The Office vs. Our Bodies
I recently changed jobs -- and so far I love it. I now work for an organization that I 100% believe in and that does really impactful work. Perhaps it’s still the honeymoon phase, but I’m pretty convinced it’s perfect.
... Or nearly perfect. My only hangup is the same thing that I resent about any job: a strict 9-5 your-butt-must-be-in-the-office policy. This is surely better than the unspoken 24/7-wherever-you-happen-to-be expectation of my previous job, but it is still very difficult for me to manage consistently, for several reasons.
Time Pressure, Disability, & The Nightmare of Capitalism
The first is that running even a little bit late is one my biggest anxiety triggers. This may surprise some of my friends, for whose parties I am characteristically tardy; but when it comes to more serious commitments, running late devastates me. When I used to suffer more regular panic attacks, they almost always happened on my way to work and usually when I was running late. Although the severity of my anxiety disorder has since moderated somewhat, the prospect of lateness can cause those familiar feelings of terror to flood my body all over again.
Secondly, the requirement to physically show up to (and remain all day in) an office for an strict 40-hrs/wk schedule overwhelms my body and mind. Even though I finally have my own office (with a door!), come Wednesday morning, I feel like crawling into a dark cave and sleeping for a year. I hate admitting this, since this schedule is not only normative, but actually relatively cushy compared to that of many American workers. But my body -- with its physical disability, sensory processing sensitivity, and mental illness -- cannot can’t withstand being “on” for the majority of my waking hours, which is what office work requires. Overstimulation, and the resulting exhaustion, is a constant battle. A fight which I fear will never relent so long as I live in a capitalist, Work-is-Worth society.
Which ties into my third reason: I have a strong suspicion that the whole Western work life model is fundamentally fucked. And it’s really hard for me to do something I don’t buy into (stubborn Cancer, Leo rising, amirite?). Even the most efficient, obedient, and “productive” busybody American-Dream-believer-inner, can only realistically knock out around 6 hours per day of quality work. Add to that the fact that people have different personalities, levels of energy, tolerance for stimulation, physical abilities and experiences with illness, and circadian cycles -- all of which make the 9-to-5 model a one-size fits all that fits very few well.
All of this ideation was triggered my third day on the new job when I was running late (thanks, in part, to a bout of intense anxiety with attendant psychosomatic symptoms...plus traffic). My lovely but rather old-school bosses have made it very clear that they expect me to be there at 9 o'clock sharp, no matter what the day’s schedule looks like. And they are not keen on remote work. The resulting dread from that morning snowballed into an existential reflection on the nature of work and capitalism and human bodies and boundaries -- a natural topic for The Slow Down!
Below, I cover some ways to confront the stress resulting from time pressure and inflexible full-time work. These are not things I've myself mastered, as they require constant, gentle attention plus a whole bunch of unlearning toxic cultural messaging.
Lessons from Disability Activism
Disability activism illuminates some useful ways to deal with the external pressures from society and our economic system. As a person with both mental illness and physical disability, in addition to my high sensitivity (which is neither, but certainly turns the volume up on all my experiences), I’ve found a lot of validation and useful tips from a few key sources.
One of my favorite concepts is the Spoon Theory, originally coined by Christine Miserandino in a personal 2003 essay by the same name. While you should definitely read the whole essay, Wikipedia sums up the theory thusly:
“The spoon theory is a disability metaphor used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of daily living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness. Spoons are a tangible unit of measurement used to track how much energy a person has throughout a given day. Each activity requires a given number of spoons, which will only be replaced as the person "recharges" through rest. A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished.”
This quantitative-ish translation of a disabled body’s needs is a super helpful way to understand, measure, and thereby honor those needs. Conditions frequently associated with spoon theory, include (but are not limited to):
- Functional Neurological Disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Nail-Patella Syndrome
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Cancers (for example, leukemia, leiomyosarcoma)
I really like how inclusive the theory is, and how it is rooted in the discourse of invisible disability and chronic illness; Miserandino's website is even called But You Don't Look Sick dot com. While the debate over passing privilege is definitely one worth having within the disabled/chronically ill community, the ability to “pass” as able-bodied or neurotypical certainly doesn’t negate the real and often excruciating experiences of living in an ableist society. This ableism, btw, is evident in the 40-hour work week expectation.
Spoon theory has its limitations, but it’s a very useful tool to help you respect your mental and physical resources, day by day. When you are low on spoons, you know it's time to rest. Accepting that this may require working less or working differently, however, may prove a considerable obstacle.
...Which is why the Disability Justice Framework is so helpful!
On episode 7 of the aaaaaaaamazing podcast Spirit Medicine, disability activist India Harville discusses disability justice as a concept, and the Disability Justice Framework (which I'll abbreviate DJF hereafter) more specifically. At the personal level, DJF prescribes a system for wellness that makes clear your needs and the ways that you can or cannot show up. It recommends interdependence with friends, loved ones, and community by sharing each other's burdens and taking care of one another.
