Working 24/7 and slowly going insane? Join the club? No Thanks!

I was rather shocked when I listened to a person from a company that makes all kinds of electronic products the other day.  She made the pitch to me that her company helped stressed out, over-worked moms by making products (like phones and tablets) that would allow a frenetic mom to "disconnect from her office" and be able to "take her work along with her" so that she could be present for her children's activities.  From what I could understand this person believed in the 1990's mantra of "multi-tasking" which has been so thoroughly discredited by psychologists and process experts over the last decade.

The idea was that, between tweets, urgent e-mails, progress reports and modifications to mission critical spreadsheets, the newly unfettered mom would be able to look up from the screen and instantly enter into her child's world just at the moment when Sally hit the game winning home run or when Poindexter cinched the national Spelling Bee with the correct spelling of "Delusional". 

The more grievous idea I came away with is that now it's no longer good enough to give a company a stress and anxiety filled 50 or 60 hours of your week.  No.  The new norm is total ownership.  The excuse is that now so many people in finance, tech and commodities work in a world market and they must be accessible to their counterparts in Malaysia, must not miss the opening bell in Berlin or Kerplakistan, must be electronically present for those important clients in Kathmandu....

I have a sneaky feeling that chronic unemployment is not caused by a lack of jobs but that many jobs are being handled by one person.  The manically compulsive super workers are stealing more than their fair share of jobs.  And they are training their companies to expect "work till you drop" dedication that trades health, family life, hobbies, community involvement and the basic richness of existence for quarter by quarter profitability.  And here's the kicker:  Those super employees aren't being compensated for doing the work of three, they're giving their employers undeserved charity.  

In the self employed world we read books on negotiation.  We learn that you never give up something without getting something in return.  That's the foundation of good negotiation.  And as self employed people we never work for free (unless we are donating our time, services, goods to a needy and beneficial cause.)  But that's exactly what the super workers of today are doing.  They are giving it away for free.  And, of course, their companies are encouraging them.

It's time we took a good long look at the American work ethic and got rational.  The unions got it right back in the coal mine strikes and the meat packers collective bargaining days:  Forty hours a week is the most you can work in a reliable and sustainable way.  And by that I mean being able to preserve your personal dignity, your physical health and the health of your family and relationships.  

If you are routinely working 60 or 70 hours a week and you don't OWN the company you work for (and, in my mind, even if you do) you might consider that you are your own "scab" and you are in some ways responsible for the downward spiral of the American dream.  That spreadsheet WILL wait until monday.  Your real life can't always be on hold.  If it needs to be done over the weekend your company needs to hire a weekend shift.

So, this is a photo oriented blog, why the hell am I talking about workplace issues?  Because from time to time I write columns that talk about some of the outrageous schedules I work.  But the difference is that my projects stop and start and there's lots of in between time for rest and rejuvenation.  Joy and pleasure.  Family dinners together and weekends puttering around helping Ben with homework and Belinda with some gardening.  Couch time with a novel.   If a freelancer in a struggling industry can do this and keep his head above water then so can the valuable employees of all sorts of companies.

The electronics that we seem addicted to are also a secret weapon that helps bosses (and clients)  suck more and more from their people by blurring the lines between what is and what isn't work.  The cellphone is not referred to as "An Electronic Leash" without good reason.  

It's all about setting limits.  Isn't that what we tell our children? 

The shot above is of Belinda in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The way I negotiated a series of projects in the Islands was to work for a week, for my usual rate, and then go back later with Belinda for a second week of vacation and downtime.  No phones, no internet, no emergencies in Patagonia.  The vacation opportunity defrayed the travel time and longer working days of the actual project.

Shot with a Rollei medium format camera on Tri-X film at a place called "The Pork Pit."  Really good pulled pork.  A quiet week by the sea.

Added half an hour later:  I read this on Kim Critchfield's FB page and loved it.  I sent a copy to Ben and to a friend who needed to read it.  I'll post this on my wall, just to the side of my computer.

One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between the two 'wolves' that live inside us all.
One is Unhappiness or Evil - It is anger, jealousy, fear, regret, greed, arrogance, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, weakness and ego.

The other is Happiness or Good - It is joy, love, hope, serenity, benevolence, peace, empathy, kindness, generosity, truth, humility, faith, strength and compassion."

