This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. I almost feel embarrassed about my preparations for this past week. I was getting my second Pfizer shot, and had been roundly advised to prepare to feel like a garbage truck hit me. I cleared my schedule and maintained strict boundaries around it. “I can’t do an interview then,” I said in email after email, “I’ll be getting my second vaccination shot, and I want to clear the time.” I was
I’m a teacher and I have sick days (I literally have a year’s worth built up) but they are beyond stressful to use this year so I barely have, even though I should have many times (see: your earlier piece on teacher burnout). But I took a sick day preemptively after shot 2 bc I assumed I’d be sick and then... I felt 100% fine!! And it was the most amaaaaazing day. I stayed in bed, as if I was sick, and just... rested. All day. I almost get teary thinking about it now because it was just such a restorative day... that I probably won’t give myself again.
The timing on this is so funny -- I got my first Pfizer vaccine this morning and I've cleared my schedule in anticipation, stocked up on Amy's Kitchen frozen pot pies (my favorite "not feeling well" food), have cozy TV shows ("The Great Pottery Throwdown") saved up, my weighted blanket at the ready, etc. I'm self-employed and almost never take time off, and this resonated so strongly with me: "Of course, being able to clear my schedule in the first place is a privilege of the sort of work that I do — but with that malleability comes a general expectation of accessibility... Are you a person who needs rest and reprieve, or are have you wholly internalized the worst manager in the world and allowed them to shade every hour of your day?"
One bizarre aspect of American culture I could never wrap my head around is why Americans are so hostile toward state power but tacitly accept corporate autocracy, especially when the latter has a much more pronounced daily impact on our lives. When I talk to my conservative friends and relatives about giving workers more of a say in their workplaces, they just respond, "the employer is paying you, and you chose to work there."
Well, what is the employer paying you for? They're not a charity. They're not just giving you money out of some undeniable altruism outpouring from their hearts; they're paying you to produce more value than they have to pay out in salary and benefits. If this is a mutual transaction, then it's only fair that workers have a say in their company's policies and decisions.
Are you really choosing to "work" if your options are working and starving to death? Any choice made under compulsion is not a choice. And, of course, people will say, "well if you don't like your job then leave," as if job hunting is like being a star athlete in free agency, with multiple suitors flocking to outbid one another for your services.
Unionizing is critical, but workers also need to have more self-respect for themselves, their boundaries, and the value they bring to not just their companies, but the economy.
At my job this week, they announced that working at home would be over soon and that we’d all be coming back to the office at least part of the time. They are going to do coming back in phases and are making some vague gestures at developing some sort of policy to people work at home some of the time, but what was remarkable is how vocally my colleagues openly questioned the organization’s plans, outright telling leadership “this isn’t going to work for me/us - this is the wrong decision.”
I’ve never seen people here advocate for themselves this way - I don’t know what the outcome of this is going to be, but there definitely is a sense that something has changed.
I have one of those "please don't feel you need to respond outside of your normal working hours" signatures on my personal/freelance inbox. I actually cribbed it from my main employer, a (UK headquartered) multinational law firm that's one of the founding signatories to a project called the Mindful Business Charter. Of course, what's needed is a full-on change in corporate culture - it doesn't matter what you *say* you believe if the rest of the organisation hasn't bought in. They have, at least, been going beyond lip service during the pandemic - I hope it signals a long-term shift.
Regardless, this essay hit home this week. Not least because I'm partway through Can't Even at the moment, and if it isn't triggering all kinds of repressed rage on behalf of all the boundaries it took me over a decade in the working world to learn how to set.
AHHHHHH. All of this hit so deep in so many ways. The permission aspect hit especially hard this time - how utterly mad is it that we search for a way to say no that involves potential sickness as a perk?! Thank you, Anne. As always. For writing about this.
This hit home. I'm a freelance copy editor and proofreader, and more than once last Friday, as I was negotiating chills, fever, and brain fog after my second shot on a planned day off for aftereffects, I thought, "Maybe I could sneak some really simple work in." It's insidious how the feeling that you need to be SOMEHOW functional arises, even with no physical bosses nearby, even when you're on the couch feeling like artisanal shit.
