Three years ago, I got my first job out of graduate school as a therapist working with at-risk youth and their families. Because this was my first job out of grad school, I felt I had to give it my all.
Not only that, I took a year off after school, during which I hit rock bottom in my own drug addiction. A year coming out of my drug addiction is when I got that job, and, being clean and sober, I felt I had to try extra hard to keep it and perform.
My job was going well for about six months. Until, that is, I began realizing I was under a policy called “productivity.”
This “productivity” policy stipulated that I had to spend a certain amount of hours a week providing services to clients, specifically sixty-five percent of every week. I did not fully understand what this meant until my third supervisor told me I was not “meeting my numbers.” This meant I wasn’t meeting with enough clients per week.
My previous two supervisors had not stressed “productivity.” Before I even understood what this was, I was placed on a “performance plan.” This performance plan was a basically a way for managers to scrutinize and micromanage my work day.
Being on a performance plan gave me extreme stress and anxiety. It also made the work relationship between me and my supervisor very tense. Although I never voiced this tension openly, internally I was afraid of her.
During the two years I worked at this job, I was placed on three performance plans, pending a fourth one that would have gone on my permanent record as an employee if I didn’t start meeting my numbers. Fortunately, I began to.
For the duration of my time with this employer, I didn’t realize I was being overworked. I thought the excessive demands placed on me were normal. It wasn’t until I began to speak with other therapists at my job and at other organizations that I learned this policy called “productivity” was inherently exploitative.
What this productivity policy meant for me in concrete terms was that I was expected to meet with three to four clients a day for a minimum of two hours each. By the end of the week, that meant an average of fifteen clients a week for thirty hours. That only left me two hours a day to write the corresponding “progress notes” documenting my work with them. Each note took about 15 minutes to write per client, but we were only allowed to document that it took seven minutes to complete.
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This translated into me coming into the office on the weekends to complete progress notes, sometimes staying until seven in the evening multiple days a week, as well as writing progress notes at home and on weekends. And I was not the only person who did this. I would coordinate with other therapists at my job and other organizations just to meet on a Saturday or Sunday to catch up on notes. A radical white queer co-worker of mine at the time counted her real hours as being fifty to fifty-five hours a week.
What also made my job complicated was that I was “community-based,” which meant I traveled to see clients and their families at their homes, schools, or places of their preference instead of them coming to my office. Don’t get me wrong; I love community-based work. It eradicates various barriers for families and clients to access mental health care. Instead of the responsibility being on them to meet me, the responsibility was on me to meet them. Professionally, I think more social workers and therapists should be community-based.
Notwithstanding my respect for this type of therapy, I ended up traveling all day throughout the Bay Area to multiple cities in one day. Multiple times a week I would wake up in my home in Hayward, travel to my office in Oakland, travel to see a family in Alameda, travel back to Hayward to see a client, then go to a different part of Oakland to see another client. I also consistently traveled to cities like Richmond, Dublin, and Newark all in one day. Many of the families I worked with also had jobs that required me to meet with them after five in the evening. For three months, I worked with a family at seven-thirty in the evening on Tuesday, and for four months I met with a family at six-thirty in the evening on a Friday. This continued for two years for different clients.
About four months before I left that job was the hardest time for me. I had just come out to my parents as non-binary, after which they asked me to leave my home. I was also studying for a major exam that I was required to take as a social worker to keep my job. For those three months, I strategically focused my attention away from my job towards building my non-binary and trans community, looking for a new place to live, and studying for my exam. It was during this time that I was placed on my last performance plan, but eventually I did end up meeting enough clients per week.
Eventually, I found another job that didn’t require productivity.
I don’t want to sit here and preach to readers how you should set firmer boundaries establishing a clear work-life balance; or that you should tell your supervisors and bosses you refuse to work more than a forty-hour work week; or refuse to take work home.
I recognize capitalist exploitation exists. Many folks must comply with excessive work demands to economically survive. If you do speak up or not comply, then your run the risk of losing your job or being insubordinate. To preach to you about what you should do would be politically and economically presumptuous and privileged.
