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Everybody’s working on the weekend (and why that’s a bad thing) Add to ...

The erosion of the weekend was something Katrina Onstad had experienced for years. She is a writer, after all: an award-winning journalist and Giller-nominated author of the novel, Everybody Has Everything. She knows the pressure of deadlines, which can have you working into the wee hours and through the weekend. (And, of course, the imagination has no understanding of boundaries.)

But it wasn’t until she was working a 9-to-5 job at the CBC a few years ago that she and her family realized they needed to make some changes. “I thought I would have my weekends off but I really didn’t,” the mother of two says.

She was exhausted. On a Sunday night, her son, now 13, would sometimes complain: “Are you kidding? That’s a weekend?” He had a very romantic idea of what a weekend could be, Onstad explains, which often left her and her husband feeling that they had failed to realize its potential.

And so, a writing project was born. Her new book, The Weekend Effect, explores the importance of reclaiming those two days. Onstad spoke to The Globe and Mail from her home in Toronto.

It’s odd to think that working too much was once something people complained about. Now we brag about how long and hard we work.

We have been living with the unsteady global economy for a couple of decades now. Salaries for most people, except for the top 1 per cent, have not increased. And so I think there’s a performance element that’s required. One’s identity does start to become melded with the work.

Many think of the weekend as a religious construct: the day of rest. But you write that organized labour had a lot to do with formalizing the weekend.

In the 19th century, unions rose up to incite for a shorter work week and the weekend; to make it a legal protection. To think about how we live now and how our weekends are so compromised for many reasons, it’s a bit of a betrayal of that history.

We can blame the smartphone, no?

There is no longer that physical line between work and leisure. Our office is in our pockets and our purses, and we’re perpetually on call, which leaves us in this heightened state all the time. And that’s not necessarily because of the rules of the workplace. We’re doing it to ourselves.

It doesn’t seem too long ago that we thought e-mail was delightful. Remember Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail?

It seems like yesterday. But we’re beginning to understand that this is not sustainable. It is not healthy. There’s research about separation anxiety from smartphones. There was a study where they put people in a room and left the smartphones outside. They could hear them ringing but couldn’t get to them. Their hearts would start beating faster and they would sweat.

Workplaces that are better designed than our homes encourage the culture of overwork.

There’s a shift from the eastern seaboard finance world to a laid-back Silicon Valley model. Those workplaces are the most “enchanted” – the phrase that’s been used, which means a place that casts a spell over workers; where work and play bleed into one another. Instead of calling it an office, you call it a campus.

Silicon Valley offices have amazing restaurants and interior design. It has a real effect on workers because you begin to feel that work is play. It’s fun. These changes and little perks make work really appealing and that’s good. I’m not trying to condemn these things but what they do is dull our awareness of time and of our identity outside of work.

But some might argue that as work has changed, so, too, should our structure of time off. If working remotely, you can put in hours on your dock at the lake. You could work early in the morning and take the afternoon off. There’s more fluidity between work and leisure. Is it crucial that two days in sequence – the weekend – be sacrosanct?

Yes, absolutely. There’s a great loss if we don’t protect that space. If we don’t have it, I think we lose our social connections. The main reason why people don’t volunteer is that they don’t have time. The main reason why people don’t socialize is that they don’t have time.

If we want to be happy and fulfilled and better the world in which we live, we need time to do it. And you can’t farm it out digitally. There’s lots of value in social media connections. But face to face – that’s where empathy comes in; where understanding comes in; conversation; human contact.

As part of your effort to save your weekend, you and your husband told your son that you were going to drop competitive hockey. And he was disappointed.

We have to be kind of ferocious because there are so many forces at play for leisure or time off. And some of those forces are beyond our control. They’re the way work or workplaces are structured or what kind of support we have socially through our governments. But some of those choices are personal and we need to step back and say: “Do we really need to do this?”

Did your son get over it?

Oh, he moved out. Ha! Just kidding! He is a really chill kid. He took it in stride. And he’s extremely happy when we declare an off day and leave the city. He seems to have survived.

We frame many things as work – even maintaining a good marriage or relationship. You write that when you found yourself with some spare time with your husband, you thought about how you could use that time to make your relationship better.

We’re conditioned to be utilitarian. There’s always been a fear of idleness. It’s a very North American New World idea. You need to be making something, improving something. You need to be doing, doing, doing. Just “being” is a lot harder. And “being” also requires that time.

But you quote a couples’ therapist who makes sex sound like work; something you just have to do. I don’t think many people will like that idea.

I know. But you just have to say, “What’s my big goal here? Do I want this relationship?” It’s part of what we need to be doing. That same therapist was saying that for people who are tired and not in the mood once they’re in the moment, it’s actually pretty good. You don’t really regret it later. It’s like going for a swim; being the first person to jump in. You’re glad you did it.

Another problem is that we define things like shopping as leisure.

If shopping is your hobby then you’ll be working a lot so you have the money to shop.

And you found a place that still prohibits shopping on Sunday.

Bergen County, which is right across the bridge from Manhattan. It has more malls per square foot than anywhere else in the States. It’s a place that’s completely contradictory – it’s a great celebration of consumption and then on Sunday, stores are totally closed. It is one of the last places in the U.S. to follow the Puritan Blue Laws. People who live there talk about a really palpable shift in the quality of their lives on the weekend.

The idea that work is a “passive religion” is so interesting. It replaces the existential angst for meaning in our lives.

Confronting the bigger questions of existence and meaning require some silence and empty space, but if we fill even our leisure time with work, and stuff every minute with work, or meaningless activities – checking our Twitter feeds – then when do we get to examine ourselves and our lives?

After writing this book, are you feeling better about your weekends?

I definitely feel that my awareness has been increased. Now, if I’m doing things on the weekend I try to be hyper aware of whether it has value for me.

You look for beauty. Or take that walk.

That’s huge. Being exposed to beauty sparks many creative epiphanies in the beholder, if not in that moment, then later. Physically being around beauty makes us feel better. Nature, especially. I looked at this burgeoning new therapy called eco-therapy. In England, they have started to integrate this in mental health care plans. They discovered that people with mental illness enjoy incredible benefits from gardening and being outside. So many of us live in cities now. We can become very divorced from the outside world.

The overarching theme of the book is our relationship to time and what we do with the time we have.

Some of the cult of overwork is about wanting a sense of control, I guess. Which we don’t have. Whenever I become obsessive about my work, I recalibrate. My work is part of who I am, a big part of who I am. I don’t mean to diminish it in any way. But it’s not me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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