Redefine the Grind: Finding Balance in American Work Culture

I recently turned 49. It’s a troubling number for me in some ways. As I near the ol’ 5-0, I find myself taking stock in my life, my career, what I’ve wanted, and how those wants are changing. I’m not sure if that’s because of the age, or if it’s in response to the pandemic. After all, I’m certainly not alone when it comes to recognizing how these “unprecedented times” have transformed the way we look at our work and our lives.

For example, I saw this image on social media today and it really did strike a chord with me.

I’ve been working since I was 14. Not full-time, of course. I’m not Ron Swanson here! But, I did start working at McDonald’s as the weekend biscuit-maker at 14. I got myself up before dawn and walked a mile every Saturday morning to be there by 5AM (6AM on Sundays) and worked an eight-hour shift with the occasional double shift tossed in for good measure. On weekdays, the school bus would drop me off at McDonald’s and I’d work evenings as well. About a year later, I moved to Arby’s, but basically kept the same schedule.

By the time, I headed off to college, I was working full-time as a secretary during the day and attended classes nights and weekends. After graduating college, I began working in PR and for the next nearly thirty years, I put in 70-80-hour work weeks regularly. There were many years in there where I didn’t take any vacation – not a single day. I took pride in the grind. Like BeyoncĂ©, I knew I slayed. After all, I was doing what every red-blooded American was taught to do – WORK. Work day and night and when that’s done, work some more.

It got so intense that I literally worked myself into poor health, as I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes by the Fall of 2019. (I quit my job after that and spend six months changing my lifestyle to successfully reverse the diagnosis, but still!)

I look back now on those decades of endless work and wonder how I did it all. But, even more than that, I realize that while I am extremely proud of my career and how I’ve risen through the ranks and achieved nearly every professional goal (I’m not done yet!), I also marvel at the way we celebrate the grind in the U.S.

I look at my friends and colleagues in other countries – and a few here – who place greater value on their mental and physical health and the time they spend with their families and friends and I find myself wondering if we, as Americans, have valued the wrong things all along.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my work. And, I’m thrilled to be at an agency today that does value work/life balance while still delivering exceptional results for our clients. But, like so many people right now, I’m feeling a tectonic shift in how I view success.

Certainly working from home is a big factor. I live in metro Atlanta. If you know anything about Atlanta, you likely know the traffic here is horrendous. There were years where I’d spend two hours driving to work and more than two hours returning in the evening. That’s 20+ hours every week, 80+ hours a month, and nearly 1,000 hours every year for many years, spent stressed out just trying to get from one place to another. It’s no wonder Bloomberg reported employees are quitting their jobs rather than return to their daily commutes. I get it.

I’m also hoping this pandemic will drive additional transformations beyond the remote working trend. For one, I think we will continue to see wages rise. We know most of the 700,000 (and counting) Americans who lost their lives to the pandemic were minimum wage, front-line workers and teachers. And, we are seeing those workers refusing to return to their jobs as they’ve weighed the health risks (and stress of dealing with an increasingly angry and entitled public) against a meager income. CNBC now reports companies are increasing wages and benefits to lure workers back, in what I hope will be a continuing trend.

I think (or maybe just hope) another post-pandemic transformation will be a redefining of success in America. We know the days of the McMansion are gone — mainly killed by staggering student debt. Tiny home ownership continues to rise as Americans reconsider the idea of a lifetime of debt just to have bigger places in which to keep our stuff. (I’m reminded of Carlin’s rant on stuff here. He would have loved the tiny home trend!)

I’ve also had many conversations with friends and colleagues – grinders like myself – who’ve begun to see more free time as the measure of success. I hear friends of all ages talk about early retirement more than ever before. Headlines are changing too. In 2018, headlines shouted at us to find more side hustles and touted these additional jobs as lucrative and something everyone should do.

In the post-pandemic world, the headlines have shifted to a need to stop the grind and halt the hustle, recognizing that it’s actually detrimental to our health.

Now, we’re seeing calls to kill the five-day workweek and let Americans have more time off. Personally, I’m a fan of that trend. And, not just from the “worker-bee” perspective. When I was the president of a PR agency, my focus was always on productivity and profits and I can tell you, even in that position, I recognized that well-rested employees delivered better quality work and brought more ideas to the table. Of course, I didn’t apply that to myself as I continued to put in 80-hour workweeks. I recall one Saturday when, after settling in front of my laptop with my morning coffee to do some work, I didn’t stop until my husband hollered, “SNL is starting. Are you ever going to stop working today?”

So, what does all this mean? I guess for me, it means I now “punch the clock” at 6 and I don’t look back. I actually take a lunch hour – okay, maybe it’s more like a half hour – but I step away from my desk and sit in the backyard with my husband and my dog and just breathe. I go for a quick ten-minute walk around the neighborhood in between meetings. I actually use my weekends for rest and recreation and, you know what – I’m just as productive – if not more so – than I was when I was exhausted, stressed out and grinding. So, I still slay, just not all day.

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