I’ve learned for myself that taking work home means less time to spend with family, friends, and my partner. It also means less time for self-care and less time for daily routines like laundry or cooking. Taking work home translates to rushing through other activities of daily life. When I find myself rushing through daily activities of living because I’m consistently staying late at work, I become resentful of my job and my supervisor.
I have not learned any proactive strategies for establishing boundaries between work and life. For me, what that depends upon are things virtually outside my control: the structure of daily operations at my job, the authoritative style of my supervisors, the general demands of my job. I do not own the means of production, and therefore cannot and do not structure how my workplace operates.
Ironically, if someone wants to find a job more predisposed to allow for work-life balance, that job most likely pays less. Often times, jobs we value as more meaningful to us demand more of us. People may agree to comply with excessive demands in the beginning because the job is more aligned with their passion. But this may get old rather quickly, and this is why we unfortunately hear of people burning out doing what they love.
Truth be told, most industries require their workers to work more than forty hours a week and take work home. If works needs to be done by a certain deadline, it basically goes without saying and is an unspoken script that you should complete it by any means necessary. Many work industries expect this, such as teachers and professors who spend long days on professional development and grading essays on the weekends, or lawyers who spend long days at the office.
Right now as I write this, I’m co-working with my partner who is a community college professor. She is expected to grade twenty to thirty essays every weekend.
We often hear labor activists romanticize the importance of an indefinite strike to demand workers’ rights and protections. To be honest, the whole capitalist economic system would collapse if workers in various industries refused to take work home and demanded work days of no more than eight hours.
Something I am want to briefly touch upon is how the division between “work” and “home” is a division of labor created by colonialism and capitalism. In pre-colonial societies and indigenous communities, “work” was not separated from “home”, and the two are integrated in some parts of the world. I am not going to undertake a totalistic analysis of how capitalism and colonialism created this division between work and home. However, wherever we hear of radical teachers, social workers, or other professionals “living in the communities in which they work” this is, I think, is a way of abolishing the division between “work” and “home.”
I also think there are radical ways to make the division between work and home more fluid which often time happen organically. For example, my partner and I regularly check-in with one another about our workdays, workplace politics, and professional goals we have. Talking to my partner about my work is very beneficial to me as she provides me with opportunities to think of things from a different perspective and encourages me to try my best. She also affirms my vulnerabilities at work or validated my feelings about my job. We also both identify as activist professionals radicalizing seemingly institutions of domination to better function in the service of social justice. Having a person to check-in with about my work day helps me vent. This affords me the opportunity to emotionally digest my day instead of going home resentful and processing my day when I could be relaxing.
Another way the division between work and home is radicalized for me is that two of my coworkers and I are both a part of a grassroots organization. We see each other during the work day as well as sometimes multiple times a week at city council meetings, our organization meetings, and subcommittee meetings. We see the changes that need to be take place both in our community as well as in our workplace. Even though the community activism we engage is separate from the workplace activism we perform, we still work towards changing what needs to be resolved in our immediate environments. Our “work” therefore is broadened beyond our eight hour day and includes that which needs to be changed in the name of social justice and personal, professional, and collective sustainability wherever we share space.
What I have learned to balance my work and home life is to strategize how I strategically invest and execute my emotional and physical energy. This may sound cynical, but I consider it realistic; I rarely give my job one hundred percent of my energy.
I have other priorities, such as my partner, my activism and my writing. I must prioritize how much energy I place into my work at the costs of or to save energy for other areas of my life. This does not mean that I don’t show up for my clients, but I recognize my emotional capacity. This translates to me scheduling my week in such a way where I do not overload myself. Some days out of the week are reserved for seeing clients whereas some days are reserved for paperwork.
Another way I strive towards work-life balance is I try to find ways of breaking the binary between “work” and “home” in a way that replenishes my energy, passion, and capacity to work towards social justice.[Feature Image: Multiple people sit on a couch with laptops out working. Pexels.com]