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How to unlearn a culture of overwork: Embrace flexibility and self-care (#83)

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Francine Derby
November 10, 2023
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Are you consumed by work? And how can you produce excellence without burning out? Francine Derby has a lot to say about it.

Phrases like “work-life balance” and “setting boundaries” recently entered popular lexicon, with the pandemic expanding the conversation even further. In what has been dubbed ‘The Great Resignation,’ employees are quitting their jobs en masse, leading to labour shortages across industries and “nobody wants to work” signs on the doors of fast food restaurants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021 alone.[1]

Like many others, I resigned during the pandemic. While the job provided a formative experience, it was demanding and stressful and I had realized that it was no longer the kind of work I wanted to do. My goal was to achieve work-life balance on my own terms.

Switching to freelance during a pandemic brought its own set of challenges

The experience of working for myself, while rewarding, has brought a host of mental health issues. Since resigning from my job, I’ve been working from home on my own and having a hard time managing myself and my time. In my new role, I was doing work that was completely new to me, with very little supervision or assistance. I started procrastinating more than I ever had in my life, which led to a lot of anxiety and feelings of failure. Even when I was able to make progress, it never really felt like enough.

When I took the time to rest, engage in hobbies or practice self-care, there was always an underlying feeling of guilt or that my time could be better spent earning or producing. But when I tried to be productive, I felt paralyzed.

In therapy, I was talking about the anxiety caused by my procrastination and the lack of confidence I felt in my ability to complete a particular project. My therapist started questioning me about the procrastination and ended up diagnosing me with ADHD (see blog #70 [Adult ADHD Symptoms? Celebrate Your Talents to Progress From Shame to Empowerment]). This was incredibly eye-opening for me, and in hindsight, the signs had been there for my entire life. Like many others with this disorder, I built up various routines and coping mechanisms over many years and the disruption caused by the pandemic exposed certain vulnerabilities and limitations I didn’t know I had. 

One of these vulnerabilities is my tendency toward perfectionism.  Working for myself seemed to exacerbate my perfectionistic tendencies.  Perfectionism often causes procrastination and self-sabotage, as the fear of not doing something perfectly causes me to not want to do it at all (see blog #64 [Ten Ways We Engage in Self-Sabotage and Self-Deception] for other ways we engage in self-sabotage). When it’s my name on the letterhead (not a company’s or a firm’s), I hold myself to much higher standards and I am hyperaware of the fact that the buck stops with me.

In my job as a lawyer, I had a quota of billable hours to meet, but was sure of my salary regardless of the quota. As a freelancer, my income is my billed time. I don’t have a consistent and reliable direct deposit to depend on. So much more is required of me to ensure that I get paid on a regular basis.

“Time is money” is a constant weight on my shoulders, which is understandably challenging for someone with ADHD. I have a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts my ability to manage time, while my ability to earn an income is heavily dependent on time management. As a freelance lawyer and writer, my ability to earn an income is also tied to my ability to concentrate. As someone with ADHD, I struggle with concentration on a daily basis.

lady in a pink haze stressed and holding her head

I also struggle daily with productivity guilt and the constant feeling that I’m not doing enough. There is anxiety caused by self-imposed deadlines and negative self-talk for not meeting arbitrary expectations that I set for myself. The anxiety makes it difficult to work, but also difficult to rest, leading to me being neither productive nor relaxed.

Coming to terms with ADHD, high expectations, and the drive for perfection

A diagnosis is a powerful tool and the first step to improving your situation. Armed with the insight that the ADHD diagnosis brought me, I could seek out the right resources and implement accommodations to enable me to do my best work.

After much introspection, I realized that my perfectionism has its origins in the high expectations placed on me as a child by the adults in my life. I grew up in Jamaica as the daughter of two teachers. Excellence was expected of me from birth and I consistently met this expectation for most of my childhood. I was first in my class every single year until the sixth grade.

At that point, Jamaican children take an exam that determines the school that they’ll go to for the next 5-7 years. From a very early age, I knew that I would have to get the highest grades to get into one of the best schools. Consider it SAT-level pressure on 11-year-olds. I scored in the 99th percentile and was admitted into one of the highest-performing schools in the country. Suddenly, I was no longer the smartest girl in my class and I had to fight to keep up.

By age 16, my grades started to drop to what most parents may still consider above average. But for my parents, who were spoiled by my academic excellence, these above-average grades weren’t good enough. My father’s response to my academic performance sent the message to my child brain that my worth lies in my ability to perform, and that external support and acceptance could be withdrawn if my performance was unsatisfactory. As an adult, I joined a profession that reinforced this core belief with its billable hours and contentious proceedings.

