Last year, I did near daily updates about what it’s like working as an applied sociologist. I wanted to promote more awareness about our careers beyond academia. I stopped doing the regular diary in October, except for the odd check-in. Here’s what I’ve been up to, along with reflections on work-life balance.
In October 2020, I started a project to improve public health. It was an intellectually rewarding project, but the timing was challenging. There was a lot of pressure to get the randomised control trial into the field in November. This meant I worked very long hours, including weekends. Towards the end of our trial, there was a COVID-19 outbreak in the Northern Beaches. This affected our trial. It meant that we had to work over Christmas and New Year.
Then there was a push to scale the intervention right away. This meant that I never had a break since October. I was concurrently running another three large projects, as well as sitting on a demanding committee. I also help coordinate our team’s public communication strategy, plus I run our website our blog and our social media. Then there’s various other responsibilities, like giving talks and providing policy advice.
By June 2020, my health started to decline. I had already suffered poor health the previous year, exacerbated by poor work conditions. Once again, I was under resourced across all my projects. When I asked for help, this was poorly managed.
My health became progressively worse. I received little help. In the end, following a health emergency, I took one month’s medical leave.
My return to work wasn’t handled well. I requested specific changes. Some things have gone smoothly, while other patterns have been slow to improve.
There’s much to digest from this, but my biggest lessons for now is about pushing back against capitalist narratives of workplace illness.
One of the ways capitalism dismisses workers’ welfare is to put the blame on individuals. A common refrain is: “You’ve just got to say ‘no’ more.” This logic allows institutions exploit labour without taking responsibility for staff wellbeing. Organisations have many surveillance tools to manage workers’ time and resources. These systems quantify work deliverables, outputs and hours worked. There is no way for workers to over work without these systems registering imbalance, especially when weekly reports monitor these figures.
There are also various weekly meetings where workload is discussed, distributed, and logged.
Moreover, organisations place large emphasis on seeking help from managers. Executives send regular emails about being “kind” to one another. We are encouraged to use flexible work arrangements. Corporate messages acknowledge the negative impact of the pandemic on wellbeing. We are told to manage our work-life balance.
Given these processes, workers should not have to push forward in unfair conditions and make a business case to have health and wellbeing prioritised.
Capitalism encourages the atomisation of the workforce. It alienates workers using a discourse of choice – as if we should be prepared to quit our jobs, if we raise a problem with the system. With this comes the assumption that this “choice” has equal impact on everybody, even when white women and minorities’ workplace experiences are unequal. Then there are power dynamics, when workers are individually battling people with greater authority to have their basic rights and welfare recognised.
The individual blame discourse is propped up because it allows the system of inequity to continue unchanged. If the individual wants to stay, they should shut up and work. If you’re not prepared to leave work you’re invested in, and suck up the negative impact, then put up with the consequences. Even if it means you end up getting sicker.
Rather than expecting individuals to bear the brunt of inequity, it’s better to:
- ask questions about how the workplace could be better organised
- respond swiftly and compassionately to immediate problems; and
- create positive change now, so these conditions never rise again in the future.