(3 minute read)
One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. ― Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
I’m not sure when it became a badge of honor to be a workaholic. Maybe it has always been so. I know as a kid my dad worked for a big auto company. Many of his co-workers would work any overtime offered to get the money. I am sure some of them had valid reasons for snatching at the opportunity for overtime pay. Yet, I have to think most of them were either in over their heads in debt or just wanted more money.
By the time I got to graduate school things had taken a turn for the worse. Believe me, there was no big money in a graduate school stipend and there was no chance for overtime pay. Yet, students would spend long hours at the lab, weekends, even holidays. There was a student in a lab down the hall from ours who found himself in the emergency room in the wee hours of the night from a seizure. He had been awake for over 72 hours. This same student scared the dickens out of me one morning as I went to the dark room to develop some tests. I entered the revolving door, spun it around and stepped out into the dark room. My foot hit a warm body. I screamed bloody murder while clawing for the light switch on the wall. It was him. He lay sleeping in the floor of a narrow room filled with chemical fumes. What on earth would cause a person to behave this way?
I prided myself on being one of the few students I knew to receive my PhD in the average time while counting on one hand the number of days I had spent more than 10 hours at the lab. More than 95% of my days were 8-9 hours including lunch. I was never there before 6:30AM and only once was I there at 8:00PM. I will never forget the 8:00PM day as it was the worst day of my graduate school career.
I noticed something about the other students. Especially the ones claiming crazy long work weeks. They piddled around a lot. They wouldn’t show up until later in the morning. The first thing they would do is get some coffee and read the news. They spent a lot of time while experiments were incubating or processing talking or playing computer games. By the way, it was a flashing computer game that put my fellow student in the emergency room. Sure they were there long hours but were they working the whole time? The way they talked it was clear they felt they were some kind of martyr for scientific research. To them I was a slacker, who didn’t want “it” bad enough. I was never sure what “it” was. I was happy being weird.
When I got a job at a biotech company not much changed for the better. I did get paid a little bit more for what I was doing but the stigma of overtime remained. I once had a co-worker with a husband and two small children at home. She was also a PhD Research Scientist. As a skilled worker with a work ethic to beat anyone she struggled to stick to a 40 hour work week for the sake of her family values. The pressure on us was intense beyond description to work unpaid overtime. She was even told in her yearly review one year that, “Our company doesn’t like it when our salaried employees work less than 45 hours per week.” Interpretation, you are not getting a promotion or a raise if you continue to work only 40 hours. She was smart enough to do the math. She would have to receive a 12.5% pay increase just to get paid for the extra 5 hours per week minimum they were asking. Any real increase in salary would have to be beyond this amount. She was smart enough to know this was not going to happen. In reality what they wanted was more time for less money from her. She was smarter than they gave her credit for and chose to stick with the 40 hour work week. She got terminated less than a year later. In a stroke of dramatic irony, they terminated everyone in our company the same day regardless of how many overtime hours they had worked.
Middle class Americans have been working more as time goes on since around 1960, before I was born. We work more than any industrialized country in the world.
Maybe more of us need to do the math. Change our lifestyle. Reset our priorities. Figure out who is the real beneficiary of your extra labor. It isn’t you.
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