The grandson thought about it for a while and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed." - Cherokee Elder


Frank Grygier said...

Thank you Kirk..I needed to read it too.

Anonymous said...

You are so right. And it happens slowly so you can't really react against it. It starts with a rush project and then they're all rush projects and the next thing you know you're running on adrenaline all the time. And you think you'll get fired if you don't come in on the weekend. I quit!

christopheru said...

Very well said. What I do for a living requires an insane amount of work during our "on" times, but I am compensated by a big stretch or two of off time where I really am off and really own the time to do with what I wish. The whole notion of work until you drop (sometimes literally)is something that I never did understand. What is the point of it? What is the point of having a pile of things that you can never enjoy anyways because you are always too busy to enjoy them? I would rather have a little less, and enjoy a little more.

Speaking of which, time for some lunch, and a walk about with the camera (before our snow storm hits - tomorrow - a stat holiday here - will be about riding the bicycle in the snow - wheeee!)

Cheers and thanks again for writing this.

aaronleitz said...

Awesome! This is my favorite post of yours. Wonderfully well written and spot on.

udi tirosh said...

Very well said, Kirk.
Just to throw another few herbs into the cauldron in which I was swimming too only a year back.
- working with overseas team make any hour (and any day) a potential time for a conference call (good thing those new tablets has a front cam)

- needing to show an ID so your kids will know who you are

- crisis always on son/daughter's birthday / holiday.

I have a strong suspicion that those places (my former employee included) are not doing this out of shear evilness.
They grow to learn that most talented folks (or at least teams) excel under stress, so the company organization culture changes to embrace stress and crisis.
SO foundations are not built and everything is urgent.
on the other hand, I think many are the using work as an excuse to not deal with the much harder (and much rewarding) task of raising kids.

kirk tuck said...

About raising children. They learn from observation. If they see you as detached, frenzied and not in control of your own destiny won't they begin to emulate that? And if they emulate that haven't you robbed them of their potential in the future? Are you jobs more important than your children?

I didn't think so. Revolt now, while you can.

kirk tuck said...

None of this is to imply or suggest that all jobs and employers do this or are constructed this way. Millions are great. Millions of companies do a wonderful job. I see them excel without damaging their people every day. That's why the contrast is so stark....

Jim said...

You're right about those people who now do several jobs. Corporations learned during the last so-called recession that they can do just as much work with less people. Of course the people that kept their jobs do more work.

And those who didn't get their jobs back are the reason for "stubborn" unemployment.

The folks who blame unions for all the government woes and high taxes forget that unions were first formed to safeguard against corporate greed and abuse.

The whole cycle that started a century a go is repeating, as history always does.

Jim said...

Right on Kirk. Unfortunately unions are in decline and suffering bad press right now. There have been some abuses of union power but we shouldn't forget that abuses of labor were what created unions.

BTW, My son lives in Austin and I come down occasionally. Perhaps the next time I'm in town we could do a photowalk if you have time. I promise not to say anything about you not shooting with "L" lenses. ;-)

Ron said...

"delusional" - great spelling bee word choice!

Great reminders for all of us - thanks, again.

Anonymous said...

"I have a sneaky feeling that chronic unemployment is not caused by a lack of jobs but that many jobs are being handled by one person. The manically compulsive super workers are stealing more than their fair share of jobs."

Um, no. I hope you are being ironic here, because otherwise you are being a total git. Speaking as a staff photographer working 60+ hours a week, with most of my writer & editor & other colleagues working the same sort of hours, this is not even remotely true.

Corporate America does this through layoffs. They cut half their staff, save a ton of money, and have the remaining staff just take over the duties of the now unemployed people. "Productivity" goes up, profits go way up, bonuses for the top people go up, and the working stiffs get to do two jobs for the price of one.

It really gets to be fun when they do it again the next year....

Please count yourself VERY lucky to have the lifestyle that you so obviously enjoy. I do like and enjoy my job, but the workload of a staffer is such that I don't get much of a life outside the job.

Sorry to post this one anonymously, but you should understand.

kirk tuck said...

No, I'm not being a "git." And the above post is an exact synopsis, from both sides, of what is going horribly wrong. And how it affects everyone.

And sadly, I don't get to post this stuff anonymously.

