After years spent ticking off milestones, Sophie Morris began to see how an addiction to productivity was leaching the joy out of her life and resolved to find a way to step aside from the grind. And she’s not the only one
One morning last week, my husband got up at 5am to drive 80 miles to a specialist mechanic before putting in three days of back-to-back meetings in London. He messaged mid-afternoon to ask how my day was going. “Good, thanks,” I typed. “Spent the morning at the beach with the dog. Answered some emails, then ate a packet of biscuits and fell asleep.”
Don’t jump to conclusions. I haven’t engineered a cushy lifestyle of snacking while my husband supports me. And I don’t do this every day. I don’t want to do this every day. But following a very busy January, I needed a rest. After illness forced one upon me, I took another day to really rest.
I hear you: you’re exhausted, too. But I’ve noticed that too often what is preventing us from resting is not a genuine lack of time, but our relationship to the clock. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, goes the cheery mantra, a grim affirmation of our addiction to ambition, achievement, productivity and success - the four nosebags of a workforce that is increasingly stressed, depressed and physically frazzled.
A couple of weeks ago, Future Forum Pulse reported that 42 per cent of workers - an all-time high - admit to burnout. Those “burnt out”, defined by the World Health Organisation as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress, are more likely to be women and under 30.
Until recently, the mantra that we can’t “have it all” has been reserved for women with children who have the nerve to want a career, too.
But now everyone is joining in with the call to step back from the 24/7 demands of our digital lives, with the message that ambition gets you nowhere, success is hollow, and no amount of money or followers will soothe your soul.
Emma Gannon, a pioneer of the “multi-hyphen” digital portfolio career, admitted last year to burnout and tells the story in her forthcoming book The Success Myth (Torva, £16.99, published on 18 May), which has the tagline, “Our obsession with achievement is a trap. This is how to break free.”
Men, too, realise what they are missing if they are out the door first thing every morning. Christine Armstrong, a workplace expert and author of The Mother of all Jobs, tells me she has had men crying down the phone because they are so thrilled that they can have breakfast with their chil- dren, thanks to the hybrid working that many employers now permit post-pandemic.
But despite flexible working, more than a third of employees in the UK say that work has become less important to them since the pandemic, while more than half a million have given up their jobs.
My first job out of university was on a national newspaper, where after two years I became a feature writer and had my own comment page. This was before Twitter and Instagram existed. We thought we lived in an always-on culture because there was rolling news. We stayed in the office late and editors might call at any hour.
My colleagues and I had started to blog and were learning how to use smartphones. We had no idea. These were but pond ripples compared to today’s tsunami of demands on our attention.
As I approached 30, I realised that I had been single for my twenties. I spent my holidays on foreign reporting trips. I had alienated my non-journalism friends by doing nothing but journalism, apart from the year that I worked just shy of full-time while also doing a master’s degree.
As a gift to myself for my multitasking, I ran a marathon. As someone with opportunity, and as a good feminist and recovering Methodist (that dour work ethic isn’t so easy to quit), I understood that it was my responsibility to work.
And then work some more. I had been programmed to produce.
What happened next wasn’t burnout, more like an awakening. I quit. I took one look, not even a long one, at the newspaper executives in the building. They were a mixed bag, lots of grey suits and skin, but a clutch of impressive women, too, whom I had idolised early on. But they were there when I got to work and still there however late I left.
I realised that I didn’t want that for myself, that it wasn’t a lifestyle I would survive. I grabbed the best freebies from my desk and ran for it - the “it” being work as a freelance writer, which is less a career and more a string bag of fascinating assignments, desperate pitches, late payments and receding rates. But it suits me.
It is only now, a decade later, that I am making sense of how and why I deserted my dream job, jacking in my identity at the same moment I tore up my paycheck, pension and incredibly generous holiday allowance. I didn’t have a money cushion to fall back on, but as a journalist I was at least in an industry that expects freelancers.
Not everybody is so lucky, and I caution people against thinking that they can replace their salary with earnings from an Etsy shop selling bamboo knick-knacks.
A rush of thinkers and writers recommend that we free ourselves from the daily grind, divorce our souls from capitalism’s relentless push towards profit, and see the concepts of “ambition” and “success” for what they really are: mere signposts on the long road of life, that will smother you if you don’t tame them first.
Saving Time by Jenny Odell (Penguin/Bodley Head, £20, out 23 March) exposes how the corporate clock that dominates our lives is devastating us and the planet. It’s heavy stuff, but Odell fights to provide us with an alternative way to experience the time we have. “We need to embrace a whole new concept of time,” she writes. “One that gives us and our planet a brighter future.”
