My wife's job is ruining our lives

She's overworked, she's exploited, and I've had it!

Published October 20, 2005 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am beside myself with anger and resentment. My wife works for a large organization. Her first-level boss is a selfish dunce who does not do his job and makes my wife do all of his work in addition to her own. Consequently, my wife works many nights until 9 or 10 o'clock, and weekends. I often stay late to help her, since we work in the same organization. The result: We have no life, and my wife's physical and mental health are suffering.

To make matters worse, the boss of my wife's boss thinks he is wonderful, because he is her lapdog, and she is indifferent to my wife's plight. Worse yet, this second-tier boss is vindictive and petty and routinely harasses and chases away good employees (like my wife).

The problem is several-fold. We need my wife's income, so she can't just quit. She is so busy that she doesn't have time to look for a new job, but even if she could, jobs that pay well (which we need) and for which she is qualified are hard to come by. That leaves us with an intolerable situation from which there seems to be no escape, except retirement which is 20 long years away.

Any guidance you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

Daydreaming Avenging Angel

Dear Avenging Angel,

Whatever happened to "Screw the bosses"? Whatever happened to workers' spirit of resistance?

How did it become the norm to be exhausted, insecure and unhappy in your supposedly white-collar, middle-class or professional job? Is it the death of unions? The absence of consensus about what is a reasonable amount of time to devote to work? If so, how did we get here? Did an oligarchy rearrange the furniture while we slept? And what do we do about it now that we're waking up -- as individuals or collectively?

I have thought a lot about situations such as yours. Although you're by yourself, you're not alone. That is, your same isolated condition is replicated hundreds of thousands of time throughout the system. You are part of a huge class of exploited persons. You just don't talk to each other. Each of you is in your own cubicle worrying about your own boss and your own workload and your own lack of pension.

Strangely, this overworking of people, this destroying of workers' lives, is happening to many hundreds of thousands of people and yet in some sense it is not happening to a group; in every instance it seems as though it is happening to you alone, and it's a problem you alone must solve. No matter that macroeconomic and cultural forces are at work to replicate the same crushing, inhumane circumstances from coast to coast. Still, we think it's we as individuals who are at fault, and it's we as individuals who must solve our problem -- even though it is systemic and replicated throughout society! Why do we think that? Because we are stupid? Maybe. We might be really stupid. It kinda looks that way sometimes. Or maybe we're just scared.

Perhaps that is because workers' organizations have become discredited and fallen into disfavor; they are looked upon as old-fashioned and somehow disconnected from reality. But what are we to call it when from coast to coast individual workers numbering in the hundreds of thousands are struggling to make ends meet, working longer hours than any labor board would allow, without overtime ... for what?

I personally think there are some bottom lines we ought to agree about as a society. For one thing: Eight hours is enough. It's plenty. I have at times worked 12-hour days and more, either because I needed the money or because I believed in what I was doing. But really we've got to start talking about what we're doing to people's lives with all this work. Eight hours is enough.

And I think people have to stop knuckling under to bosses just because they're bosses. Where is our democratic spirit? It's surely not in corporations. Corporations are little authoritarian cultures. I do not see how a democracy can survive when its citizens spend all their days under authoritarian rule. How are we to emerge daily from our 10 hours of ritual authoritarian behavior, and devote the remaining four or six hours to democratic self-rule?

We must begin to bring democratic principles into the workplace.

It's time to start refusing to simply perform as many hours as the boss says. It's time to underperform. Who cares if the work doesn't get done? What kind of work is it, anyway? If you take a break, are you going to leave a child gasping for breath on the operating table? Who's going to die if you take an occasional personal day even though according to your boss, or the schedule, or the project timeline so elegantly represented on your project management software, it's not the ideal time for you to be taking a personal day?

Not the ideal time? So what? There is no ideal time. Stuff happens. Deal with it.

And what is going on with you personally? Why do you have to perform so darned well? Why can't you kind of not do such an incredibly great job all the time? Can't you have an occasional off day? And what of us collectively? What is so great about being the most productive country in the world? What has it gotten us lately but war and the well-earned contempt of everyone who is not an American? What is it getting you, this historic juggernaut? Are you vacationing on the Caribbean, are you basking in diamonds and champagne? Of course not. You're just being played.

And how are you being played? You have been conditioned to be the best. You have been taught to do what they say, or you'll end up on the street. But is there really a risk of ending up on the street? And are your capacities limitless? Are you incapable of error and possessed of infinite stamina? Is that what it says on your résumé? Is that what it says on your job description, that you promise to work unending hours and take infinite amounts of crap because you agree, in writing, that as an employee you have absolutely no choice?

I say slack off a little, in the interest of workers everywhere. What are you worried about? Are you worried that if you don't perform like a superstar you will get fired and won't be able to get another job as good as this one? As happy and fun as this one? As personally rewarding as this one? What if you were to start performing as you wish, working the hours you wish to work, try to make your home life a little more pleasant, and see what happens to the job around you. Just wait and watch. Let a ball or two drop. So what? Let the ball roll under a desk. So what? When asked where it is ... How can you know where it is? Somebody must have dropped the ball. Who could that person possibly be? I don't know. How would I know? This office is full of underperformers and incompetents. I can't keep track of them all.

What will happen? Will your boss berate you? Will that mean anything? Can you handle being berated by someone you don't respect? If you can't handle it, why not? Do you believe what the boss says might be true, that maybe you really don't measure up? Do you believe in undying loyalty to company and country? Do you believe that you don't have the right to put some limits on how much you will do for a company? I say slow down, do what you can, and stop faking it. Stop eating it. Stop trying to be a superstar.

I'm really addressing this to both of you, you and your wife, and to all the other people out there whose lives are falling apart because they are being worked too hard. I say begin a slow and silent revolt. What power do these companies really have over you? They have the power of threats. They can fire you, of course. They can tell you that you're not performing up to standards. They can say they're disappointed! But why not begin to question the whole rationale behind it? What is the meaning of their displeasure with you? Are they the people to whom you look for your deepest values? Is the corporation our only source of moral authority? What has happened to us as workers in America, that our only moral authorities, our only sources of value, are the very forces who would destroy us?

I've got roofers on my house right now. They work hard. It's not fun. They don't get to be interviewed on TV about their opinions. They don't sit down all day. They work. But they show up at 8 and by 4 they're packing up. They don't work all day and all night. And neither should you.

P.S. Don't shoot your wife's boss ... unless he fires first.

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