When it was leaked that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was no longer allowing employees to work from home, the backlash was swift and severe. She angered working moms and was criticized by other famous professionals. Some people (like Donald Trump) did agree with her, but the overwhelming reaction was negative.
Although the backlash may have been somewhat undeserved (an ex-Yahoo worker said that employees were "milking" the flexible work policy), it encouraged me to see that people felt so strongly about a topic that has long needed to be reevaluated. For a long time, I've felt that we have the wrong idea when it comes to work. We should love what we do and we should feel balanced, instead of so frequently hating our jobs or overworking ourselves to the point of depression. The outcry against Mayer's decision seems to finally indicate that our culture may be changing. It's not only what it seems at the surface: the desire to get out of the office. It's about creating a life where you love your work but it doesn't overtake you, a life with flexibility and a life with fulfillment.
I may be a bit of an extremist, but seems odd to me that out of a seven-day week, we work five. We see our families for a minimal few hours at night and on weekends, and we take just two weeks out of 52 every year for ourselves. On any given day, many of the statuses on my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are about drinking, crying and sleeping the way through the work week. If this is the system, something's wrong.
A few months ago, I watched a documentary called Happy. The film claims to examine what makes us happiest and in the process, examines many things that make us unhappy. One of these such examples is working to excess. It's important that we ask ourselves now, in the wake of the Yahoo work-from-home ban exactly how we want to design our companies and our lives to make healthy, happy, productive employees and more importantly, people.
If we don't, we might soon find ourselves with an ever bigger problem.
In Japan, people are literally working themselves to death. They even have an actual word for this phenomenon: "karoshi." The movie I watched interviewed a man whose 39th birthday was that day. The journalist asked the man if he would go out celebrating with his friends, if his girlfriend and family would understand that he wanted some time off work. The man implied that he wouldn't be going out to celebrate and mentioned that he told his girlfriend that they'd celebrate a different day because he had to work. In Japan, there's such a high emphasis on work that one must reschedule his own birthday.
We also met another woman whose husband had actually died of karoshi. He worked at Toyota, as a quality control engineer and one day, simply collapsed and never woke up. The problem is so accepted in Japan that there are even benefit programs for the families of victims of karoshi.
The thought stunned me: there is no move to change society before these workers die of, literally, exhaustion, but there are moves to make the families of the victims more comfortable.
Is this what we're working towards in America? Our work days have already changed from a norm of "9-5" to a more insidious norm of "9 until whenever the work is done." How did we get here? How do we think this is acceptable? Sooner or later, a body collapses, and in our case, it may be more of a mental collapse than a physical. How long can we expect to keep going, miserable, before our singularly focused lives take their toll?
The answer is, we can't. We can't expect to keep going this way for centuries because otherwise, our lives will collapse (quite literally) at the expense of our careers. I love what I do now and I could probably do it nearly all the time, but that's because I finally work at a company that values individuals and that recognizes that needing to have a life doesn't make you a bad employee. I came from the legal profession where the opposite was true: even hinting at the need for a break was nearly enough to get you fired.
While we might not be able to change the five-day workweek or the two-week-a-year vacation cycle, we can change our approach. We can understand that in order for employees to love their jobs, they must feel valued and happy.
Unlike Marissa Mayer's one-size-fits-all approach to work, we have to realize that it's time to start valuing our employees as people first and workers second.