti-work’, for example, now boasts 1.7 million users, with the largest surge occurring in the pandemic.
Started in 2013, this page strives towards making work work for you. While the tagline is ‘unemployment for all, not just the rich’, it’s not to be taken literally. The idea is not just about mass retirement from the workforce (though it has inspired many resignations), the page is about empowering workers and reducing the coercive and exploitative element of labour.
It’s not just online that anti-capitalist expression is taking hold, we’re also seeing the tide turn against work in our literature and popular discourse.
Texts such as Work Won’t Love You Back, Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism, and Laziness Is A Myth have taken off, highlighting how capitalism dominates much of our thinking and attitudes to work.
But just because many of us are engaging in these conversations, it doesn’t mean all our loved ones are too. The anti-work movement, or at least challenging the powers that be, doesn’t come as easily to everyone. And it’s causing a relationship rift.
Miriam*, a 27-year-old writer from London, says while she believes in dismantling capitalism – starting with cutting her total devotion to work – her boyfriend, who works in IT, feels the opposite.
“He is at his work’s beck and call. Never saying no, always being available. His pay is pretty poor and his hours are terrible,” she says. “He’s had a few breakdowns and his managers have even had breakdowns, it’s a toxic work environment.”
Miriam acknowledges that her partner can’t simply quit – “unless he’s able to support himself some other way” – but still wishes he would practice more self-prioritisation by saying no to late-notice late shifts, advocating for better hours, and unionising to improve pay and working conditions.
“His unquestioning devotion to work negatively impacts our relationship, leaving me in the lurch,” she says.
“He still chooses to see it as being lucky to have a job in this economy. But accepting harsh conditions just means you make it work for everyone else – bosses will keep continuing to perpetuate these behaviours otherwise.
What Miriam alludes to is an attitude gaining traction: work won’t love you back. Author Sarah Jaffe has a book of the same name, highlighting how, if we were to die, our jobs would be advertised by the following week. In other words, we’re expendable.
“The short answer is that work is not completely devoted back to you,” Jaffe tells HuffPost. “And what that means in practice is that you can put a tonne of your time and energy and emotional resources into work which, at the end of the day, looks at you as a source of surplus value or a source of profit.”
Ultimately, your workplace exists to make money, not to make you happy, Jaffe argues. “As humans we work because under capitalism, we have to, in order to keep a roof over our heads, pay the bills and be able to do fun things in our spare time.”
But, Jaffe points out, this isn’t a problem that we as individuals have just created and importantly – nor can we as individuals – expect to dismantle it all on our own.
“This is a political problem. It’s not a personal issue where you were making bad decisions and have bad boundaries,” she says. “It’s part of what the structures of neoliberalism encourage us to do, which individualises and personalises everything as though it is a matter of our choice. And so therefore, we must be choosing to devote too much of ourselves to our jobs.”
So, what this means is that there are unspoken rules around work culture where the more available you are, the more ostensibly committed you are seen to be to the role (and therefore deserving of praise and progression).
And of course this affects our relationships. “If you are seeing somebody and you feel like you take second place to their work all the time then that’s going to be frustrating, it’s going be upsetting especially if you are trying to have a better relationship with your own work,” says Jaffe.
“Our attitude to work really does screw up our relationship with each other and that’s not an accident.”
Jaffe explains that without social solidarity, we feel alone and powerless, which is apt in keeping us working and feeding the capitalist regime.
So what can you do? After all, most people need to work. That answer lies in our collective demand, says Jaffe.
“If you as an individual say ‘I’m not going to answer my boss’s emails on Friday night because I have a date’ or if you’re an Uber driver or a zero-hours contract employee and you just say ‘Friday nights, I’m not going to turn the app on’ well, you’re taking money off the table.
“So it’s not as simple as saying ‘have better personal boundaries’. It’s actually a thing we have to deal with collectively and politically so we have a much better handle on better work life boundaries. If you were in a union and you and your co-workers together, stand up and say we are not going to answer emails after 8pm on a work night or, whatever those boundaries might be, then that collective action can win you better boundaries.
“And that is part of the reason that it’s important to disrupt not only our own devotion to work but those of everyone around us, because it won’t work if we just do it individually.”
*Names have been changed.
Life-Work Balance questions the status quo of work culture, its mental and physical impacts, and radically reimagines how we can change it to work for us.