Just a job

A couple of years ago I was walking through London with 2 of my friends.

We were talking about what we’d done over the weekend, and I told them I’d had a busy one and had been able to completely switch off from work for the first time in a while.

I said, “Do you ever just have those moments that make you realise that work is just work, and it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things?”

I’d expected emphatic nods and murmurs of agreement, but what I got instead were twin looks of confused panic.

“I don’t feel that way at all”, one of them said. She looked uncomfortable. “Work is really important to me”.

The other one agreed “Me too. I really care about what I’m trying to do…”

They weren’t being nasty, but it was clear that what I said had made them uncomfortable. Their reaction made me feel judged and a little annoyed.

It was only after a bit of time that I was able to see that conversation for what it was.

You see, that weekend I mentioned had come at a time where work felt all-consuming and kind of unrewarding. It had felt like an uphill struggle. I didn’t feel like the effort I was putting in was being recognised, and I needed that weekend to remind me that I was also a person outside of my work.

I found myself wanting to devalue work because it was making me feel undervalued, and I wanted my friends to reinforce that. Instead, their response reignited my fears that I didn’t matter enough in a part of my life that really mattered.

A few months later, I brought up that conversation with them, and told them how it had made me feel. To my surprise, they both remembered it straight away.

“Oh god!” one of them laughed. “I was having a dreadful time outside of work when you said that. Work was literally the only thing keeping me afloat.”

It turned out that, at the time of our conversation, they’d both been dealing with significant stress in their personal lives. For both of them, work was an anchor, and my declaration that it didn’t actually matter had made them feel stressed and attacked.

I see a lot of proclamations on Twitter about the position work should take in our list of priorities.

It seems like every other day someone’s telling us that if we’re not working evenings and weekends we’re doing it wrong or—on the other side of the argument—that jobs should just be jobs, reminding us no one in their dying moments looks back and wishes they’d worked more.

Maybe the problem is not to do with how much we do or don’t centre our work, but with trying to prescribe its respective priority for other people.

For me personally, work has been many things during different points in my life.

It’s been a burden and an anchor. It’s been a welcome distraction and a loathed interruption. It’s been a clock-watching exercise—at times when I couldn’t wait to finish for the day, and at others when I couldn’t bear to.

And we mustn’t forget that some people don’t get a choice. Having the choice to do something we find fulfilling and want to centre, and deciding how much time to dedicate to it, are privileges that not everyone has.

Likewise, there may be times when the other pieces of our pie charts are just too small, or too difficult, and allowing work to take centre stage is the only way we can cope with that.

Sometimes work is just a job. Sometimes it’s a lifeline. Sometimes it’s somewhere in between.

Perhaps for those of us who have the luxury of choosing, the best we can do is let work be whatever we need it to be, in this moment, and support others to do the same.