When you first finished school and started your job search, the world was your oyster. So many meaningful jobs out there to pick and choose from. So many prestigious places to work at. So many great companies and agencies to work for.
And so you picked one of them and started settling in. You learnt loads on the job, focusing your fresh and eager mind upon anything and everything simply because it was all so new and exciting.
Fast forward a year or two. Now you’re mired in a never-ending deluge of incoming work. Bosses are no longer so accommodating towards you as a new employee, because well, you aren’t one anymore. And anyway you’re in the running for that one promotion spot alongside nine others, so you better buck up and put in the hours. Never mind that it’s physically impossible to clear these two hundred files by the end of next month even if you work 24/7 – that’s just the way things are here, and if you want to have a hope of changing the system then you better suck it up for now and climb the ladder some more.
This is when maybe you start to reminisce about simpler times, when everything was new and fresh. You wish you could be learning new things again for your personal growth. You wish to be in a working culture where employees aren’t treated as mere resource units to be allocated at the bosses’ discretion. Then you find yourself casually, and then seriously surfing career sites to look for a new job. And before you know it, you’ve resigned with a big smile on your face, eager to leave the drudgery behind forever.
Except the drudgery doesn’t get left behind. When you start your new job, everything’s new and fresh again – but the drudgery is still there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for the novelty of your new job to wear off. And when it does, it strikes a fatal blow to your work motivation. Then you start searching for a new job and the cycle begins again.
What’s happening here? Is it because you just haven’t found the right job yet? Maybe if you find the right job, you won’t get jaded anymore. And that must mean the current job is the problem, not you, right? The problem can never be you.
Except it is. But don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Chances are, the problem lies with all your colleagues too.
So assuming you accept the possibility that the problem lies with you, what exactly is the problem?
The problem is our naive assumption that the organisation we work for and us as the employees have the same interests. In an ideal world, that would certainly be the case (please picture a group of smiley carebears working hand in hand for the greater good), but unfortunately we live in the real world.
And in the real world, your employer’s interests are not your interests. Your employer’s interests lie in ensuring all the work gets done in as short a time period as possible so that it can take on even more work. More work done = more profit recognized. It’s that simple (unless you work for the government, in which case more work = more prestige maybe? I don’t know how government agencies tick, sorry.)
But for you, your interests are different. You want to learn and grow your skills and competencies. You want fair and transparent career progression. You want harmonious work relationships. You want to find meaning in your work. And of course, you want some level of work-life balance so you have time to have a life outside work.
So, what happens when two entities with different interests need to interact with each other? Well, diplomacy, of course! You sit down on one side of the table, your employer sits down on the other, and the two of you start negotiating in order to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.
Except this never happens. There is no such negotiation, because the employer is all-powerful. And in the world of diplomacy, the most powerful is the one who gets to set the pace. The most powerful is the one who gets his way. The most powerful is the one whose interests override the interests of all others.
This is why your in-tray is exploding. This is why you find yourself overtiming till late at night. This is why you wake up and dread going to work.
And this is why you’re burning out in your job.
Hmm but wait just a moment! I said the problem was with you, but what I just covered above sounds like I’m pointing the finger at your employer.
Unfortunately, the problem still lies with you. Because remember when I said that the employer is all powerful?
The employer is all powerful because employees believe the employer is all powerful. But in reality, the employer and employee are on the same rung. The employer needs employees to do its work, and the employee needs the employer to earn a living. While you might argue that the employer is more powerful because he can easily fire an employee and hire another, it is easy to forget that the employee always retains the power to switch employers as well.
So bearing this shift of power in mind, let us return to the differing interests between you and your employer. Since our interests are now on equal value with that of our employer, we are now free to determine a new equilibrium between these opposing interests. While the exact specifics of the equilibrium may differ from person to person, let me just give a generic win-win situation focusing on work-life balance that can work as a starting point for you readers:
During the working hours as stipulated in the contract signed by the employer and employee, the employee will do his utmost best to do the work assigned to him. Outside of those working hours, the employee will be free to focus on the non-work aspects of his life. The employee’s work performance will be judged based upon the work done during said working hours, and no penalty will be assigned for any work not done during non-working hours.
That’s fair, right? In short, you work when you should be working, and you don’t work when you shouldn’t. If you adopt this mentality, you are setting your own work pace. Not the employer. And if the employer is smart, he’ll recognize that the benefits of retaining experienced employees far outweigh the additional work that could be achieved by overworking these employees and causing them to burn out and leave. But, as I stress, the employer is not all powerful, so it’s not really all that important what he thinks. What’s important is how YOU think.
If you can apply this to your work, it is very unlikely that you’ll burn out. Sure, you may eventually leave the organisation in search of other opportunities, but there’s a very big difference between leaving due to burnout and leaving because your new employer is offering something you want: Push and Pull factors. As I’ve shown at the beginning of this article, if you leave a place due to push factors, you’re going to find the same problems everywhere you go. But if you leave due to pull factors from the place you’re going to work at, then you’re starting on a positive note rather than a negative one (It also means you don’t have to lie through your teeth at the interview). And that can make all the difference in the world.
In short, there is no point if you work real hard for five years and then collapse due to a heart attack or fall into depression. And if you’ve fallen into the endless cycle of changing jobs in the eternal search for “the right one”, then maybe it is time to break that cycle. If you’re in the working class like me, we’ll be working well into our 60s just to have enough to retire. Seen in this light, your working career isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
And what do you do if you need to finish a marathon? You pace yourself.
Thank you very much for reading!