Labour Day

Today was Labour Day in New Zealand. This means a day off, which is lovely (and a great time for catching up with family).  But it’s also a day where we celebrate the start of work-life balance (or, as I prefer to call it, life balance) – the time when Samuel Parnell, a carpenter in Wellington, told his boss that he would not accept a job unless he could work just 8 hours each day:

“There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.”

I spent my day off walking in the wind, brunching with my sister, shopping with my husband, and travelling home from a weekend away.  I read a bit of Robert Fulghum, napped in the car, and chatted away as he drove (the husband, not Robert Fulghum).  That is actually pretty much everything.  It was relaxed, lovely, and just what I needed.

With all the things going on in my work life at the moment, I also got to thinking about the meaning behind the day, and what that meant for me.  For me personally, it’s not about 8 hour working days.  It’s about work fitting in with my life, and finding a way to do everything I need to do.  It’s about work being important, but not the only important thing, and not even the most important thing.  It’s about

But as I thought about it, I also realised that in the last couple of years I’ve been kinda ignoring the meaning.  I’ve been focused on getting ahead, and on having “opportunities”.  I’ve been wanting promotions and pay rises, and moving in that direction (until now that is). And it’s much wider than just me too.   After previous generations fought so hard for it, we seem to be giving up the 8-hour working day.  In my current workplace, 9-10 hour days are more standard.  And at the higher levels, even 50 hours would be a very light working week (I’ve known people to start at 5am, finish after 5pm, and then come in on weekends as well – on a regular basis).

Companies seem to be constantly restructuring.  Moving people and roles around so that they can get the same amount done with fewer people, or get more done with the same number.  So often in these situations, people end up with expanded roles (read: more to do each week), and with a fear of losing their job that makes them unwilling to negotiate.  So they just do a couple of extra hours here and there to get the work done.  Which means they appear to have more capacity, so they get more work, and the cycle continues.

Technology was supposed to be the big saver.  When computers came along, they were supposed to be able to take some of our work away.  Everyone could be more productive, so they could work less.  But instead it’s the opposite.  People are constantly connected, they’re able to work from anywhere, and they do.  Blackberries, Smart Phones, Broadband, Telecommuting, Twitter.  They’re all great tools.  And, don’t get me wrong, the technology is absolutely amazing.  But they are also so easy to misuse.  With these tools it’s so easy to allow your work to sneak into other areas of your life.  Often without even really being conscious of the fact that it’s happening.

Sometimes these things are by choice.  Sometimes they’re not.  And in either case, I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve ended up here…

I don’t know the answers for everyone.  Heck, I don’t even know the answers for myself.  But I hope that we can use this opportunity to be conscious and mindful of how our work and the other parts of our lives interact; to ask some of the hard questions and create routines that allow us to focus on everything we want to, not just work; to appreciate that generations before worked hard to gain the advantages that we have today, and that we shouldn’t just throw away those advantages without giving it a bit of thought.



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