how work overtakes us
sleepless nights defining ourselves by utilization metrics and billable hours
1:18 A.M| My sister works too much. Besides death and taxes, my next most certain thing is her laboring away long after the sun goes down.
For years she’s been a star performer at one of Fortune’s Top 50 companies, surviving and thriving amidst the corporate sharks — always driving forward to keep themselves alive. As a reward for her employee excellence, she got a rare opportunity to work across the ocean in London. She took them up on the offer, and moved 5 time zones away from her East Coast home.
It’s my first time visiting her in the UK, and our heroine is hunched over her computer at this late hour — working on an account from the US office. For those keeping track, even on the East Coast it’s 8:18 P.M., well past standard work hours. But people at the top can’t settle for standard.
Her diligence is eating into my own sleep at this point, despite my familial renown for staying up far too late.
I’m irritable, and on the prowl for someone to blame.
So far on my list I have: her boss in London, her boss in Atlanta, the company culture, the subordinates who didn’t complete their work on time. I could blame her coworker who she’s covering for — he’s out for 2 weeks after getting in a car accident… actually he gets a pass. I could blame our parents for raising her to think this anything but unacceptable.
Or maybe I should blame capitalism for structuring a culture of consumption where the main ingredient is human life — the toxic normalcy of people trading living minutes to maximize their utility for some company’s bottom line. Meanwhile the fruits of said productivity largely trickle up to some rich men jet-setting from one far off place to another. The sun never sets on the capital empire.
The task keeping my sister up can be found somewhere in the 56 emails she received since she left the office at 5 P.M. London time. She seems compelled to answer them before she can rest. I guess this is the price of success.
From where I’m sitting, I don’t think the trade offs are worth it — and more importantly, I think she agrees.
I’m only here for a few days, so she managed to take off early (at 5) for dinner and a play. We went to see Hamilton, an American musical. She hadn’t heard any of the songs. Guess she hasn’t had the time.
The other day she asked me if captive whales with a collapsed dorsal fin can ever heal if they make it back into open waters. I told her I think so.
1:29 A.M.| Ok, I’m gonna do it. I’m going to tell her I need to sleep. That way, if she wants to keep working, she’s has to do it in her room, instead of against the couch where I’ve been loudly yawning for half an hour.
At least I have my self-righteousness to occupy my time.
Or maybe I should add myself to the list of people to blame — just like me to see myself as the problem after everyone else. But I always come around to it at some point.
Is my typing here, right now, adding to the issue? Am I relaying that she isn’t the only one working late into the night — that we’re both comrades completing a top-secret mission now that the rest of the world has fallen asleep?
Here I bump into stubborn frustrations. Would I even be writing something down at all if I didn’t think I could craft some paragraph or phrase strong enough to help make change?
Could we ever say something so perfectly to smash habits built from years of being exploited, of becoming alienated from ourselves? What jumble of words can heal the rift that makes us think our lives amount to clearing out our inbox at 2 A.M.?
Yet of all the things I could blame, none of them will do the trick. At a certain point, she needs to understand her own value as a human who deserves to not be working through every tomorrow.
Even when she only had East Coast hours she’d work til 2 A.M. On that front nothing’s changed. Maybe nothing will until she can return to herself.
1:34 A.M.| Another episode of Sherlock started. And I’m talking the BBC version here, so each episode is basically a feature-length film. We started on The Hounds of Baskerville. We finished that one off, watched the next full episode, and now we’re at The Empty Hearse. Of course it’s just background noise. You know it’s bad when even entertainment time has to be productive.
Her US boss knows she lives in the UK now, why would he even be contacting her at 1:37 A.M.? I assume because people are supposed to give up all their lives to the cause.
To what end?
Making money and rising up the ladder has quite the allure. We’ve been told that’s the measure of ourselves. The people at the top know the route they’ve taken, they lived through the trials and tribulations and asshole bosses. So they’re merely keeping up the tradition.
They suggest what’s best for your career — which in their vision is to be just like them. They recommend putting your job above everything else, even your sibling getting sleep. They care about her becoming the most productive worker bee she can, but she is worth so much more than that.
It’s just I haven’t been able to convince her yet. And I’m getting tired.
1:48 A.M.| Emergency update. We are now on a live call to her US boss. It’s 9:48 P.M. there, and he has a family — what is he doing? It might just be the exhaustion, but I kinda hate him at the moment. Get out of my life, George.
Fun fact: her UK worker contract said foreign workers are limited to working 35 hours a week per British law.
I mentioned that work restriction at a happy hour with her coworker-friends, only to be greeted by blank stares mingled with a twinge of sympathy that I just don’t have what it takes to make something of myself. They can tell I’m not willing to suffer like they’ve suffered.
My sister tells me she has to do this — she has all of her work she needs to get done. If she doesn’t do it, no one will. I hate this argument.
What if she quits tomorrow? Whatever will happen to her work? She’d discover it was never hers in the first place.
It’s not her work. It’s [company]’s work. They aren’t hiring enough people to get their work done. A great trick they’ve pulled is convincing her that their problems are her problems. So she feels compelled to work 120 hours during busy season, at 186% utilization — literally doing the work of 2 people.
But she’s worth so much more than her corporate identification number, no matter how many digits it has. We all are. Our privilege as humans is to figure out who we are outside of ‘employee’. Because that person is still there, despite being momentarily pushed aside or forgotten.
Luckily for us we can scoop them back up into our embrace, if we give them our time. We all deserve more for ourselves than the version defined by utilization metrics and billable hours.
1:58 A.M.| Emergency finish: call ended. “I’m leaving you the hell alone. Haha.”
No one is having fun here, George.
My eyes are so tired they’re taking turns being open, like I’m in a slow-winking competition. The other exhaustion is heavier, and more troublesome.
It’s the exhaustion of wanting the best for someone close to you but being unable to keep a grip on their hand and their attention. It’s exhausting trying to convince someone they should choose themselves.
But I’m not about to rehash this conversation, she doesn’t have the time.
I’ve tried to persuade her that she’s worth so much more than what some company values her at. But I’ve failed. Perhaps it’s the biggest failure of my life.
After all the main task of love is to save the beloved from themselves. More exhausting than anything else is not being able to.
2:02 A.M.| And we’re off to bed. Just 5 hours away from another workday.
We’ll both try again tomorrow.
—Warm regards, a repetitious sibling