But at the heart of DJF is the call to not silence your needs. Name them. Ask for help when you need it. You can start by simply acknowledging when you feel tired. Even getting up and getting water for yourself, or moving your body if you haven't in a while, is super important. What really struck me most in this beautifully frank conversation was how Harville calls out capitalism and the unsustainable bullshit that is the "40 hour work week grind." By contrast, the DJF tells you to assert your right to defy productivity, especially when your body cannot manage it.
Harville describes how DJF acknowledges our humanity -- quite literally -- by asserting that we are humans with bodies and those human bodies have needs. Notably, “capitalism and white supremacy try to deny us that basic right.” She illustrates how chronically ill and disabled people risk their well-being by conforming to the 40 hour American workweek, using her own story as an example. Harville herself had suppressed her chronically ill/disabled identity for most of her life, until she got especially sick. She then had to navigate the frustration and shame that often comes with not being able to work full time, forced to slow down by a particularly acute episode of a chronic illness. It was through that experience that she found her value separate from her productivity. Harville asks: "when you recognize that you own yourself, what choices are you going to make when capitalism no longer owns you?" She answers:
"You are free to start navigating the world more from a place of choice. And that doesn't mean that you still don’t have to figure out how to pay the rent.”
She then helpfully describes how she tackles work demands:
“I build work schedules for myself that support my body and my needs. And I’m really careful to make sure that I’m not working 40 hours like capitalism tells me I have to be. Because that's not sustainable for my particular body, [so] I’m finding ways to supplement my income or work at a slightly higher wage”
I would be remiss to neglect to mention the more social-level actions required to embody disability justice, besides demonstrating self-care as publicly as possible:
Practice “access check ins” at gatherings/meetings, so that everyone gets to say what they need out of that meeting to be more present (even things like turning off harsh lighting that might trigger migraines).
Work on your capacity for facing illness and disability -- in part by contemplating your own mortality. People are often compelled to ableist thinking because they fear that one day they could become disabled -- or face the ultimate limitation: death. Confronting and unlearning this fear is key.
Build relationships with disabled folks.
DJF, in both its personal and wider social prescriptions, is highly liberatory. And, as Harville notes, marginalized people (especially disabled QTPOC), already have to use this framework to survive and build community. DJF isn’t an academic idea, but rather something that is designed to be applicable your personal life and in society at large.
If you cannot create a more flexible schedule for yourself right now, it is important to figure out how to work within the current system while also living by your values. In other words: establish and maintain boundaries. In particular, set boundaries with your work that honor the needs of your body, mind, and spirit.
For example, while I agree to sell some of my time and energy (40 hrs/wk, 9 am-5 pm, Monday-Friday) in exchange for a wage, I prioritize my autonomy and I will not allow a supervisor to dictate how I spend any hour beyond my “shift."* This may mean saying no to work that requires me to work longer hours or weekends. I am also mindful about not setting any precedents or expectations for over-work. For the rare urgent deadline, I may make an exception -- but on my own terms! And you won’t see me complain-bragging the next day, because that shit is toxic (and unfortunately rampant in nonprofit work).
Also, I value my health -- both mental and physical -- so I use my sick days when I need to, regardless of any pressure to martyr my way through illness. This was a chronic problem at my old job, which, despite having a generous sick leave policy, constantly saw ill employees dragging themselves to the office, wracked by active infections. There was strong pressure to do this, and it was reflected at every level of management. Such behavior, of course, lead to near-constant, recurring illness for all the staff. Not just in winter either; so-called “summer colds” were frequent. I have never been sicker, more often, than when I worked there.
Sick days are also meant to be used for mental health. Drop the guilt and call out when you need to!
These are just a few examples, based on my own experiences. You have to determine what your values are and what you prioritize. And then it’s your job to stick by them. Boundaries are as simple AND as difficult as that!
So what now?
Like I've said before, self-care is not a set-it-and-forget-it project. In the context of time pressure and work demands, self-care requires 1) constant unlearning of toxic social prescriptions, 2) learning that you DO deserve health and happiness and to prioritize your own needs over those of your employer, and 3) a conscious application of both the physical and mental tactics for maintaining your well-being. This begins with honoring your body's needs, applying lessons from disability activism, as well as implementing boundaries.
In order to honor your needs, it is key that you first re-examine what you believe to be true about the relationship between work and your worth, both on the personal level and in your role as a member of society. I recommend reading this article: "The Advantage Of Being A Little Underemployed" as well as the book No More Work by James Livingston. They're chock full of surprising stats and heartening facts about why our modern work habits are trash. Also, listen to all of the Spirit Medicine podcast episodes; the latest are available on iTunes. This very blog, The Slow Down, is full of resources and tools for actively practicing self-care and confronting normative ideas around work. And for some additional, woo-infused advice about boundaries, I also highly recommend this article over on Little Red Tarot, "Hawthorn Heart: What makes an effective boundary."
Your turn! How do you confront the stress resulting from time pressure and inflexible full-time work? Have you opted out of that nonsense and instead freelance or work part-time, or commit some other scheduling wizardry? What does self-care look like to you in this context? Let us know in the comments below.
* I realize that my ability to do this is a privilege that many employees, especially non-office job workers, don’t have.