Search online “work too much” and you’ll get screenfuls of information about the harmful medical, mental and social consequences of spending too much time on the job, going all the way back to that old saw first recorded in the 17th century, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
It should be “makes Jack a dead boy,” says the latest contribution to the literature of overwork, this one from the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.
A new study by the two groups says that working 55 or more hours a week is a “serious health hazard.” It estimates that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths worldwide in 2016, a 29 percent increase over 2000. Men accounted for 72 percent of the fatalities; the worst concentrations were in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, and particularly among 60- to 79-year-olds who had worked long hours after the age of 45.
Reading this book is enough to set one’s blood to boiling…but so many Americans are still too scared, too poor and too disorganized (i.e. no union) to do a thing about their terrible hours, conditions and pay.
But there’s also a peculiarly American insistence, beyond financial need, to keep proving to everyone all the time how productive you are, as if there’s some Powerful Person standing somewhere with a clicker to clock every minute you ever worked and you’ll be rewarded by….not dying?
As if working all the time for money, to burnish your professional reputation, to boost your income or status, is the only thing worth attaining or achieving.
If Covid’s terrible damage to millions — destroying their long-term health or killing them — wasn’t sufficient warning that our time here is limited and we have many other ways to spend our time, what is?
Even the present-oriented hunter-gatherers, it turns out, had to develop communal strategies to quash the drivers of overwork—status envy, inequality, deprivation. When a Ju/’hoan hunter returned with a big kill, the tribe perceived a danger that he might think his prowess elevated him above others. “We can’t accept this,” one tribesman said. “So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” This practice became known among researchers as “insulting the hunter’s meat.”
It was not the only custom that aimed to discourage a destabilizing competition for status and avoid a concentration of power. The tribe also “insisted that the actual owner of the meat, the individual charged with its distribution, was not the hunter, but the person who owned the arrow that killed the animal,” Suzman writes. By rewarding the semi-random contributor of the arrow, the Ju/’hoansi kept their most talented hunters in check, in order to defend the group’s egalitarianism. A welcome result was that “the elderly, the short-sighted, the clubfooted and the lazy got a chance to be the centre of attention once in a while.”
Reading about these strategies, I felt several things at once—astonished by their ingenuity, mind-blown by the notion of ridiculing exceptional achievements, and worried that my failure to imagine taking comparable pains to protect leisurely harmony meant that my own brain had been addled by too many years in productivity mode, too many twitchy Sunday evenings.
I think about this a lot, as readers here know.
I’ve been working for income from my first part-time job at 15 as a lifeguard. I started writing for income at 19 and was selling my photos at the same age, sometimes from a street corner in Toronto, sometimes to the dubious tough guy old photo editors of Time Canada (sold!) and Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsweekly.
So working hard and competing for jobs and work with many others is normal.
Leisure — rhymes with pleasure! Treasure! Not so much.
Living in hyper-competitive, expensive New York/the U.S. makes rest problematic —- many workers don’t even get paid sick days or vacation days. Freelancers like me and Jose only earn income when we work. Social media makes an ongoing performative fetish of productivity (truly a word and idea I loathe!), never legacy or creativity or beauty.
Some people have wisely created passive income streams (like owning and renting out property) but that’s always intimidated me.
I lived to age 30 in Canada, and in Toronto, an intensely work-focused place. I moved at 30 to Montreal to escape all of it, choosing a regional newspaper much less prestigious (and less competitive) than the Globe & Mail.
I was burning out and I knew it.
The balance between work and rest, ambition and chilling out, climbing a career ladder or even stepping off it is an ongoing challenge. Americans, especially, are taught from earliest childhood to compete really hard and then to work really hard.
I very rarely see anyone legitimately exhort them to slow down, rest, recharge!
I’m nearing the end of my career in the next few years, really not sure when or how to stop. We are OK for retirement income.
Work has been my identity for a long, long time! Journalism, at its best, can do tremendous good — righting wrongs, taking the corrupt and lying powerful to account, sharing stories that help people improve their lives. I love being part of that.
And, I have to admit, it’s a thrill to produce work published to enormous global audiences.
The larger questions yet to be resolved without work are what sometimes are the basics of a good job/career — your tribe, the people with whom, if you’re lucky, you share values and ethics, in-jokes, jargon, institutional memory.
I’ve never been a joiner or club sort of person. Same with Jose. I need a lot of intellectual stimulation to not be really bored. Neither of us has hobbies — likely the inevitable result of being too work-focused since the age of 19!
Nor, like most of our peers, do we have children or grandchildren.
I’m now at my third hotel since March 3…and this one is the best, thanks to a great rate on hotels.com, a gorgeous Fairmont in D.C., and I have two days’ leisure after a whirlwind three days at the Northern Short Course conference nearby, an annual meeting of photojournalists at all levels of skill and experience.
