The other day while I was conducting an interview, I was told what I every so often hear, that in a family both partners can’t pursue a career. It’s either one or the other because a career is so time consuming and someone needs to take care of the kids. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now, and I guess I reluctantly have to admit that this person had a point, considering the 24/7 commitment we expect of our employees, at least the ones that are headed for the top. It has been argued that prevalent career models aren’t created for only one person but for one and a half: the one with the job and the one that takes care of everything else. How this is supposed to work, especially in a country like Finland where I live, where there is a tradition of both partners working, and where nannies are rare, escapes me. Who takes care of the work that is supposed to be done by that extra half person? Even though Finland is one of the most gender equal countries in the EU (which is not to say that Finland is completely gender equal), it is often women who do most of that half person’s work. So we have women who not only have the all-consuming career, they also take care of most of the care and household chores, and as a result they are often exhausted. If I remember correctly, I think I read somewhere that in Sweden about 80% of the people treated for exhaustion are women. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the numbers were similar elsewhere.
A while back, a good friend of mine – a friend with a high-powered career – talked about this, about how completely exhausted she was. She’s very good at what she does; she simply had too much to do at work. I once heard someone say that if you want something done you should just ask someone who already has too much to do. I guess there’s some truth to that. Either way, it made me think about Sheryl Sandberg and what she says about women needing to draw the line. In her book Lean In, Sandberg explains that companies take what they can get and it’s up to the individual to say when enough is enough. Now I’ve been a bit critical of that because that may feel risky for a person who is well aware that if he or she doesn’t do the job, there are plenty of others who will – we are all replaceable, right? And besides, we have a structural problem on our hands, not an individual one, and trying to create individual solutions doesn’t solve much in the long run, or for anyone else for that matter. But I was thinking, that for someone as senior and appreciated as my friend is, drawing the line and setting some terms of her own is probably possible. We’re so worried what might happen if we say no, but maybe the sky won’t fall if we try. Still, I’m the first to admit, that it is hard to do, even for someone like me who has a pretty clear idea of what my terms are.
I was discussing these thoughts with another good friend of mine, and ironically (because I think I don’t generally generalize) I was accused of generalizing! I was explaining how companies take everything they can and he interrupted me and said no all companies don’t. He apparently actively tells his team members they need to stop and rest and take time off. Which often throws them, ironically; they are so set on working long hours and looking busy because that’s what all important career people do, right? Well, I was impressed and I honestly think he must be a pretty great boss who really cares about his people, despite maybe just seeing wellbeing as a means to efficiency, which in turn is good for the company. But I do wish more bosses were like him because we really need to understand that working people harder isn’t necessarily better. Quantity is not the same as quality.
In Sweden some organizations are experimenting with six-hour days, as opposed to the standard eight, but for the same pay. This has been quite controversial, but the organizations trying this have apparently had very positive results. They say that their employees get the same amount done, if not more, because they don’t get so tired during a six-hour stretch. And then when they finish work they still have half an afternoon and a whole evening left of the day, which means they have time and energy for all the other things they want and need to do. Sounds like these employees have a much more well rounded life than most. Because despite what my friend says about not all companies sucking their employees dry being true, a lot of companies still do.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we have to stop assuming that working more means working better. I don’t know why we think people have to dedicate their whole lives to work. Just because they have other things that are equally important to them in their lives, it is not a threat to how well they do their jobs, so why do we make it so difficult for them? It’s like the employer is a jealous friend who doesn’t want you to have any other friends. Put it like that and it just sounds ridiculous.