Here’s a little exercise in empathy: I’m going to ask you to find room in your hearts for the bankers. Specifically, a group of 13 junior analysts working for Goldman Sachs, whose work lives bring to mind the toil of turnip-digging medieval peasants. Well, if those peasants drove Teslas and lived in loft conversions.
The young bankers were in the news because they revealed the details of their work weeks, which sometimes stretched to 100 hours. They got very little sleep. Their bodies hurt. One said that he had been raised in foster care, and Goldman Sachs was “arguably worse.” The bank’s chief executive, David Solomon, responded by saying that they should feel free to take Saturdays off. I guess Saturdays are capitalism’s sabbath.
As you might imagine, the bankers’ complaints were met with quite a lot of eye-rolling. They had chosen a well-compensated career notorious for its overwork, and presumably they were all capable of googling “banking + stress” while tiny violins played in the background.
You might think they’re overpaid whiners. Or you could consider that the bankers are all of us at the end of a year that nobody asked for. Our eyes are blurred from staring at colleagues’ tiny faces on Zoom calls. Our backs are sore from hours sitting on kitchen chairs, while the figures on a spreadsheet do a meaningless dance. We look up from an e-mail and realize that it is 8 p.m., but are unsure whether it’s Wednesday or Saturday, the banker’s sabbath. The e-mails don’t care; they keep coming.
For the past year, concern has been concentrated on front-line and essential workers, as it should be. They’re bearing the brunt of this disaster. But at the same time, a shadow crisis is spreading across the kitchen tables and home offices of the land, where, as my colleagues Tim Kiladze and Tamsin McMahon recently reported, “white collar professionals are cracking.”
The abrupt switch to working from home last March came with certain unexpected gifts. Some people no longer had a horrible commute, and could be more available for their children’s needs. On the other hand, home was no longer a refuge from work. It became a work annex, as if you’d unfurled a futon in the break room where your co-workers abandoned their lunch Tupperware.
Technology was already blurring the line between home life and work life before the pandemic hit, and suddenly it disappeared altogether. As Morneau Shepell reported in its December Canadian Mental Health Index, people are feeling stressed, and stuck: Nearly half of Canadians didn’t take all their vacation last year.
Could the answer involve giving people the legal right to disconnect from their workplaces for a set period of time, such as overnight or on weekends? The European Parliament thinks so. It recently voted to recommend a right-to-disconnect law be passed for its member states, saying: “Although working from home has been instrumental in helping safeguard employment and business during the COVID-19 crisis, the combination of long working hours and higher demands also leads to more cases of anxiety, depression, burnout and other mental and physical health issues.”
But the idea of a mandated right to ignore your gung-ho boss and your needy colleagues is a tricky one. France has had such a law since 2016, and there have been criticisms that it is too vague and unworkable to be truly effective. In 2019, the Expert Panel on Modern Federal Labour Standards looking at workplace laws in Canada found that “a statutory right to disconnect would currently be difficult to operationalize and enforce” because modern employment requires so much flexibility. We are no longer living in a 9-to-5 world with one landline on a table in the hall. Instead it recommended that employers have to be much clearer about what parts of a job constitute paid work.
It’s possible that the European Union will come up with a disconnecting plan that will save workers’ sanity, but it’s not going to happen any time soon – the EU moves more slowly than that giant cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal.
In the meantime, what can be done for workers who are pulling their hair out at home? First, there has to be a reckoning around communications, particularly e-mail. A recent New Yorker article by Cal Newport, titled E-mail Is Making Us Miserable, was widely shared. (Perhaps you received it by e-mail?)
He described a technology that was meant to improve communication instead of invading lives and fraying attention until we’re all as unhinged as Lucy Ricardo working on that chocolate conveyor belt. “As long as we remain committed to a workflow based on constant, improvised messaging,” Mr. Newport writes, “we will remain in a state of low-grade anxiety.”
Some employers have hit the big red button marked “stop.” He cites Base Camp, a company that will only answer e-mails during operating hours. Other companies have tried to limit e-mail to their workers after hours and on weekends, but in order to relieve workers’ stress about missing out or falling behind, it has to be a directive that comes from upper management and is followed by everyone.
These healthy precedents should actually be set at the very top. This week, the CEO of Citigroup, Jane Fraser, announced a promising baby step, with the company banning internal Zoom calls on Fridays. “The blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our well-being,” she said. “It’s simply not sustainable.”
At the same time, workers have to consciously protect the time that is theirs. That might mean looking at your e-mail inbox and saying: “Not today, Satan. It’s the banker’s sabbath.”
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