I got an email from a former student asking if I had time to talk this morning. After we agreed on a time and connected, I could hear immediately they were pretty tense.
After a bit of catch up time, personal details aside, he said he'd been in a new job for five months, on salary, and has been routinely asked to work over 80 hours a week 'to get the job done.' He'd been asked to work weekends, come in for meetings as early as 5 am, and stay late at the drop of a hat, sometimes as late as 1 am. Messages came in related to work 24/7 with expectations for 'timely response.' He also said he'd been asked to travel spontaneously with overnights four times so far with less than 24 hours notice. No matter how late you stay apparently, employees are asked to be at work the next day on-time at 8 am, no matter what the circumstances. The pay, he relayed, could be considered slightly above average for their position, but by no means would it be considered extraordinary or even exceptional. He said the office has some modern trends: a ping pong table, free coffee, free sandwiches and salads on Friday's, and free 15-minute employee massages in-house once per month.
I asked how he was doing and if he loved the work. "I did," he said. "But, I'm burning out. I can't get away from it and take a break at this pace. I feel exhausted every single day. By the time I do get a few hours off, I don't feel like doing anything. I have no time to see my wife and son or friends. I haven't done anything for so long except come home, eat and sleep. Things are getting tense at home because I'm literally never there to do anything."
He said it all hit wall recently because he requested a total of four hours off last week to bring his five-year-old son to two dentist appointments and was told he had to file and take CTO (Combined Time Off) to do so. Taking this time, he explained, means less vacation, later on, something he already feels he sorely needs because of burnout.
Then he asked what advice I had for him.
I asked him if he had any mentors at work. "What?" he replied. I asked if he'd been assigned any mentors at work, someone he could talk to about challenges in this new positions, expectations, if their take on if this was normal, etc. "No,'" he responded. "Someone showed me the ropes of my job for about a week, where to find things, where files go, and training on one application we use, but nothing like you're talking about."
I reminded him that in five months of employment, he'd worked over ten months already - "you've doubled your hours per week, each week, for five months."
I shared some of my trials over the years. I wish I could say I've always managed work-life balance well in my career, but I haven't. It's a constant juggling act. I've worked myself to the point of exhaustion a few times and also crossed that threshold twice over 25 years and into health problems. I decided in a couple of those instances to 'press on' and slowly make the adjustments I needed to restore work-life balance. In a couple of others, I felt it was just necessary to move on because stress/dysfunction and 'end game' didn't make sense. In all those cases, 'real' mentorship programs were non-existent and left me thinking how valuable they could have been to change the culture.
So I gave him the following advice: "Strike up a conversation with a peer who's been there for a bit, explain your question, and ask how they address these issues. Leave the stress out of it, just stay factual. It'll help you gain some perspective. Then talk to your supervisor and explain your situation and circumstances. Ask them to clarify their stance on your question and see what they say. If the answer remains to take CTO time to bring your child to the dentist, and 'do whatever it takes to do your job,' as in 80+ hours per week, and 24/7 availability, then analyze the end game.
End-game, meaning, 'what are you getting out of this and what's the projection of how this will play out over time?' That will likely lead to three options: 1. You love the money and think it's worth it as long as you can put up with it. 2. You love the job, see this demand as temporary, and that it will or can improve. 3. Endure it for the time being and it'll give you time to start polishing your resume and move on if you don't want to live this way.
I often think of the mentorship programs I saw available to new teachers when I was in New Zealand. You taught with a mentor in year one, were mentored half-time in year two, and then in year three were turned loose. Faculty, department, and mentor meetings were part of the weekly culture no matter what year you were in and the school schedule was built to promote this level of collaboration. I interviewed more than 25 teachers, a small but effective sample group over many schools; I didn't meet a single person who didn't think this type of mentorship program was instrumental to success, teacher retention, and overall creativity. In all, they felt the program led to less burnout, better collaboration and camaraderie, and improvements in instruction and services to students. Go figure.
In a high percentage of schools and businesses I've worked with, ongoing mentorship programs, save a bit of training at the onset, didn't exist.
What if we valued mentorship programs more readily in schools and businesses? What dividends can bloom from a robust mentorship program?
Mining people's well being, their health, and destroying their family lives won't lead to more productive employees or, I'd dare say, a functional society, company or school in the long run. The perks of a ping pong table, free coffee, or 15-minute massages for employees once per month might not compensate for the dysfunction that brews at home from working two full-time jobs, the mental and physical health challenge of being on call 24/7 and disconnecting from your home life.
We all hear stories about 'the corporate life.' More, faster, and sacrificing nearly any and all personal time for 'the work you love.' It's a choice, really. That's all it is.
I know people who work two full-time jobs or close to it just to make ends meet. Some work incredible hours because it's truly, what they love to do and are able to find some balance in the immersive hours that 'floats their boat.' Some others I know commit to this schedule by choice banking on the financial rewards later on. Some others still who work part-time, cover their expenses, and explore more freedom. One thing is for certain though, the weather patterns will change. Choices of how to live, how much you spend, and what 'bs' you can and are willing to put up with are all important considerations. Your mental and emotional health are important to monitor. Burnout won't help you or anyone in your life. Regardless, it all comes down to a series of analysis, reflection, and charting a course.
The demands will keep coming. The changes will keep coming. It's up to you to decide how much rough weather your ship can take, how much sail to put up based on the wind, which direction to go, set a course, and grab the rudder.