The Lure of Work-And the Guilt of Leisure

A recent Gallup poll reports that American full-time, salaried workers report working 49 hours per week while full-time, hourly workers report working 44 hours per week. Furthermore, our work weeks typically take over our lives. We work well into the night and on the weekends.

Other wealthy countries don’t have this same mindset.  They limit, often by law, work hours to 35 hours per week and mandating 4 weeks of vacations per year; some of them are even considering a ban on e-mails after 6:00 pm or on weekends, in order to allow employees better work-life balance.

Legal or regulatory solutions to the work-life balance are almost out-of-the-question in the United States given our political climate and history. However, I doubt that even less formal attention to these matters is likely to see widespread growth.

Sure, part of our work is out of necessity, to pay our bills. More importantly, however, here in the States, work provides social opportunities and structure and gives our lives meaning.  “What do you do?” is often the first question we ask others upon meeting them, as if their job is the most important part of who they are.

So, what would we do without work?

For those of us on the East Coast at the moment, the Blizzard of 2016, has given us a chance to figure that out.  Assuming we don’t have work positions that are emergency-related and that we are safely hunkered down, well-stocked with bread, milk, and TP, this Blizzard represents a time off from our regular responsibilities.  For these 2 (or 4) days that we are stuck inside, we could be doing many things:

  • Playing games, assuming we have them
  • Spending time with our significant others
  • Reading
  • Listening to music
  • Catching up on sleep, which most Americans are short on
  • Talking to loved ones, either by phone or in person
  • Exercising (although I am wishing that my upstairs neighbor would switch from training for Olympic weight-lifting championships to yoga)
  • Planning our next trip to our favorite destination—or a new one
  • Taking a bubble bath
  • Engaging in nearly any hobby.

But my guess is that most of us will look at the time “off” afforded by the Blizzard of 2016 not as a chance to relax or engage in self-care or re-balance our lives, but instead as a chance to work more (and without those distracting co-workers).

This may be especially true amongst gifted individuals, who often feel like they haven’t done “enough.”  I think, sadly, of the 18-year-old profoundly gifted (PG) client who sat before me recently, telling me that his life was useless because he hadn’t “made anything of it” as if, by his age, he should have solved all the world’s problems.  I think, too, of my adolescent clients who are either anxious or resistant to the idea of “growing up”; only with the right questions will they admit that us adults haven’t exactly made adulthood look fun.

So what do we do about this?

First, we consider whether productivity is our highest value.  There may be many other values (such as having strong relationship, taking the time to be there for others, staying ever-keeled) that may not be in keeping with being the Busy Beaver.

If we decide that being the Busy Beaver is not what we want for ourselves nor the value that we most want our children to learn, we consider two things.

  • First, what is it about productivity that we think is so virtuous? Is it the perseverance?  The creativity?  The ability to work as a team?  Perhaps there are ways to hold these virtues without being stuck on mere productivity.  The VIA Institute on Character offers a test to help you determine the virtues that you hold most closely.
  • What do we want our lives, and the lives of our kids, to look like? Former Australian corporate warrior Nigel Marsh presents his version in this TED talk.

And now, with the Blizzard still whirling around me, I’m off…Not to work more but to pick a totally fun book to read, perhaps something like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’ve never read of a Narnian overworking.