(In point of fact, some of my couch time was devoted to newsletter catchup, and the utterly lovely Tuesday travel thread was exactly what I needed amid the second-shot blahs. Well done, all!)
This is so timely for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a field (museums) that has been severely impacted by the pandemic, and lots of people have lost their jobs or have seen their hours and/or wages cut back. The jobs are starting to come back, although rehiring has been very slow.
But what’s also coming back are the terrible employment practices that have plagued our field for years — overwork, unequal pay, lack of diversity — somehow, they seem to have gotten even worse. I watched a panel discussion last week with a group of CEOs in the industry, sponsored by a group who is helping displaced professionals get back to work. They started the webinar with lots of talk about how hard the last year has been for everyone, with closures and layoffs and financial shortfalls, not to mention long-overdue conversations about race and class and colonialism. But when they moved into giving advice about getting back into the field, it was so disturbing. According to them, it’s not enough anymore to be a highly competent professional with years of experience: now you need to be flexible and nimble and willing to pitch in wherever you’re needed, which sounds to me like a recipe for exploitation and burnout, especially as it was clear that there aren’t going to be any additional rewards for taking on more and more work. When one of the panelists mentioned that we needed to be “passionate,” I said out loud, “fuck passion, pay me,” at my iPad screen, which just goes to show how much I’ve internalized your work and the work of others who keep pointing out how broken the system really is. And when another panelist suggested we volunteer in order to get our foot in the door, the chat blew up with participants pointing out how problematic that advice really is: you can’t say you’re firmly committed to DEI and then tell people that they need to work for free.
The good news is that the rank-and-file are finally starting to push back. Some are simply voting with their feet, and moving into jobs that aren’t your typical “lovable jobs” so they can have a shot at decent pay and reasonable hours. But there have also been quite a few successful union drives this past year, and lots of activism around the idea of accountability for both institutions and their leaders. And the most important development this past year is that I’m seeing more and more people referring to themselves as “arts workers”: it’s a small thing, but it’s a long overdue recognition that our field is not a “calling” and our institutions are not “family.”
I've had to work really hard over the past year (and more) to remind myself that my value is not tied to my productivity. Even though I've worked from home much of my last 15 years, and have not had a full time job since the onset of the pandemic, I still feel guilty as hell if I'm not sitting at my desk at 9am each weekday. It's a brutal conditioning that I struggle with more than I articulate.
The world is just catching onto the fact that that morning you spend painting a wall is time that you're processing and crystallizing ideas. I only wish that this becomes the norm instead of the exception. We all need that autonomy, trust and transparency, especially if we're going to disrupt these archaic and atrocious systems in the best way.
Brilliant as always, Anne Helen..thank you...
I am endlessly fascinated by this because I just do not understand it at all and so I keep trying to "get" it, even a little, but...I have just never cared about work like this? To be clear, I've never been lax/bad at job, and I'm not ever trying to sidestep things or be sloppy, but, working is just something that has to happen so I can, you know, live, and that's it. I've actually specifically negotiated being able to take extra unpaid time at previous jobs in order to be able to take long enough (several-week) vacations if I wouldn't have enough paid time to do so, and more than once had to be very clear about the fact that if I were forced into upward/lateral "job growth" I'd have to leave and find another job, because...it's just a job. Maybe one has to have more of a passion for their particular work, or be at a higher level (than, say, reception/admin assistance) in order to feel this kind of work compulsion?
"(Which is why I still dream of creating a second email account that can pose as my ‘assistant’ and say no, repeatedly and firmly, for me).""
Do it. Come over to Switzerland (I'm not in Switzerland but the email is), snag a protonmail account, set up a reply guy (me reply-guy) account and use that with the name... ah, Lydia Green, personal assistant to the very busy Ms. Petersen. Get out from under Google and the NSA at the same time.
"Of course, much of this ethos can be traced back to Calvinist understandings of a desire to work all the time as evidence of one’s status as Elect, aka pre-destined for eternal salvation. That’s the moral component. "
Which is hilarious since Calvin was all about Predestination and the Elect, so it didn't matter what you did in life, you wound up where you wound up.
