an expectation of gratitude

A friend recently told me that her work had instituted a no-email after 8 pm or on weekends policy, and it had served as a catalyst for a profound shift in everyday anxiety and churn at her workplace. When the policy was announced, most people were dubious that it would be kept — there would be exceptions, and then those exceptions would erode the policy to make it pretty much meaningless. But thus far — six months in — everyone, including managers, has kept to it. When the expectation of email vigilance disappears, it prompts a different relationship with your phone during off times: the compulsion to open your email (gradually) vanishes when the “rewards” (new emails) do.

Of course, people make all sorts of arguments for why they need their phone with them at all times. Children, I get. Other justifications, they’re mostly flimsy. (I often find myself taking my phone with me on a run because WHAT IF THERE’S SOMETHING PRETTY TO TAKE A PICTURE OF, which, well.) My friend still has a complicated relationship with her phone (it takes months, if not years, to rewire these habits; it blows). But she also says the absence of emails, and the low-level stress that accompanied them, has opened up time for true and actual leisure: it’s much easier to go to the movies, or go on a long walk, or spend the afternoon truly absorbed in a book when that thing really is the only thing you’re doing in that moment. (Note: she does not have kids. I know that it’s much, much, more difficult to create that sort of mental space when you have kids.)

It reminds me of a phrase my hippy ex-boyfriend had written on a piece of notebook paper and taped to his wall next to his bed: what you are doing in your mind is what you are doing. Sometimes hippy shit is just right.

Talking to my friend made me to wonder: what seemingly small practices has your manager or boss (or you, yourself) put in place that have made work less shitty, less of a life-sucking slog, or just more enjoyable? I asked my various social network feeds, and the responses included the simple (a seltzer machine, a water cooler, healthy snacks) to the profound (allowing people to work four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days; Summer Fridays). But the common denominator was even more straightforward than a seltzer machine, and involved being treated as a human being, complete with concerns and responsibilities and a life outside of work.

Under this umbrella: unlimited sick time; no compulsion to explain why you were taking sick time or PTO; the ability to take kids into work (so long as you were wholly responsible for them) on snow days; expansive ability to work-from-home (from one day a week to whenever desired); mandatory time off for managers and non-managers alike; abolition of arbitrary dress codes; taking laptops and work phones away when someone’s on actual vacation; an in-building gym that employees are encouraged to use during the workday. As my pal Jaimie Green put it, “everything I can think of involved being respectful of my time.”

The vast majority of the answers involved people who were working office-type jobs, which feels significant: there’s still little attention, amongst companies or managers, to how to improve the everyday experience of work for people in the service industry, or cobbling together multiple jobs/gigs. One woman who works as a nanny did report that a huge shift in her working life was the result of a single purchase on the part of her employer: an extra carseat for her car, so that she could be mobile with the kids instead of tied to the house and the immediate area. As a former nanny, I agree: it’s life changing. As was the fact that my employers gave me PTO and sick days and a health care allowance, which is far from standard amongst employers — and had everything to do with the fact that I was placed through a nanny service, which, I suppose, is its own sort of employee advocacy service. All of those things, including the carseat, transformed what could have been a miserable, exploitative job into a good job.

“Good jobs” — e.g., jobs where managers and the company as a whole are invested in employees as humans, not robots — don’t have to be limited to offices or the professional class. Historically, it’s taken the power of a union to “encourage” employers to do so — and there are thousands of workplaces today (like GM, where workers are now in their third week of a strike) where that’s still the case. But the employer can also decide that treating workers like humans isn’t just ethical, but a profitable business practice — an idea explored at length by Zeynep Tom in The Good Jobs Strategy.

Tom looks at Trader Joe’s, Zara, and a popular Spanish supermarket chain, but the case study I found most compelling was QuickTrip: a convenience store chain with outposts across much of the US. QuickTrip has minimal turnover (and, compared to the rest of the convenience store industry, minuscule turnover). They have a quasi-cult-following. They have excellent growth and profit margins. The reason, Tom argues, is because employees are given steady schedules (including the ability to schedule around childcare/school pick-up/drop-off), the opportunity to rise through the ranks to positions of power, excellent pay, bonuses for consistency, and health care. Put simply: they’re not treated as disposable, or like robots, but like workers deserving of fair and ethical treatment, even if they don’t have a college degree or sit in a cubicle. As a result, they’re better, more reliable, more trustworthy workers. That shouldn’t be radical, but it is.

Looking over the responses to my initial question, I was impressed by what many workplaces had put in place — but I was also disheartened by how many people responded in awe, or dismay. Their workplace would never. One woman simply responded, “I’m an adjunct, so….” That’s all she needed to say: her position within the workforce rendered her beyond the scope of any attention to ameliorating workplace conditions. Another adjunct did say that their department chair sat down with each of them at the beginning of the semester, and ended up advocating for a small research/travel stipend for each of them — such a small thing, but so rare as seem monumental.

That’s how low our standards have fallen. Once you’ve internalized a standard of work, no matter how shitty, as just the way things are, it’s natural to express gratitude when it’s ameliorated in however small a way: It was a game changer when I started a job where my boss didn’t ask for a doctor’s note every time I had an appointment. It was huge when I could be ten minutes late and then work an extra ten minutes at the end of the day. It made a huge difference when they actually allocated a room for nursing.

I’m sure all of these things really were game changers. But they should have been standard all along. When they’re added, we internalize that we shouldn’t ask for more: instead, we should be grateful.

That expectation of gratitude — and its flipside, the label of ungrateful when we ask for more — is at the crux of our current conversations about labor, but it imbues so many other millennial experiences. You should be grateful you have phones, grateful you have a job, grateful you’re driving Uber instead of in the coal mine, grateful you got to go to college, grateful you’re not at war, grateful you don’t live in North Korea, the list goes on. But here’s the thing: you can have an underlying sense of gratitude while also asking for things to be different, for your work to be less dehumanizing and all-consuming and in service to a never-ending drive for profit and growth, with only the barest minimum returning to you.

There is a categorical difference between not wanting to work (the bogeyman of “laziness”) and wanting work to be, well, better. That’s not selfishness. That’s self-preservation. It’s achievable by letting go of shame, internal and external, for asking for better, but also, even more importantly, through solidarity with other workers — and not just ones whose jobs or workplaces are similar to your own. So think about what your employer (which can include yourself!) has or has not done to make work better. And then think about what else is possible.

Collected AHP News:

  • My Audible Original on burnout — which includes interviews with people across the United States, talking about specific forms of burnout (being a black woman in media, being a pastor in the 21st century, being from Ohio, and more) was released on Friday. If you have an Audible account, you can listen for free; if you don’t, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial and then listen for free. And if like Pastor John Thornton and his anti-burnout church, you can subscribe to his excellent newsletter here.

  • My essay on the Nashville Bachelorettes was included in this year’s Best Travel Writing! A huge honor for an essay that started out with my fascination with the women tagging themselves at Reese Witherspoon’s clothing store. Chances are high that it’s a place of Best Writing Series prominence at your local book store.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe, and find the online, shareable version of this post here. Follow me on Twitter here, on Instagram here. Please excuse typos and weird, unwieldly sentences; doing this without strict attention to detail is what makes it possible to do it every week for free. If you have feedback or comments or ideas for a future just-trust-me, just reply to this email, or find me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com