If you are paid an annual salary, you are not being paid to work 40 hours each week: you’re being paid to meet goals throughout the year.
You’re being contracted for your expertise, not for your time. It takes time to provide expertise, but time is not the focal metric: goals are. If you are meeting the goals you’ve committed to, along the timelines your team is working with, then the amount of life you spend doing so should not impact performance evaluations or value judgments.
And yet it does. It matters to us. We go to extraordinary lengths to ensure we are ‘at work’ for half of our waking life (or more!) five days a week, every week, without fail or pause. If we don’t have enough to do, we don’t rest; that’s not allowed. That’s not productive.
Instead, we get anxious. We look for more work. We try to ‘get ahead’ on the next week, even though that means next week we’ll back in this bind of not having enough work to do.
Why do we do this to ourselves? I don’t want to do this to myself.
I have never worked at a company where I was pressured by others to work myself into the ground. I am speaking of my experience pressuring myself to work myself into the ground. Of feeling that ‘full time’ means ‘all time’, in spite of the fact that no such time requirements have ever been written into my employment contracts, and no such asks have ever been directly made of me. Of the fact that I routinely have to ask my team to slow the fuck down because, though we’re in an environment where we’ve made long hours socially unacceptable, we haven’t normalized short hours, and so we all still feel the urge to work as much as we can get away with.
And we can get away with working 40 hours a week.
Contractually, we’re bound to get shit done; but culturally, we’re bound to work eight hours a day, and if we can’t get enough shit done in that time, we’re supposed to work more.
Somehow, the world and I have internalized the belief that working one third of their life is the right and proper thing for a salaried employee to be doing. But what if I’d like to work just four hours a day this week, because Reasons?
Well, it depends on the Reasons. If someone is paid the same whether they work 20 hours or 40, that feels wrong to us, even if contractually we all have that freedom. But as soon as I mention the fact that I have a sick kid or a broken house, all of a sudden we feel better. That’s a good enough reason, we think, for working less without getting penalized.
But if I want to work with you only four hours a day for the next month, because I want to work four hours a day on my novel? The scenario is almost laughable to even ponder: the social expectations are so great that I would never even voice that desire. Eight of my hours, each of my days, belong to you, my employer, more surely than any written contract could enforce.
This is the bond I am lamenting, and the one I am questioning.