I am reminded of the article in PDN where the writer asks the person from Conde Nast how it is that they can get total usage rights from photographers for no extra fees. The answer: They let us.

Anonymous said...

As one who holds a low level, moderate paying management position with a major corporation I will admit I'm overworked and stressed. The next level of management above doesn't work nearly as hard and the workers below often don't care that much. It falls on my plate and the expectations are very high. Gotta make the big shots look good and coax what you can out of the rest.

And please don't blame me for holding two jobs while getting paid for one. In an effort to impress Wall Street in a tough economy it was decided that since we can't sell more we will work harder with fewer folks. It worked but to be honest I look forward to the day I can leave it all behind.

kirk tuck said...

I'm not blaming anyone but management. But I do have an honest question. And this is coming from someone who's been self employed for most of his working life......When I worked as a Specialist Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin we signed agreements. We were being paid X amount in exchange for X number of classes and X number of office hours. There was an explanation of benefits that were part of my compensation. It was all written out. Do people and companies not have employment contracts anymore? Does everyone just kinda do a handshake thing and hope that everyone remembers it the same way?

Did your employer give you contract or form that outlined your job and your compensation? Did it say that you were being paid for sixty or seventy hours a week? I'm honestly curious.

If the University came back to me and asked me to teach more classes the first question I would ask is......how much more will I be paid?

If my clients come back and ask for more work I ask them, "Can you sign this job modification agreement form that outlines the additional costs?"

I can't believe that anyone would take a job that has elastic expectations but unchanging compensation. At least if you are paid hourly you get fair pay for fair work. Otherwise, well.......it's kinda creepy.

Anonymous said...

Just as communism was unsustainable so to is capitalism. It seems to work only for the wealthy and that's a club not many of us are invited to join.

Dave Jenkins said...

Capitalism is really a horrible system. The only thing it has going for it is that every other economic system ever invented is even worse. It is the capitalistic system that makes it possible for Kirk to do what he does so well, and what I also do, though with less success.

If I happen to be less successful than Kirk, it is because I do the things that make for success (not necessarily the actual photography) less well than Kirk. And that would be my fault, not the fault of the system.

Frank Grygier said...

It would seem that the worker bees are trapped in the collective by their own lack of courage. They fail to take the leap of faith and grab for the brass ring then blame their situation on the success of others.

Anonymous said...

Or, the economy has become momentarily precarious and the predatory nature of their employers is revealed and outweighs any concerns for their employee's sustainability or ethical treatment.

kirk tuck said...

Since capitalism is being lauded, please go to Amazon.com and buy my Commercial Photography Handbook. That will keep me from having to find real work......

Oh hell, buy all four books.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not blaming anyone but management. But I do have an honest question. And this is coming from someone who's been self employed for most of his working life......When I worked as a Specialist Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin we signed agreements. We were being paid X amount in exchange for X number of classes and X number of office hours. There was an explanation of benefits that were part of my compensation. It was all written out. Do people and companies not have employment contracts anymore?"

How's this for a contract? Boss to me. "Regional manager wants a crack crew at location X for 2 weeks of nights. Your the guy, starts tomorrow." "This the the special day all managers of your status will work till at least 1am and we will see you back at 5 in the morning." (true) "You have the skills we need to work on a pulic (publicity event) project. Would really appreciate you being there". (on my day off with no pay.

Jessica said...

I absolutely agree with everything said here. This is a lot of why my current profession is teaching, where I am paid for the hours I teach, and not expected to do anything extra on the side.

As I make my way into the business of photography and being self-employed, I hope to continue getting paid for the work I do.

Frank Grygier said...

Great sales pitch by the way.

Matthew Saville said...

Well written as always, and I wholeheartedly agree.

The bottom line is that capitalist countries eventually get stale. People polarize into two classes, the super-employees who sell their souls to their bosses, and the sense-of-entitlement welfare leeches who feel like they should be give all sorts of help in their forlorn state.

As a full-time photographer as well, I do put a lot of effort into managing my time wisely and letting go of work when my family etc. needs me. People need to check Twitter / Facebook a little bit less, and go camping etc. a little bit more. Just my opinion of course... ;-)


Billy said...