I spoke yesterday on pitching and had a decent audience — maybe 50 people — and made a few really interesting potential contacts for future paid work.
I started my journey with a long drive south on March 3 from New York to the town of Middleburg, Virginia, home to the oldest inn in the U.S. — 1728 — the Red Fox, and stayed there for two nights.
The area is very beautiful, a real 18th-century landscape mostly because extremely wealthy landowners have bought and held enormous estates for riding and fox-hunting. The town (pop. 637) is full of tack shops and saddleries.
Here’s the inn:
I found a nearby Civil War battlefield and savored solo sunshine and silence on one of Virginia’s oldest bridges, (1802.)
The conference was excellent, with presentations from highly accomplished photojournalists. Celeste Sloman showed us the work from her New York Times project (and book) documenting the women of the 116th Congress.
Eman Mohammed showed her powerful images of conflict, but also quieter and more intimate moments as well.
I have only two days off in D.C., but had a great dinner with friends at 2Amys, which makes amazing wood-fired pizza.
Today is sunny and warm and I’m headed to the National Gallery for a show of Degas.
It feels very good to finally savor some downtime away from all the anxiety of daily life — and yes, I am couching and sneezing into my elbow and washing my hands a lot!
One of the many challenges of working freelance, as my husband I both do, is having basically no structure at all to many of our days. When he works at The New York Times and United States Golf Association (his two anchor clients), we know what hours and days are committed.
But without setting up planned pleasures for ourselves, we often just end up working too much and even on official holidays.
So for the end of 2019 and heading into 2020 I’m going full steam ahead and making plans for fun, for culture, for travel.
Yes, it’s expensive — but without joyful things to look forward to, it’s just toil and sleep.
Especially after a breast cancer diagnosis, time is more precious to me than ever.
On the 6th, I’m headed to a service of candlelight and carols with a friend, at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, maybe with dinner beforehand at La Bonne Soupe, a terrific French bistro in business since 1977.
On the 13th, at home in Tarrytown, The Hot Sardines are playing — and I’ve been following them since the very beginning, having met their Canadian-French singer at a dinner party years ago when she was still a journalist. They tour globally and have had huge success.
On the 17th., we’re off to hear the New York Philharmonic play my favorite music — Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos — the greatest hits of 1721!
In January, a friend and I have tickets to Porgy and Bess at the Met Opera.
A new colleague at the Times is a balletomane as well, so we’re planning to see some ballet with him in 2020.
I keep looking at sites for cottage rentals and just need to commit; I have been dying to spend time in Cornwall after the end of my favorite BBC series, Poldark, set there at the end of the 18th. century. I want to spend two weeks there, a week in London and maybe even another week elsewhere in the English countryside and October 2020 is the only time we can do it.
Thanks to my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, the last six months of 2018 really disappeared into a fog of anxiety, tests, surgery, radiation and fatigue.
In 2020, I’m still tethered to doctor appointments and follow-ups in March and also have to renew my green card (which allows me legal residency in the U.S.), which we are told can take six months, so that also limits any international options until the new one is in my hands.
But the more art and culture I enjoy — whether paintings, drawings, concerts, ballet, opera — the happier I am. It’s why I wanted to live here, close to New York City. Not savoring its cultural riches seems silly to me.
In your teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, life tends to follow fairly predictable patterns: finish your education, find a partner, marry, have children, buy a home….if you can even afford them, as so many can’t now thanks to crippling student debt and stagnant wages.
If you’re lucky enough to remain healthy and keep finding good jobs, you might be acquiring capital for retirement and watching your income rise. Nothing guaranteed, of course!
But my point is that, for a good long while, the trajectory — traditionally — seems fairly clear, and usually, upward in terms of acquisitions, growth and success.
My old dreams, thankfully, have been realized: to own my own home; to have a happy marriage; generally good health (and access to good care); lasting, deep friendships. I was lucky enough to have three staff jobs at major newspapers, doing work I enjoyed, and several magazine editing jobs, and then published two books to good reviews.
I’ve traveled widely, to 41 countries, including places in Africa and Asia. I love to travel and am debating disappearing into a Paris rental apartment in 2020 for months. I love Paris and I miss hearing and speaking French.
We only get so much time….
The next bit, if I am lucky enough to remain healthy and solvent, is much less clear to me. Many women my age are corporate warriors earning a fortune, too busy for friendship, or doting grandmothers, cooing over their family. I’m in neither category and that is sometimes both disorienting and very lonely.
I still have to bring in money to meet our exorbitant health insurance costs, although I’d happily hang it up now. I still enjoy writing but have been chasing writing income since university and am heartily sick of that.
New dreams include more global travel, possibly writing a few more books, starting a business of PR strategy and another to sell my photos to interior designers.
Will any of these happen? Who knows?
It’s a luxury, I know, to have achieved so many of my younger dreams.
It’s a challenge, now, to think of new ones — and to gin up the requisite enthusiasm and energy for some of them.