The toxicity of overwork

Jamaica is a place where hard work is engrained into our culture as a necessity for survival. Despite tourism marketing featuring a “no problem” laidback vibe, ordinary Jamaicans are exceptionally hardworking people.[2] Many Jamaicans work long hours or multiple jobs to make ends meet. As with their American counterparts, even more privileged Jamaicans in corporate positions are often overworked, underpaid and under a lot of stress. Similarly, hard work is built into the American ethos. The American Dream is based on the promise of hard work leading to success for everyone in a meritocratic society, regardless of their origin story. The accuracy of this principle (and of America’s status as a meritocracy) has always been debatable, and the pandemic seems to have brought forth more widespread cynicism. The American Dream tells you that if you aren’t successful (i.e. wealthy), then it has to be your fault. It must mean that you aren’t working hard enough.

woman sitting in front of laptop in the dark

For decades, overwork has been a major health issue in Japan. So widespread is the issue that there exists a word in the Japanese language meaning “death by overwork.” ‘Karoshi’ is the name given to occupational sudden mortality, usually caused by heart attacks or strokes. Karoshi can also be attributed to suicide prompted by work-related stress.[3] After an oil crisis in the 1970s, many Japanese businesses were restructured, creating environments that saw employees working for more than seventy hours per week. The phenomenon is also common in other parts of Asia.

In a landmark study conducted by WHO and ILO,[4] it was found that over 745,000 deaths were attributed to long working hours in 2016. The study found that working more than 55 hours weekly increases the risk of a stroke by 35% and increases the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease by 17%, when compared to a 35-40 hour workweek.

European countries are known to offer more favorable working conditions. In November 2021, Portugal passed a law that effectively bans employers from contacting workers outside of working hours, whether by phone, text message or email.[5] France passed a similar law in 2017 entitling employees to disconnect from work-related emails on their days off and during evenings and weekends.[6] This shift in legislation is prompted by the “tenuous boundary between professional and personal life,” as noted by France’s former Minister of Labor.[7]

On average, Americans work 1757 hours per year, compared to 1670 in the United Kingdom and 1354 in Germany.[8] Europeans enjoy more public holidays, vacation leave and other forms of paid leave. Bulgarians receive more than a year of paid maternity leave, while American employers are not required by law to offer any paid maternity leave. This disproportionately affects low-income women and women of color, who are less likely to be able to afford to take unpaid leave. More than 120 countries in the world provide paid maternity leave by law.

The United States also fails to legally mandate maximum weekly working hours, while this is done in most countries around the world. Regardless, the forty-hour workweek consisting of five workdays has become standard across many industries in the United States. This was not always the case. In the mid-19th century, it was standard to work 10-14 hours per day.

America’s glamorization of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” and rugged individualism[9] may be a driving force in its toxic work culture. Values of self-reliance, personal freedom and independence are prioritized over more collectivist ideals like collaboration, generosity and selflessness. In a capitalist society, individualism can easily turn into a seemingly zero-sum game where it’s every man for himself.

As most European societies lean more towards collectivist ideals, greater emphasis is placed on  social harmony and the overall happiness and wellbeing of everyone in society. In America, the way to escape oppressive working conditions is to get a better job. Collectivist societies strive to eliminate oppressive working conditions for all members of society.

America’s work culture in 2021 is still greatly influenced by centuries-old norms xand customs. The eight-hour workday was famously heralded by Robert Owen, an 18th-century mill owner and labor rights activist. “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” became the idealized proportions of a proletariat’s time.[10] During the latter part of the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century, it was common to work for eight hours a day, six days a week.  In the early 1900s, it was Henry Ford who stopped requiring his employees to come in on Saturdays. He found that workers were more productive working forty hours a week than they were working forty-eight. Other manufacturing companies followed suit, and soon this became the norm for workers across industries, across the globe.

COVID opens the door to greater flexibility

COVID-19 made it impossible for us to continue working the way we were. Big corporations, small businesses and solopreneurs have all had to adapt by implementing alternative working arrangements. The pandemic saw many people working from home for the first time, including myself. As we strive to regain some sense of normalcy, many businesses are implementing alternative scheduling arrangements to allow employees greater flexibility. These arrangements were being used by a handful of companies long before the pandemic, but are likely to be far more widespread post-COVID.

Some companies have taken a hybrid approach, with employees coming into office on some days of the week and working from home on the other days.   Collaborative tasks and meetings can be scheduled for in-office days, while work-from-home days can be used for more focused individual work. Flextime is another alternative work schedule arrangement whereby employees have greater agency over their working hours, as well as the ability to change work schedules depending on their personal needs or preferences.

In many flextime arrangements, an employee is required to work a specified number of hours within a certain period, but they are able to choose start and end times that are more favorable to them. A mom may transition from 9-5 to 7-3, which allows her to spend more time with her children when they get home from school.

