Back in the late 1980s when I was a young financial analyst at a New York bank, I’d leave the office at five and go home to my little Upper West Side studio. With no cable, internet, or cellphone, a landline was my only connection to the outside word till I went back to work the next day.
What was it like? Tranquility is the word. Surrounded by Manhattan, I was as isolated as a monk in a cell, with uninterrupted hours to read a book, cook, or listen to an album. And of course I could go out on the town without a work crisis reaching out to ruin my plans.
I’ve been thinking back to those days a lot, lately. Working as a psychologist, I’m hearing more and more clients complain lately about how much time they’re putting into their jobs. Folks have been working from home for a year now, and as the months have gone by, many of us are spending more and more hours on the job.
What’s going on? I hear a few justifications.
First, many people tell me that they don’t feel they have an excuse not to reply when they get a text or email from a boss or colleague after normal work hours. After all, what else would they be doing? This is especially true of my single clients who don’t have children. Even dinnertime isn’t off limits.
Second, as the pandemic drags on and most of us have so few sources of fun and stimulation, people are turning more and more to their jobs for something — anything — to keep them occupied.
And, of course, there’s the reality that we’re working from our homes. There’s no physical boundary keeping work at work.
So while it’s great not to have to commute or wear pants, working from home is making it even easier for our jobs to take over our lives than they already were. Put bluntly, this sucks.
We all need a break from work. Every day. Your job likely isn’t paying you for 16-hour days. Even if it is, you need to have some fun, rest, and recharge your brain.
Of course we can’t shut ourselves off from the world as completely as I did in those pre-internet/cellphone days. But we need to draw a boundary, even if it means disappointing our employers and colleagues by doing so. I’m not talking about not doing your job. I’m just talking about setting a limit on how much of your life you are willing to give to your work.
Standing up for your own well-being can be scary. There may be real risks in terms of job security and compensation. Only you can decide for yourself when it is vital to say “no.” But advocating for yourself is necessary at times. To quote Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”
Taking action on your own behalf is also a skill you want to develop, because it will help you in all areas of your life. If you can’t say “no” in order to eat dinner uninterrupted, watch a movie you’d like to see, spend time with someone you love or get a good night’s sleep, you’re going to get chewed up and spit out by others, quite a lot.
Recently, I’ve been reading that D.C.’s downtown is in danger of financial ruin. As many people may not be be returning to the office after the pandemic, some believe that the whole web of service businesses may collapse.
I’m hoping that the doomsdayers floating this theory are wrong, and that as the pandemic ends many of us will head back to the office, at least much of the time. We need to get back to setting a stronger boundary between work and the rest of our lives.
Yes, we’ll be helping our city rebound. And we’ll also be making a big step toward taking care of ourselves, by re-constructing a life that’s about way more than work.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com.