"I cannot tell you how deeply I believe that, how fiercely I want to dismantle this ethos of constant productivity and workism, and how spectacularly bad I am at consistently taking my own advice. I am trying and failing and getting slightly better and backsliding."
My mother is a (self-admitted) workaholic. She can and does come home from work and then work around the house some more, to *relax from working*. If I were to wash dishes for her after cooking for her, she will get annoyed with me, because I took away her zen exercise of washing dishes. She will actively act as if I insulted if I try to help her with something, in spite of the fact that she's old and busted up her knee recently.
Eric Berne (M.D., Ph.D., RIP) had a concept of stamp collecting. You collect stamps (sadness, anger, etc.). Like frequent flier miles, collection enough stamps and you get a prize, except in this case, the prize are things like a free drunk or a nervous breakdown or a raging fit. My mother drags out the wooden cross and the three long nails while raging about how everyone in the world (at work) is stupid. Everyday. It doesn't make her happy but it *satiates* her.
So there is also the Bernian concept of a psychic wage. A dog trainer and the like knows the best way to train a dog is with rewards, not punishment. So if you're working yourself to death, you're drawing a emotional wage everyday for what you do, aside from cash wages. (If it was a cold-blooded business decision, you'd do what you need to do to just make your money and go home.) Heroin junkies, after a few years, don't get much in terms of sensation, but they keep doing it, because the stick is so large (withdrawal) but the more importantly the carrot was so so tasty in the the past.
The trick then is to figure out the psychic wage you're collecting and find a way to substitute for it. (Ideally so you can become a happiness stamp collector.)
(I'm prone to wanting to do the best possible job as thoroughly as possible. That tends to perfectionism and not getting finished. But I do have ye olde workman's pride. So there's that. Finding 'good enough' is my problem, but I decided when I was young I did NOT wish to be like my mother, who is, in many respects, a miserable person.)
"I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself and others that, as I put it in December, you are beloved and worthy of rest."
💜🤍🎀🎈 (<--There's my two cents on that.)
(I just ask the question: do I feel like crap? If yes, take a nap or go to bed or stare at the wall.)
One thing I love about being a mom is that my baby *is* non-negotiable. (There are obviously ways this complicates my life, too). But I have something of that feeling you had post-vaccination all the time: I get to/need to be choosy about what I say yes to, I ask for more money, I block out time I need.
I might be able to bs *myself* about burnout, but I know what the baby needs and that she isn’t really controllable or totally predictable. Everything needs some cushion in case of teeth, no nap, etc.
I feel this post so hard. Freelancing through a pandemic is the hardest thing I’ve done, and saying no to work feels verboten. No matter how crunched and stressed I’ve been at various times in the past year, I remind myself I’d feel worse if I lost the client or didn’t have work. Being grateful to have work at all has been my mantra, especially having lost some major sources of work due to the pandemic. Thankfully I have been able to ask for extensions during true crises like when my uncle died of COVID, and when my partner hurt his back at work and was bedridden. But overall, I just keep pushing myself to do my best and do yoga every day for peace of mind, and hoping that a palatable new normal isn’t too far off.
This resonates with me on many levels. When is the time truly ours? In some respects, my life has gotten better this year through eliminating my “mega-commute” into NYC, but in others, my work and life are a blended smoothie of obligations with no respite. When I do actually take time off, I’ve started using an OOO that says I’m unavailable and I will respond upon my return (rather than to call my cell, like I used to).
I so truly loved the “frictionless” piece - It was so validating, and made me wish I had someone to talk with about this back-end ops experience of employee supports (CRM, HRIS, e-learning apps, you name it!)
In re: "I still dream of creating a second email account that can pose as my ‘assistant’ and say no, repeatedly and firmly, for me" ... I once worked for a fairly well-known regional theatre company where the Artistic Director had (still has, I believe) a system like this set up, where a couple invented staff members field certain emails. The other benefit to this, besides being able to have someone else say "no" for her, is that email correspondents often reveal a whole lot about themselves through their treatment of people at the "Assistant" level.