We will have to take a break from talking about my Practical Ideation Experience (PIE) to discuss something else today. Because for — at least — the last six weeks, I’ve had uncomfortable conversations with friends and co-workers about their mental state. Conversations about burnout, breaking down, or flat-out giving in.
My assessment of the situation is this: before COVID, we had morning routines that included getting coffee and getting to work, doing something, walking to meetings, and then trying to do more something before being interrupted by someone wanting to chat. Throughout our days, we had lots of small breaks.
Then the pandemic happened, and everyone’s immediate assumption was that working from home people would either be bludging or be perceived to be bludging. So we extended our days and filled our calendars with more meetings than ever without a minute to spare. This makes sense; in times of great uncertainty, people wanted a safe income to be able to provide. As a result, many people I know worked longer and harder during lockdowns than before COVID.
Add to that: supply shortages, a general sense of impending doom, social anxiety and what seems to be a shockingly ineffective set of remedies for mental wellbeing. We then let everyone out of the cage and said, “be free”. But we didn’t get free. We kept the same level of meetings and paranoia about wasting anyone’s precious — and paid-for — minutes.
Now though, instead of having ten hours to fit things in, we have twelve hours, and it’s still not enough. Add to that: children that once again need to be picked up from school, clients being as demanding as before, a lack of community to vent to, and the dread of not meeting one of the thousand expectations we are now obliged to deliver on. Oh, and did I mention the staff shortage across just about every sector?
We have a situation that has left me wondering — seriously — about the work culture in Victoria. I don’t know if it’s the rest of the country or the world. I don’t live and work there. But here. I’d say we have developed a toxic work culture that demands more from people than is reasonable to expect, and it’s making us angry, sad, depressed, and in some cases, I know people it’s put in a hospital.
In the space of two years, we’ve gone from normal to isolated to guilty workaholics enslaved to productivity. Our whip is economic insecurity and rising fuel prices. Our rewards are dulled down to the objects we can post about on Instagram on the way to collecting social status through affiliation.
We’ve gone from a group of people who had time to work and sometimes to assess if what we were doing was actually worth doing. COVID temporarily highlighted the question of worth, but “after COVID”, we seem to have let the flywheel spin freely, and I don’t know anybody that’s keeping up.
I don’t have an answer to these issues or this set of circumstances. If presented with the options, I doubt anyone would voluntarily sign up for this kind of life. Some aspects can’t be helped. No amount of therapy will fix the numbers game of not having a big enough labour force.
Nor am I a psychologist equipped to speak on behalf of therapy. Today’s motivation was to point out that working till you die isn’t an appealing idea, but we are choosing a path towards it as the default. By pointing out what I now feel is unmistakable, maybe we can do something about it.
Culture is the aggregation of small choices that form our norms. I don’t believe that a five-day week followed by a two-day recovery followed by another attack of pressure and stress that you can’t deal with if you’re really honest with yourself is a healthy culture.
Not to mention that switching off is not easy for information workers. It’s not like letting your body rest from digging a trench or showering after the gym. There’s no non-substance-assisted way to slow down the cogs in your head. Especially when our tech and their overlords demand we tackle more work and tasks and give more of our time. More, more, and more — for what?
Going by the evidence, we’re living lives full of meetings and ‘more’ in return for a life lacking meaning, substance, and a connection to time.
I completely acknowledge that all of the above can be considered the vapant ramblings of an entitled millennial on the path to another excuse. Still, I have a question: is this how you want to spend your time? It’s a constant. You can’t get more of it. Time keeps moving no matter what. And by cramming more in, we’ve put time into fast-forward.
Looking back in time, workers have gone through some changes. We went from spending time together working the land to loading up onto a train on the way to a factory. Where we spent our time sitting shoulder to shoulder during our productive hours. Then we went from sitting in rows to staring at screens, and with each change — defined by different industrial revolutions — we moved from spending our time together to spending time alone.
When we’re alone, we can move quicker. Faster. More efficiently. But trying to run to the horizon is madness because the horizon will always be on the horizon. Once a destination is reached, we’ll find a new one. That’s the spirit of exploration that is a pillar of what it means to be human. The same madness is devoiding our life of meaning and breaking people’s minds. The question is this; if we try to keep moving faster and faster, can we at least figure out where we are going?