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A man was sitting at his desk; he had been working for 125 hours a week all year. There was a loud noise. Later, at the hospital, the man said he did not realize that the sound was his back cracking. Cancer had finally reached his spine, but since he did not know it was there, he did not make the connection.

As a colleague told this story of his friend’s death, his voice quavered.  We listened, moved by our associate’s anguish and his courage for sharing this poignant tale in a professional environment.  Later, I heard folks say that they, or someone they knew, or maybe several people they knew, were working at that kind of pace.

I felt as if the story were directed at me.  I typically work about a 70 hour week, but had been pushing even harder in preparation for the Power Shift Forum. The very morning I heard this sad tale, I was experiencing waves of dizziness.  I could not take the time to go to the doctor, so I just tried to stay seated as much as I could.  Finally, Friday afternoon, I had a chance to see my GP.  His diagnosis:  exhaustion.

There was some positive news in this:  the doctor assured me that my forgetfulness and occasional confusion were not early Alzheimer’s or a brain tumor, but predictable symptoms of working too hard for too long.  (For once, the answer to my health question did not begin, “As we get older. . . .”) But it was a pretty humbling occurrence to have a doctor tell you to stop working and go home, I must say.  I was surprised by the emotional impact this judgment had on me.

With all my intense work and Jim away in the US, the kitchen looked like a disaster.

I slept almost non-stop until next morning.  I took a brief walk and later that night I went down the street to see The Great Gatsby (nice movie, but I had trouble staying awake).  All weekend, between long hours of deep sleep, I would try to catch up on the laundry or my emails, but it was hard to do much more than sit and stare.  I poked about my garden a bit, but just didn’t have the energy beyond a few snips and some watering. My kitchen was a horrible mess, but I had to promise myself I would tackle it in stages–I couldn’t stick with it long enough to finish the job. I survived on peanut butter and pasta (no, not together) because I just didn’t want to think about anything more challenging and, anyway, didn’t have much appetite. I finally downloaded the audible version of Dan Brown’s Inferno and that seemed to hold my attention (sure cure for what ails you: rubbish to read).

Jim is in the US, so I was on my own, which is just as well since it was not a pretty picture (He is going to freak when he finds out I haven’t put out the garbage.)  Worried about me, Jim wrote to several friends and asked them to check in.  None of them were surprised– my children, especially, felt the need to tell me I have been on this path a long time–but I can see that my loved ones are sincerely concerned.

My friends are nearly all colleagues from work–co-authors, students, the team from Power Shift.  Some would say the fact my friends are mostly from work is a sign of my unbalanced life.  And maybe they are right.  But I actually feel quite the opposite:  my friends, my work, and my life have become a seamless whole and that is what I prefer. This is not to deny that I am over the top–I am fine to admit this situation has gone too far–but I want to suggest that we may be wrong when we think compartmentalizing work and life is the solution to our hectic lives.

People need meaningful work.  This is a commonplace observation and the goal of much education, employment enrichment programs, and the like. Furthermore, the press regularly lauds leaders who can inspire people to push toward a worthy goal.  And we are often treated to studies showing that groups with a collaborative ethic and a shared vision accomplish more and are happier about it. So, on one hand, we operate with an ideal where we love and identify with our work and our co-workers are friends.

Yet we suddenly change gears when it comes to work/life balance.  When that topic surfaces, we revert to a vision of work that is receding from historical view.  It is the 1950s sitcom vision, in which Dad goes off to work in the morning, works for a wage at something unrelated to him as a person, and returns to his “real life” in the evening. When we tell people they need to draw the boundaries around their private lives more tightly, I wonder how much we are relying on this vision as our template?

It took a while, but I eventually got the kitchen back in order.

The implied alternative to the over-worked, stressed out life can’t be one where we are emotionally and intellectually disengaged, where it is easy to draw the line because we really don’t care about outcomes. That model would be bad for the economy, would predict a sudden stop to innovation. Worse, it’s a soulless model of the role work plays in our lives.

So, whatever the solution is to this pandemic of stress and burnout, it can’t be these simplistic calls to draw better boundaries or “just say no.”  You can’t “just say no” to something you really care about or to friends who are going to have to hold the fort if you bag out.

As I sat and stared, I thought a lot about the impact of my work on those who are dear to me.  I often feel guilty that my work makes me less engaged as a wife, a friend, a family member. Though Jim always solidly backs the importance of the mission to empower women, and is willing to sacrifice to keep going, I know he can get lonely while I am at work for long hours.  And I know the short temper that accompanies my stress can be hurtful.  He is the one who really bears the brunt of this “calling” of mine. But I also recognize that only some of Jim’s dedication comes from loving me–he has seen enough of what’s out there to care about women’s issues all on his own.  Thanks to Jim’s photographic genius, our projects have been beautifully documented whenever he came to the field. He does not want to stop, only to slow down. And it’s not just “me,” it’s “us.”

But Jim is retired and my children are grown.  Families with kids at home are a different matter.  And there is no question in my mind that there are people, especially men like the one in the story I opened with here, who are being exploited.  I believe that the “lean and mean” model of business–that arrogant Jack Welch concept–of the late 20th century brought us a situation where the professional workers of our time are being abused much as the working class was before labor unions.  We are expected to share the company’s goals as our own (whether that makes any sense or not) and to work never-ending hours on set salaries, so that the employer does not have any incentive to control the amount we work.  This is not only a gender issue, but a systemic question about justice in the workplace.

It is this kind of abuse that the UK tries to stop with their system, in which a doctor can order an employer to send an over-worked employee home.  (They haven’t done that to me yet, but I have had a couple of friends be ordered to stop work.)  They don’t have that kind of provision in America.  In fact, one of my American friends, when he heard I was at home, simply derided the idea that anyone really ever needs to stop work and rest.  The diagnosis of “exhaustion” has been used too many times by celebrities trying to cover up a drug problem–or, as he said “weird employees making up excuses.”  In American culture, it is simply not possible to work too much.  This is why they are, demonstrably, the most over-worked nation on earth.

On Monday, which was a holiday in England, I took a long walk through University Park in Oxford. There were many families, couples, and student groups out, enjoying the exceptionally fine weather. I even saw a birthday party complete with hats. Some companies have come to see such holidays as wasted time that robs them of profits and to approve of employees who keep working while their families stand by.

Questions of balancing work with caring, with health, with life, came up several times during the Power Shift Forum and I have no doubt they will surface again.  The division between home and work is at the heart of gender inequality.  But we also need to consider such things in order to make the workplace more creative and more stimulating, not abusive settings where employers use up brilliant minds only to spit them out. One of my symptoms was that I was losing the ability to focus, unable to think deeply, only skimming the surface of a problem.  This is not the condition of thought that makes for excellence and breakthroughs.  I don’t understand why this kind of strung-out existence is, for some people, the standard of productivity.

After a few days at home, however, my kitchen is clean, my laundry done, and  I am getting ready to pitch back up.  Notes are coming in from people who came to Power Shift.  They have things to say and change to make.  Our little group seems to have gotten a bit bigger.  It’s inspiring and I want to join the effort again.

Well. . . . maybe I will finish Inferno first.  It won’t take long.


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