I'm going to have to agree with "anonymous" above. As a low level help desk and infrastructure IT monkey, I have seen 2 separate layoffs at the company I started for straight out of college. I truly believe and have seen it first hand that executives laid people off during our recent recession and figured out that someone somewhere in the company was taking over these cut positions and doing the work of 2 or 3 people while getting paid their same low salary. So profits went up while production stayed more or less the same. This actually produced the highest recorded profits in the third quarter last year. NYT had a great article on it. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/24/business/economy/24econ.html?_r=2

So why spend money on hiring people, remember it costs companies thousands just to high one or two people.

As for me I never work more than 9 hours a day and make damn sure to ask my boss for equal time off when I work late. Despite the fact that we are down 3 people in our IT department.

SS Buchanan said...

People complaining about capitalism, I'd suggest you watch the Zeitgeist movie, especially Moving Forward: http://www.zeitgeistmovie.com/

It has a suggestion on how to solve the problems with the current consumption based capitalist society.

I'm not sure how feasible the solutions are, but at least they're trying to spread awareness of one of the biggest problems facing the world today.

Anonymous said...

Phenomenal post Kirk!

This is EXACTLY why this is the best photo blog I've ever read.

This is all about a, "Race to the bottom" in this country. I agree with the earlier poster who wrote that, "capitalism is unsustainable". It's the best of all the bad economic models that we know of.

To answer your question, I worked in the private sector for about 14 years prior to joining the public sector. You hit the nail on the head, in the private sector (unless you're in senior management), they have elastic demands and static salaries for the worker bees.

Funny thing is, 30 and 40 years ago, private sector employers offered a lot of the things (pensions, cost of living raises, decent healthcare, etc). Yes, I'm biased, but I would think that private sector workers should be fighting to get some of those things back (in light of the fact that a lot of companies are making record profits despite the economic downturn), instead of looking to drag everyone back to an 18th Century employment model.

Public or private, I refuse to be a slave to technology. My cell phone is for MY personal use, and 90% of the time it's off. Nevermind my private sector work, I guard my personal time so rigorously that I don't even want to suffer through phone calls from worrisome acquaintances on MY time.

almostinfamous said...

The logic of capitalism dictates 'growth' - and growth is defined by people with capital as growth in profits, which creates the vicious circle of which we are witnessing the effects.

i agree that people should demand more from their employers, but without the safety net to back them up, you are made to think more than twice about how much of yourself you can surrender in the quest for greater returns.

Godfrey DiGiorgi said...

I like the sentiment and thought. I like the Cherokee story. They resonate with my own experiences. Not going to get into the political ramble.

thanks Kirk.

Mel said...

Employment contracts? Get real. That would put into concrete terms the value a company puts on an individual employee. No organization wants to be tied to that type of accountability. Better to offer a bundle of compensation and benefits, and let people decide whether they want to partake, then assign as needed for a wide range of tasks as the "enterprise" evolves.

I learned through years of corporate life that most people below the level of "manager" are seen as interchangeable cogs having little individual characteristics in the eyes of the company. BTW, "manager" in business publications is defined as starting at the VP level.

I've worked for several senior executives at various companies and they truly are 24 hour employees for the company, regardless of where they are. Some are wonderful people I'd work for again but many are usually surprised that everyone in the company doesn't have their 24 hour mentality. I don't know what those people do to enrich their lives.

kirk tuck said...

Surprise Mel, I've talked to some CEO's offline and many, many normal companies still have employment contracts!!! Wow. It seem to be mostly in the "high tech" arena that employees are seen to be "biodegradable".

As to what the "24" hour guys do?......work hard and then die of heart attacks or cancer, just before retirement.....

Dave Elfering Photography said...

Hi Kirk! Great thoughts as always. Great story and I'll be using it with my youth group this week. It's something that helps me also relate more to the why of my photography as well. If I'm just shucking photos for a quick buck or to make money then that's probably feeding the wrong animal. Made my week a little better so thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Great post, you wrote exactly what I have felt is at the heart of the demise of American Society. I have worked extensively for a Japanese company and now a German company and can honestly tell you they don't even come close to working the kind of insane hours we stupid Americans do. Also love that Cherokee story. Thanks, JT

Nicolas said...

Thank you for this nice post. I'm an IT freelancer with 2 girls and a wife, the best decision i took one year ago is to work no more than 3 days per week. Just a matter of trade off and happier life...