I was driving today when a story came up on the radio. Burnout is now recognized as a medical condition, and that got me thinking about society in general. Specifically, our work habits. Have we as a society developed beyond our own means to function? Is there still a proper work/life balance that keeps us satisfied? Are we relying on overtime as opposed to our actual wages in order to pay our bills?
I can remember being a kid in the 80’s, before mental illness was a reality for the mainstream and PTSD was called shell shock and reserved only for war vets. Both my parents worked 9-5 jobs; my mom worked for the Government on the highways as a flagger and my dad managed a cement plant. Our evenings and our weekends meant something, and we were almost always outside doing some project in the yard in the evenings or camping on the weekends- I grew up believing that was the norm for every family.
And for most people in the town I grew up in- it was. Aside from the 7-11, there were very few 24 hour establishments. Stores were actually closed on holidays, people shopped local and families spent time together. These days, that is no longer the norm- and not by choice.
That got me thinking about how much society has changed even in my paltry 41 years of being on this planet. I remember penny candies and pop cans with push tabs. I remember going to the corner convenience store with my best friend and $5.00. We came home with a bag of brand name cookies, a can of pop each as well as a big bag of gummy candies each.
$5 can’t do that anymore. Everything costs more, so as a result it now takes $10 for my kids to do that. That corner convenience store doesn’t exist anymore, so they have to go to WalMart. Oh, and chances are they are doing that while both parents are at work because single income families struggle to buy brand name anything. I generalize, but it’s to make a point.
When my parents were kids, things were even more different.
Moms were not in the workforce, they stayed home and kept the family running. There were nowhere near as many big box stores or 24 hour convenience stores, you accomplished everything you needed to do in the 8 hours Monday to Friday from 9-5. After that it was time to go home. That was it.
Wages were lower but so was the cost of living. When I started my first job I was paid $5.00 per hour because that was minimum wage. Gas was $0.32 per liter (which is just over $1.00 per gallon) when I started driving. Rent for my two-bedroom apartment was $500 per month and I was basically living paycheck to paycheck. If it wasn’t for the fact I was a waiter and making great tips, I never would have had money.
Fast forward almost 25 years and minimum wage here is now $15.00 per hour, gas is $1.20 per liter and my mortgage is almost $1400 per month. In a two income home (where we both make more than minimum wage), we are a little better than paycheck to paycheck. My fiancée and I are lucky as we both work 9-5 jobs but we are not the norm in society. Not all businesses operate strictly 9-5 anymore; there are more and more 24 hour establishments out there (not to mention online business) and despite how we feel, evenings and weekends mean almost nothing in society anymore.
Looking back through history (war times excluded) society keeps getting busier and busier at a pretty consistent rate. Businesses adapt to meet the wants of consumers who are no longer tied to the 9-5 work hours our parents and grandparents knew. Banks are open evenings and weekends in order to keep up with the growing demand of commerce on the weekends. Families need 2 incomes to survive, and both earners do not always get the luxury of working the same shifts so families are quite often split up or simply don’t get to spend as much quality time together.
There are those that say mental illness is growing in our society and there are others that say it’s always been there, we just never acknowledged it or knew how to properly identify it before. I am of the opinion that it is indeed growing and we are 100% able to reduce it but it will take some fundamental shifts in how we operate as a society.
Taking the example of wages and cost of living, if my experience is any indication then wages and cost of living will always be roughly proportionate to each other and will continue to rise together (although historically minimum wage has never been equal to or higher than the cost of living…). Time however is the constant that I feel we take for granted. Time may be eternal, but it can never be replenished like our bank accounts are every payday.
I think it’s safe to say that the ‘baby boomer’ generation is the last great generation.
They were actual grown ups and did their best to raise us with the values and beliefs their parents and grandparents had. Except maybe for the hippies, they definitely steered left. Unfortunately for the Gen’x ers and X-ennials, society changed a lot during their childhoods.
I am an X-ennial (depending on which article you believe), born in 1978 and I grew up watching society move away from working 8 hour days to working 16 hour days. My parents had evenings and weekends off so we could spend time together and go camping every weekend. By the time I entered the workforce, the 16 hour workday was the norm, and morphing into the 24 hour workday. This isn’t to say people were working 16-24 hours a day, but that businesses were staying open longer.
