My job is working me to death!

I'm doing 60 hours a week to get ahead so I can finally stop and have babies.

Published March 12, 2009 10:03AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am in a situation now that many would envy: I've got more job security than I can handle. I started a new job last year, and ever since I've started, it's been insane. I work somewhere between 50 and 60 hours a week with extremely rare exceptions. The last three months at my previous job were absolute madness, and I ended that job on a Friday and started the new one the following Monday. For the past nine months, I have been a work machine. In an effort to prove myself at the new job and get ahead as quickly as possible (due to the plan of starting a family with my husband), I've worked long hours, taken on special projects and generally kicked ass, and the feedback has been great. I suppose I should note here that I am an overachiever and a people-pleaser by nature, which has not always been the worst thing to be.

Right now I feel as if my head is in a vise grip all the time, like my body is being ground down by a particularly coarse brand of sandpaper. Due to the heavy volume of work that we're experiencing, things aren't getting done on time.

I took this job because it has a creative component and would be a great segue into an even more creative position in the future. Now all I do is apologize to people who are angry that things aren't getting done. I have a raging flood of e-mail from people wanting status updates and deadlines met and if something doesn't get done the way that it should, they want to have a conference call to discuss why and how to avoid it in the future and while we're on that call, e-mail piles up for me to address. The work that they are wanting is not the work I provide -- my job is chiefly to be the customer liaison and to help out with these other things when I can, but there are so many angry customers to deal with that the other work goes to someone else, even though it's the stuff I'd much rather be doing, leaving my clients to not necessarily kill the messenger, but certainly to attack her with a baseball bat.

I deal with this for 10 to 12 hours a day, eating lunch at my desk so I can try to keep up with the ocean of frustration that threatens to drown me. The onslaught is starting to break me down. My body hurts from being clenched all day. At night, all I want to do is drink myself to sleep. On the weekends, I go out to this bike trail in the middle of nowhere and it rejuvenates me for the week ahead, but the rejuvenation is starting to not make it all the way through the week. I don't have time to go out there during the week because of this damn job -- I don't have time or energy to do much of anything during the week but try to hold onto this punctured life raft of sanity in a hurricane.

I can't stop working, not in this economy. I can't slow down yet -- our salary reviews are in two weeks. They say it will slow down, that they are hiring people who can help, that things will get better if I can just hang in there, but that's what I've been told for the past year now, at both the old job and the new one, and it's all a lie. Maybe things will get better when next quarter comes or when they hire that new person and get them trained, or maybe something else will come along and replace it -- some new account or procedure or something. It's not getting better. But it has to. I can't keep doing this. How can I get through this?


Dear Exhausted,

You don't have to do this.

Nobody is making you do this.

If I were you, I would quit.

I would quit because doing the contrary of what's expected can open up unexpected vistas. I would quit because the most powerful stance you can take is the stance of a fearless visionary who sees what others don't see.

I would quit because everyone says you can't. I would quit because stress can make you sick and ruin your marriage. I would quit because if stress makes you sick and ruins your marriage then you can't get started having kids. I would quit because later you'll wish you had. I would quit because you really like biking. I would quit because this job is not "sustainable." I would quit because Obama is president and anything is possible. I would quit because you vote with your time. I would quit because your body is your own and your time is your own. I would quit because you don't deserve to be yelled at. I would quit and go to business school. I would quit and open a bicycle shop. I would quit and take three employees with me, write a business plan and get funding for a start-up. I would quit and learn guitar. I would quit and borrow $100,000 from my parents, get another $200,000 from an angel investor and start an online community for unhappy workers.

I would quit because life is unbelievably short and have you any idea how many delicious adventures can pass you by while you're people-pleasing and overachieving your way into a stress-related hospitalization, stress-related infertility, stress-related depression, stress-related heart palpitations, panic attack, skin rash, lowered immune response, irritable bowel syndrome, sleeplessness, joint pain, hair loss, chronic fatigue and general stress-related bitchy unhappiness. I would quit because every now and then to preserve the spirit and soul of our democracy we must raise a giant finger of fuck you to the out-of-control capitalist enterprises that would enslave us, warp our values, destroy our quality of life and perpetuate a destructive vision of how to live, a vision based in old, power-centric unsustainable social models that more resemble fascism than democratic capitalism, that hark back to a bitter, savage time of clubs and claws, of chieftains and rape and infanticide, of might makes right and maidens are for the taking.