It’s a long weekend here in the U.S., Memorial Day, and that means — for some — a three-day break from work.
Things have been quiet-ish here for me: lots of pitching of story ideas, attending local networking events and following up with the people I’ve met there — and (!) waiting nervously to hear from two editors about my book proposal.
In an economy where so many are self-employed, work can dominate every day of the week unless you set tight boundaries. It’s also tough for many people with high-pressure jobs to slow down and just rest.
I hope you’re making time for this as well!
Here are some of the ways I rest, recharge and relax:
I try to get to spin class three times a week, 45 minutes in the dark with great music. When not being lazy, I also lift weights, skate at a local ice rink and go for walks. I need the social aspect of being around others as much as the cardio and stretching. I may get back to playing softball, even with a runner to fill in for my bad right knee.
The walkway next to our town reservoir
We live at treetop level, eye-to-eye with blue jays and with ready access to gorgeous walking trails along the Hudson River or the nearby Rockefeller estate (750 acres that one of the nation’s richest families donated for public use.) I love seeing the world change with the seasons — our local cormorant is back at the reservoir!
Little kids get play dates to look forward to. Adults need them too! I make sure each week to set up at least one face to face meeting with a friend, over coffee or lunch. I’ve been working alone at home, with no kids or pets, since 2006. It gets lonely. I also make time for long catch-up phone calls with old friends in Canada (for whom [?!] long distance rates still somehow apply.)
This is a new thing for me, held every Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m. in the chapel of our church and led by our minister’s wife. This all sounds starchy, I’m sure, but it’s a truly powerful place to share ideas and insights, to sit still in silence, to learn and to build community. It’s women only, ranging in age from 40s to 80+, and we usually have eight to 12. It’s good to have a standing date with one’s soul.
After my breast cancer diagnosis last June, even a very good one, anxiety has become an unwelcome new companion. Therapy helps.
Found this 1940s diner on a great road-trip last summer, on Long Island’s North Shore
Always my favorite! We just took a quick two-day trip to Montreal, a five-hour drive door-to-door from our home, and it was a perfect break. Sometimes a change of scenery is just the ticket.
Escaping into a great book is a perfect way to de-compress.
It’s what I do when I’m angry, bored or stressed — and boy, does the apartment look great!
Silverplate polished, windows washed, rugs vacuumed, counters scrubbed, stove-top gleaming…
But this is also a time in my life, long overdue, of cleaning house in the rest of my life:
Ditching worn-out friendships
Time to lose people with whom I have little in common now beyond some shared history but little joy and pleasure in their company — and likely, theirs in mine. I’ve allowed too many unsatisfying relationships to masquerade as friendship. And my cancer diagnosis and treatment, inevitably, quickly thinned the herd of people I once considered friends, but who couldn’t spare a minute for a call, email, card or visit. Here’s a powerful essay on the subject from Thought Catalog.
Seeking newer, better clients for my skills
That might mean negotiating for more money or less onerous demands from the people I choose to work with. It will definitely mean dropping those who drive me nuts with their disorganization while being more selective upfront about to whom I sell my labor.
Setting tighter boundaries around my time, attention and energy
Yes, I’ll still dick around on Twitter and Insta, (one of the joys of self-employment is the need to remain visible on social media, as well as interesting and credible.) But spending more time reading books, visiting museums, galleries and shows will serve me much better than sitting alone in the apartment to save money. That which brings joy and inspiration — yes! That which enervates and sparks envy, begone!
Tossing out stained, worn-out clothing, shoes, towels, linens and all other items I just don’t like, never use and want gone!
I recently took a stack of good, thick (unused) towels to our local dog shelter, which they use to keep the animals warm and dry. I’ve clung for too many years to too many items for fear I won’t be able to afford to replace them. Fear is not a great place to live.
Upgrading the quality of what I buy, see, eat and experience
The obvious cliche of getting older — (and a scary diagnosis) — is valuing what we have and making sure to savor the best of what we can afford. Cheaping out and defaulting, always, to frugality has helped me to save a significant amount for retirement — but it’s come at the cost of constant self-denial and deprivation. Enough!
While Broadside has more than 20,700 followers, according to WordPress, (which is lovely), the number of readers-per-post remains extremely low — most posts, no matter what the subject, get a maximum of 100 views before I post another one, hoping for more.
I’ve published 2,105, starting on July 1, 2009.
I enjoy blogging and will continue, but I am feeling generally dis-spirited and need a break.
If anyone wants to offer suggestions on how to improve readership of Broadside — more/fewer posts? shorter/longer posts? wider variety of subjects? — feel free to comment here or send me an email; the address is on the welcome and about pages.
I appreciate every one who makes time to read, and especially to comment!
I really value those who return year after year (!) and whose insights make writing this stuff more compelling for me and for other readers,
But I’m going on hiatus until January, probably the first week.