I worked 3 separate jobs with 24 hour shifts before I was 20 years old. My parents never worked a midnight shift in their lives. My evenings and weekends were not always constant and quite often my days were not my own because I was either getting off a midnight shift, or sleeping in preparation for one. I think one of the biggest reasons for people in my generation (and all of the following iterations) not feeling ‘grown up’ or like ‘adults’ (AKA Adulting) is because our lives do not resemble that of our parents.
I feel this right here is the reason for the rise in depression, stress and burnout.
My kids grew up in the 24 hour work day. They watched me working 12 hour shifts- days and nights, their mother working midnight only shifts for a time, and we still had to make sure they were up for school, had lunches as well as did our best to have “family” suppers together. If all 5 of us were not at the supper table, it stressed me out.
Both of us worked weekends too. Our kids never spent a minute in day care because we wanted to raise our kids, so we sacrificed a lot of sleep in the early days to make sure the kids had a “normal” schedule while we worked to keep food on the table living paycheck to paycheck making more than minimum wage. And we were stressed a lot.
I’m not saying our parents or grandparents weren’t stressed, but they had far more consistency in their daily work lives. When they got up to go to work, so did the rest of society. They sent the kids off to school and then the kids were home from school when they were home from work. As I got older and was able to secure a 9-5 job in sales, it didn’t mean I was ever done work at 5, and because of the “conveniences” of our society I would quite often work from my computer or phone at times in the evenings and on the weekends. And my kids grew up watching this. So I am 100% sure they recognized this stress and will carry that with them as the norm as they learn to ‘adult’.
So what is the solution? Is there a way we can fix this? In a society where minimum wage is not enough to supply the bare minimum in terms of necessities of life and all we do is stress about it or work ourselves to death with overtime, how do we change things? Where do we fit in the time to de-stress?
Time. Time is the answer. Now we all know there are only 24 hours in a day and there will never be a way to change that, so where do we get more time from? This is where the big fundamental shift in society needs to come from. We need to go back to only working 8 hours a day. For a balanced work/home life, we need 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of work and 8 hours of “me” time. We need to go back to having our evenings and weekends to raise our kids and teach them how to be adults.
We need to have time to de-stress if we want to reduce the amount of mental illness we are seeing.
I am not saying that society needs to get back to a 9-5 Monday to Friday, but if we as a society insist on shifts outside of the 9-5; the 11pm to 7am shifts, the 6am to 6pm, evenings and weekends, then we need a society that will allow us to maintain a healthy work/family life. We need to have employers that are flexible with hours and we need social services to adapt as well. Clinics, schools and government services (just to name a few) all need to adapt their hours to service us all so that we can contribute to society in a healthy way.
I spent several weeks in a mental health ward, cut off from friends, family and work. No contact with the outside world. No cell phone, no computers, no ‘stressors’. In today’s society, that is the answer. Spend some time in the hospital with no stressors helping your brain get better. The problem is that life doesn’t stop because you are ill. While I was in the hospital to try and reduce my stress I was stressed about my kids dealing with the separation of their parents. I was stressed about my job as I had several time sensitive projects on the go that only I knew the specifics of. I was stressed about the play I was supposed to be in but I was in the hospital when it premiered.
We need more time to deal with stress and spend less time getting stressed.
Working 5 days a week at 8 hours a day seemed to work for older generations. The original work week was designed so you had 2 days- the weekend, to unwind and de-stress. Part of the problem today is quite often those 2 days do not come together, if at all. We spend too much time working and worrying about work and not enough time relaxing. Our brains are getting overworked.
Think of a vehicle and the cooling system. If a vehicle is pushed too hard and for too long, it will overheat. It needs either a lower amount of work, or greater periods of rest. Our brains are exactly the same. It needs either a lower amount of work, or greater periods of rest or else our brains will overheat. This is called burnout, now a medical condition.
I don’t see stress decreasing anytime soon, so we NEED to increase the amount of rest time we get. The cost of living will keep going up, our wages will almost keep pace but our brains cannot keep pace. Our brains are the most important organ in our bodies when it comes to dealing with stress and if our brains suffer, everything in our lives suffer. It’s getting worse year after year and when medical science needs to introduce new terms for how we are negatively impacted by stress then it’s time to make changes.