“I haven’t see you for ages, how are you?”
“Mmfft, I’m ok, just hanging on until the end of the year, only [insert number] weeks to go.”
I’ve been hearing variations on that conversation for at least a month now. Too many people are talking about how exhausted they are, how they only have to hang in there for a few more weeks, that ten days over Christmas will make all the difference.
End of year event chaos is messing with everyone’s sleep and schedules, the race to get projects finished before Christmas shutdown is speeding up and everyone has been saving up annual leave, or were even forced to wait until the end of the year to take it.
I’m pretty sure this happens every year. Maybe I’m just noticing it more this year, maybe I notice it this much every year and the memory just fades over time. Whatever the reality is, perception that work is overwhelmingly present, and Christmas shutdown is the only time is fades, seems ever present.
It might have something to do with the technological changes that mean we never really leave work. I’ve been at Friday night drinks, Sunday lunches, early morning gym and evening dog walks and watched people sending emails, taking work calls or making notes for projects to finish ready for what they describe as “when I get back to work”.
But if you’re reading and responding to work emails over Sunday lunch, how are you not “back at work”?
I know I’ve done it, even had moments of thinking “oh great, it’s the weekend, now I can write properly without being interrupted”. I love what I do and sometimes uninterrupted time to write does feel like a wonderful luxury, but it also means I’m never not at work.
I noticed this even more over the weekend when I took a self-imposed two-day break from screens. No email, no social media, not even text messages. It’s something we’re told we should do, that we need the time to step away from the wider world and relax. The problem was I didn’t find it particularly relaxing. It just made me twitchy and anxious.
What if something happened that I should know about?
What if someone is trying to get in touch with me?
What if it’s really important?
What if… what if… what if?
I don’t do lifesaving work. No one would die or suffer if I didn’t check my emails or answer my phone for one weekend. This shouldn’t be such a nerve-wracking experience.
If this just happened to me, the solution would be personal, but it’s not just me and the solution isn’t just personal.
In the last few weeks I’ve listen to people tell me that they dream about work, that they wake up in the middle of the night and check to make sure they didn’t miss any late emails, that the first thing they do in the morning and the last thing they do at night is check their phones. I’ve talked to people who’ve had to dive into coffee shops and sob in toilet stalls on their way to the office because the idea of walking into their office was too stressful after the emails and calls they did on the train on the way in.
And all these people have told me that they’re just hanging on until Christmas.
What happens after Christmas though? Ten days, maybe two weeks, three for the really lucky ones, without work stress before we all dive back in for another year.
We’ve published a great many wonderful articles about the benefits of flexible work, and there is no doubt that it can offer both men and women a way to manage career and home lives, and can make a measurable difference to breaking down gender roles that limit all of us. But maybe we need to talk a bit more about the downside. That not always having to be in an office can sometimes feel like wherever we are, we are still at work. That not having set hours can mean that all hours feel like they should be working hours. That being able to carry our office around in our pockets means we never actually leave it behind.
Christmas can be a wonderful time, but it can also bring added stress. Some people find they leave work pressures behind for a short time, only to pick up added complications of family, money, childcare and social obligations.
I’m not entirely sure what the answer to all of this is, but I think it lies somewhere in how we look after ourselves and each other.
Last week I heard a senior public servant from the Victorian state government talking about flexible working arrangements in his office. He was describing how he would have to walk through the office on a Friday afternoon shooing everyone out.
“In a minute, I’ve just got to finish the…”
“No, go home.”
“I’ll be leaving soon, I just need to…
“No, go home.”
“I’ll just take this with me and finish it tomorrow…
“No, go home.”
“I haven’t quite done the…
“No, go home.”
He talked about flexible work as something that should be a benefit, and can be, but only if it is managed properly. That there is no point telling giving someone a job for four days a week if the work they have to do actually needs five days. That’s just paying someone less for the same amount of work.
Staff who are exhausted, panicky and feel like they’ve never got enough time to do the work they need to do well are not good for any business. Everyone knows this, but too few people put it into practice.
Sometimes our jobs are just jobs, something we do because we have to pay rent and buy food. Other people are lucky enough to have a vocation. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, but when work becomes overwhelming, and we’re all just hanging on with gritted teeth until the end of the year, we’re not doing ourselves or our employers any good.
If you can see this in your staff, in your colleagues or in yourself, maybe it’s time to start talking about the pressure work is putting on everyone and the damage it does.
Christmas only comes once a year, we all need a break more often than that.