Another alternative work schedule gaining popularity is the four-day workweek. Most often, employees under this arrangement work for eight hours per day, four days per week, while still receiving a full-time salary. This is not the same as a compressed workweek, where an employee is still working for a total of forty hours each week, but the workdays are longer.  With a compressed workweek, an employee may opt to work for ten hours each day, allowing them to complete forty hours in four days. For them, coming into work for two hours earlier each morning (or leaving two hours later in the evenings) is a fair tradeoff for having Fridays off.

Successful implementation of the four-day workweek requires structural and cultural changes. Some companies opt to employ more staff or invest in other resources to increase productivity over a shorter period. However, many businesses have found that this is unnecessary and that the same number of workers are able to produce the same results over a shorter time by implementing certain strategies.[11]

It’s all about increasing effectiveness and productivity by cutting out distractions and any unnecessary uses of time. Many companies who have successfully transitioned to the four-day workweek have done so by training employees to use their limited working hours to achieve a state of flow and focus. These companies take deliberate steps to reduce distractions, streamline processes and maximize on the time spent in office. By making better use of the time spent at work, we can get the same amount of work done in less time.

The four-day work week has obvious benefits for employees. An extra free day can be used to spend time with family, pursue hobbies or personal interests or simply rest. This allows them to be less stressed and more productive. This arrangement serves to benefit employers, too. Research shows that happier employees have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line.[12]

a rock in the woods with the words keep calm

Only time will tell how COVID-19 will permanently impact the world of work. In the best case scenario, companies will continue to offer greater flexibility to workers by implementing alternative working arrangements. Otherwise, they may be left to deal with the aftermath of a string of resignations as employees, emboldened by these unprecedented times, venture out to seek more balance in their lives. For those who take the leap towards working for themselves, care has to be taken not to repeat the same toxic patterns of overwork you sought to escape.

My secret recipe for achieving a work-life balance: flow, deep work, and compassion

By working for myself, I have the opportunity to set my own schedule. At first, I was trying to replicate my 9-5 schedule, which quickly failed. It left me feeling burned out and like I was never doing enough work. I had to remind myself that when I was going into the office, I was not doing eight straight hours of focused, productive work, so it wouldn’t be fair to now expect that of myself.

This made me curious about how much work is actually done during the eight-hour workday. In a study conducted in the UK,[13] it was found that office workers were only productive for about 2.5 hours each workday. A lot of time is lost to things like arriving late to work, leaving work early, grabbing a coffee from the break room and swinging by your coworker’s office. Consider also the time spent reading and responding to emails, checking the news and the ever-tempting distraction of social media.

The brain isn’t able to switch from task to task as effectively as we think. Let’s say you’re a writer churning out a blog post. You’ve achieved that elusive state of flow where the words seem to be writing themselves, when a notification comes in for an email from a colleague. You pause to open, read and respond to the email. For someone like me, opening that email can easily turn into me reading and replying to other emails or navigating to another website. Even if I immediately switch back to writing the blog post, I’ve lost the state of flow and it won’t return easily. By working from home, I had fewer distractions and was able to get more deep work done in less time.

“Deep work” is where you perform your most cognitively challenging tasks and produce the work that is at the core of your role. It’s the work you do when you’ve achieved your state of flow. As an attorney and writer, deep work for me involves shutting out all the distractions and doing intentional, focused periods of research or writing. Deep work takes up only a small percentage of the average person’s workday and some days, deep work isn’t done at all.

I started being more flexible and testing out different routines and schedules.  If I could maximize my deep work, I could get more done in less time. This frees up my days for self-care, relaxing and working on other projects.

silhouette of woman meditating in sunset

My time management now comes from a place of compassion, rather than a place of urgency. I want to increase my productivity as a means of making more space for wellness, pleasure and rest. I now understand that self-care is not the antithesis of productivity, but rather a necessary element of my productivity process. Time spent engaging in self-care should not be viewed as a detraction from the work we could be producing. It is through self-care that we are able to show up as our best professional and creative selves.

Francine Derby headshot

Francine Derby

Francine is a practicing attorney in Jamaica, specializing in family law, estate planning, and personal injury law. She is also a human rights consultant at an NGO. Prior to receiving her law degree, she worked in social media and copywriting.

Connect with Francine:

Email: francinederby@gmail.com


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Are you prone to perfectionism? If so, how does this affect your approach to your work?
  2. In what ways are you able to restructure your schedule to facilitate more time for self-care?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post

  • Clearing emotions
    • Identify with your values, not your emotions
    • Clear negative emotions
  • Conscious use of self
    • Adopt a learning orientation
    • Commit to personal change
  • Initiating workplace change

#Overwork  #SelfCare  #ADHD  #WorkLifeBalance

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We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.  

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