When the Work Starts to Kill You

When I was an undergrad, I knew a career in journalism would likely result in a terrible work-life balance. At least in the beginning but the worst instance of this is happening now, as a communications person for an educational non-profit in Manhattan. It feels worse than when I was working on my master’s degree. I’ve suffered from noticeable body aches, where the pain is concentrated in my lower back, and experienced chronic headaches that last for days. I can feel my body breaking down, and these are the days I don’t want to get up for work. And I’m not alone.

According to a study out of Ohio State University, long work hours can have a detrimental effect on our bodies — even kill us — but the negative effects overwork appear to be much worse for women. It’s no surprise that women tend to take on a lot more in terms of workload (paid and unpaid), as they juggle obligations of their professional and personal life — a tension that may lead women to feel less satisfied about their work.

The differing attitudes and perceptions of work-life balance at the office can be a telling marker of an organization’s overall health. My employer did a “pulse survey” of the staff a few months after I started, and asked about staffs’ attitudes–using a 5 point scale–on topics such as professional development opportunities, support from senior managers, career advancement, work-life balance, and harassment . The survey results are anonymized to the extent that such a thing can be anonymized in a small office, but highly visible are results broken down by race. And these results can further be easily attributed to certain teams in the office — teams that are predominantly staffed by people of color.

The debrief about the results led to mixed conversations and have been off and on my mind for some time, but it wasn’t until my coworker mentioned that she’s been sick for the last six months that I remembered those post-survey discussions and how much it appears our employer values us.

One of the comments that struck me was one made by a senior manager (SM), in response to the question about whether staff felt like they had a good work-life balance. The SM appeared surprised, confused, and baffled by the low percentage of people who thought the office provided a good work-life balance. She asked my team to interpret the question to try and shed some light on why staff didn’t think they had work-life balance.

I brought up a chronic issue of the office being under-staffed and under-resourced in most of the teams — particularly those that are student-facing and development related. I also added that there may be a perceived expectation of “being on the clock” even when we’re not in the office. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that many people consider commuting times as part of their work day, so if someone had a long commute, say over 30 minutes, they may feel like their working hours are extended by virtue of the longer commute. The SM didn’t seem convinced and commented that this is New York City. Sixty-hour-plus work weeks are the norm so what more do we, the staff, want for work-life balance?

My eyes widened at that remark but I said nothing. I kept my thoughts to myself and wondered if that reason alone — living in New York City — was reason enough to expect more than eight hours of work everyday from an employee. I didn’t think so, especially with the low pay, the apparent lack of advancement opportunities, and the disproportionate number of women (many with children) who make up the nonprofit sector.

What was notably absent from my team’s debrief was how the perception of work-life balance differed between teams. Although the discussion was specifically about the team itself, ignoring this key difference would’ve been helpful in understanding more broadly what the organization could do to cultivate an environment and attitude that shows that the staff aren’t just appreciated, but that they’re also cared for.

It’s not clear as of yet what those debrief have amounted to besides small tweaks to our benefits packages — a tweak that continues to convey the attitude that our well-being is our own responsibility, but if you take care of yourself, we’ll reward you in this small way.

It’s not enough to give gym reimbursements and generous paid-time-off packages. Our health and effectiveness as employees is also determined by in-house wellness programs that are readily available to the staff.

Employers should be aware of the risks, especially to women who work beyond 40 hours a week, says Allard Dembe, the OSU study’s author, “companies benefit in terms of quality of work and medical costs when their workers are healthier.”

My colleagues and I aren’t asking for an office like Google’s or Facebook’s, with their play pens and other play amenities, but staff members talk and there’s something amiss. That we work for a nonprofit organization shouldn’t erase the fact that we have rents to pay, mouths to feed, and our bodies to care for.


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