You can have that old vision of American business, which is kept alive today by freaks like Donald Trump and his troglodyte minions of backward-looking emulators of antique social orders, or you can have a new vision of cooperative, level, nonhierarchical, enlightened business that is growing up organically on the Web anyway as we speak. You can knuckle under to the boss or you can take all your energy and talent and vision and youth and turn it toward making a new world. You can make a new world not just for yourself and your husband and your neighbors and all the beautiful babies you're planning to have but for all of us graying veterans of social struggle and trashed idealism who by now are too exhausted and burdened to devote the next 20 years to creating a new world, but who wish the young had the courage we had when we were 22 without a clue. You can make your life worth living and worth telling your grandkids about or you can burrow into anonymous slavery and for what? You can keep punishing yourself and for what? You can keep working 50 to 60 hours a week, hating yourself, feeling your whole body ache and for what?

You don't have to do this.

Rather than live as a slave, you can disrupt the present regime and have fun doing it. You can get up tomorrow morning, walk into the office and tell them that their whole method of business is doomed to failure and that you are leaving to start something new that will kick their asses within five years. And then you can get on your bike and ride free.

They'll probably shrug and say something covertly insulting like they understand it's a high-pressure environment that's not for everybody and will turn back to doing things just the way they've doing them and in five years they'll be gone. They'll fail. Good riddance. Who needs any kind of organization that sucks the life out of people? I don't care what it provides in terms of money, it's a destructive way to live.

How we live is what's important. We are not grunts to be ground into the earth in pursuit of an illusory future. The future is now. How you live right now is what matters. We are humans, exemplars of an idea of civilization, of material progress toward some end of human dignity and realized ideals.

Now, you may feel that you cannot just quit right now. That is fine. You don't have to. I am not trying to make you quit your job. What I am trying to do is make vivid for you the possibility of quitting your job, so that you can hold your head up high and know that you have options. I am trying to make vivid for you the fact of your own freedom. You have made a construct for yourself in which this job makes sense. But that is just one construct.

You are in charge. It is your decision. You may decide to continue on this job. But if you do, at least promise me this: Imbibe deeply of an attitude of fearlessness. If you go in for an evaluation, or you ask for a change in work conditions, ask for it with an attitude of fearlessness and freedom. Know that your very survival does not depend on this job. Know that you can walk away any time you choose and get on your mountain bike. This job is optional. This job is a choice.

And consider this, too, while you're at it. Your labor is worth something. Have you ever looked at that book "Your Money or Your Life"? It suggests a very interesting exercise, which is to calculate the actual amount of time and money you spend having a job -- the commute time, the lunches, the clothes you buy, transportation expenses, etc. -- and then figure out what your real hourly wage is. It's kinda staggering to do this. It can change the way you see your job. It can make your "great job" look more like a Burger King job in terms of real hourly wage.

Now here is a thought. You know all those inflated executive salaries we hear about? And you know all these long hours underlings are working? You ever think about how they might be connected? Say (and this is just me speculating) there are 10 employees who are being worked like dogs. Say each one is making $100,000 a year. Say each one is working 60 hours a week instead of 40. What is being done with that extra 20 hours a week times 10? That's 200 hours a week, or the equivalent of five extra employees. You follow? Perhaps under ordinary circumstances their boss might be worth $150,000 a year. But because of the extra hours each employee is working, that executive actually has the equivalent of five extra phantom employees working for him. They would be making $100,000 a year each if they existed. But only their labor exists -- labor on which no salary is being paid! That's $500,000 a year in uncompensated labor. Where does that $500,000 go? Well, maybe it goes to the executive, and maybe that's why he's making $650,000 a year instead of $150,000.

Just a thought. I'm no economist, but I can count and multiply.

So make your own choices. You can work this job if you want. But you don't need to. You can walk away. You can walk away and get on your bike and ride until your lungs fill with air and you remember what it feels like to be truly alive.

Money and jobs? Yeah, there's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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