While productivity-driven toxic work culture is the lodestar dragging most of us through our lives - we arrange our calendars, after all, around working and non-working days - Odell points to other rhythms we could notice and follow.
Seasons, shortening and lengthening days, a pregnancy. All of these are periods of time and rhythms of life through which we can try to reimagine ourselves and our lives, and find meaning outside the foregone conclusions of work and profit.
I began my career with a traditional perception of success that involved, as the years passed, job titles and pay rises. I realised very quickly that none of these accomplishments, once won, felt satisfying. There was always something more to do, someone doing better, some new workrelated necessity to swallow up the extra money.
Rarely have I felt more seen by fiction than when I read Careering by Daisy Buchanan, out in paperback next week (Little, Brown, £9.99, 9 March). Careering’s two protagonists are women at different stages of their hard-won magazine careers. The novel eviscerates the toxic relationships that they have with their jobs with unflinching honesty (and lots of laughs, too).
Buchanan explores the bind that so many of us find ourselves trapped in - loving a job that doesn’t appear to love us back. Are expectations unrealistic, or have we been sold a lie?
What can we do when work isn’t working out? Even once I knew I needed a rest, preparing for what I now call my “Great lie down” wasn’t easy. For starters, I thought naps were for wimps. Who has time to sleep during the day? If you’re not working, why aren’t you creating something? All out of creativity? Have you watched all the Oscar films yet? How about catching up on some cult TV series? Get needleworking!
“All of culture is in collaboration for us not to rest,” according to Tricia Hersey, a US activist and founder of the Nap Ministry. Hersey campaigns for us to slow down and, literally, take naps. This is extreme self-care, but forget the scented candles.
As a black woman, Hersey is protesting against grind culture and white supremacy via the medium of loving herself enough to rest, something her ancestors were not permitted.
In April she releases the Nap Ministry Rest Deck, flashcards sharing “50 Practices to Resist Grind Culture”. The first card that Hersey chose to reveal on her Instagram account reads, “I will stop worrying about productivity”.
Productivity is far from a dirty word for Christine Armstrong, who says we like to feel we have achieved something at work. She sees low work satisfaction scores from people caught in a “communications churn” of emails, meetings and calls.
This bleeding of work and life zones occurs for all types of workers, such as plumbers and hairdressers and childcare providers, not only those employed in office- and screenbased roles.
And it isn’t only the hyper-connectedness that is stressing workers out, it’s the myriad places and spaces that they are expected to be at one time, from email to Microsoft Teams to Slack and social media. Rather than an always-available workforce ready to labour, this has created droves of lemmings rushing from one alert to another.
But if teams work together to decide when they can contact each other and how, and determine some meeting-free days, they claw back time to get work done. Fair enough. But I don’t want my self-worth to be linked to my output. “In my own mind,” Armstrong says, “I have disaggregated success and happiness. Instead of talking about work-life balance, which is very precarious, I talk about work-life boundaries.”
Boundaries have been shown to be very successful in the four-day week campaign. Fifty six of 61 companies in a six-month international trial have opted to continue with this changed working pattern, offering employees three-day weekends.
It would crush me to think a younger person might see my unease with our working lives as a reason not to study, explore, question and investigate. But this is a condemnation of always-on culture and the obsession with achievement - and a reminder that spending time on your phone, buying work clothes or workout gear is not resting or relaxing.
Whether our weekends are two or three days or even longer, our leisure time remains in bondage to productivity. Resist the urge to “always be optimising”, as Jia Tolentino demanded in a New Yorker essay.
I don’t have all the answers. But in lieu of a solution, I’m taking more rests. I’m afraid it still feels something of a cop-out. While I am resting, I’ll think about what I could and should be doing.
“The thought of not doing, even for a short time, is seen as lazy and unproductive,” Hersey writes in her recent bestseller Rest is Resistance. True. But it’s a start.
A SHORTER WEEK
Of the 61 UK companies that trialled a four-day working week for six months, 56 have extended the four-day-week policy, while 18 have opted to make it permanent.
It was found to improve symptoms of burnout: 39 per cent of employees said they were less stressed.
There was also a decline in the number of sick days taken. On average, employees would take four or five sick days each year when working five days.
Working a four-day week reduced that to two.
According to Westfield Health, 46 per cent of employees in the UK feel close to burnout. It’s generational: 59 per cent of Millennials, 58 per cent of Gen Z and 54 per cent of Gen X have experienced burnout. Baby Boomers had significantly lower rates, with just 31 per cent experiencing it.