Q: After completing grad school and realizing academia was not for me, I took a remote job that was described as fast-paced and results-oriented and that requires postgraduate-level education. The benefits and remote status were enticing, although the pay was below the median. I thrived under intense pressure in grad school, so I was up for the challenge.
I’m expected to complete intellectually challenging projects designed to take seven hours per day, plus an hour of administrative tasks. We all have deadlines, but the work can’t be rushed or it won’t meet quality targets, which the company tracks. I typically work from 8:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. and often later.
Eight months in, I’m always sick, consumed with anxiety, and I’ve never been more tired. Co-workers have admitted to crying or falling asleep at their desks. Turnover is high, but you don’t hear about it; you just realize you haven’t seen someone online for a while and then notice that they’ve been wiped from all interfaces.
Many employees are parents who work seven days a week but fewer hours per day so they can be with their kids. The company has won awards for being “family friendly” and talks a big game about its focus on wellness.
Is this normal? Did grad school give me a false sense that I knew the true meaning of hard work?
A: Let’s start by unpacking “the true meaning of hard work.” It’s an overblown concept that’s due for deflating.
Anything that takes effort is work. Depending on your skills, situation and natural inclination, some work is going to feel more like hard work than other kinds. Some runners excel at sprints; others excel at distance. Would you say one works harder than the other at running?
Grad school. Construction. Waiting tables. Fighting fires. Data entry. Child care. Performing. Teaching. Learning. It’s all hard work, even if you’re suited to it.
Every job is hard at first. It takes time to adapt to its routines and rhythms, learning when to put in maximum effort or conserve resources. Human minds and bodies are designed to find that balance and settle into a sustainable groove. If you’re constantly spinning your wheels without finding your groove, something is out of alignment.
The effort-to-reward ratio matters. Parents going through little-kid boot camp may welcome the trade-offs of a job with no commute and no set hours. However hard the core job is, flexibility keeps it from being significantly harder than everything else they’re doing. Child-free workers, by contrast, may not find that trade-off rewarding.
To your questions: After nearly a year, you’re still struggling to hit your stride in this job, and it’s taking more out of you than you’re taking from it. Does that mean you can’t hack a little hard work?
Under any productivity model, regular 11-hour days of intense concentration are simply unsustainable, even if you spend them in your pajamas or spread them over your weekend. Your weeping, exhausted colleagues indicate you’re far from the exception. Either management is unaware of how out of sync the work is with its wellness goals, or the churn-and-burn business model is by design.
My take: If Upton Sinclair wrote science fiction, your workplace sounds like something he’d have come up with: a brain-powered assembly line designed for maximum efficiency and uniform quality, with minimum human interaction, where those who can’t keep up drop out and are replaced like stripped screws. The family-friendly awards and pro-wellness party line add the perfect dystopian twist.
Run your own race, seek your groove, weigh your rewards. If you’ve given it the old grad-school try, there’s no shame in declaring, as you did of academia, that it’s simply not for you.