Millennial office team
A Millennial office team. Photo via Pixabay

Work-life balance and resignation discourse have become as ubiquitous and mystifying as whether a bowl of cereal makes for a healthy breakfast or if intermittent fasting is the weight loss panacea it’s purported to be. (Or not.)

The authenticity and justification of the so-called Great Resignation will continue to be debated in perpetuity by disgruntled employees on Reddit and propagandized managers in business journals alike. One inarguable component withstands: while the worker bees retain the power to quit, finding a healthier work culture for higher pay isn’t a guarantee — no matter what Beyonce’s latest anthem inspires in your overworked mind.

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While employees from warehouses to white collar work-from-home setups yo-yo on the merits of quitting one exhausting (mental or physical) job in search of another, savvy employers are catching on that labeling their work environment as a family cultivates an exaggerated sense of loyalty that leaves employees more susceptible to being taken advantage of and exploited for their kindness.

To wit: I’d do anything for my partner. If my mom was in need of care, I’d be on the very next flight home. If my nephew was overwhelmed, I’d do everything in my power to ease his burden.

It becomes a baffling and infuriating revelation that these noble traits ingrained in us since childhood can be easily manipulated when our “work mom,” the junior employee in a suspiciously-constant need of help, or the comically-bad-at-technology luddite needs us to work a little extra to compensate for their shortcomings. 

Not to mention the unbearable shame and guilt of having to fire an unprofessional, underperforming employee; you wouldn’t fire your own brother, would you? (Well, some of us wouldn’t.) Strategic, manipulative employees are well-aware of this, and take advantage accordingly.

Your work Slack (or any of the numerous similar platforms) is absolutely not your personal social media, but a strategic employer knows otherwise. Every Saturday without fail, coworkers are all too excited to post photos from their family hike. Colleagues on vacation are (rightfully so) unavailable to respond to a work question, but are inexplicably eager to share photos of their birthday brunch while still on vacation. 

And if we’re encouraged through the drug-like high of earning likes and comments (ie. validation) on Slack posts made off-hours, what’s to say we won’t check in on a few unread work messages while we’re at it?

Treating work communications platforms like personal social media tends to blur the boundaries when determining if your coworkers (labeled as family by your employer) should likewise be connected on your personal social media accounts. And while some coworkers are all-too-eager to befriend you on all platforms, who among us hasn’t felt the sting of rejection from the unreciprocated follow?

To leave or not to leave? To post or not to post? Is the grass (i.e. work culture) really all that greener (i.e. less toxic) on the other side? To a large extent, these questions have unknowable answers, but to aid you in navigating the myriad of distractions, conducting a work boundary audit is a supremely helpful next step. 

Are your personal and professional limits, your energy and bandwidth, and your abilities respected by those with the power to dictate your workload? At my last job, my well-intentioned out of office message outlining my availability was outright reprimanded. It was immediately clear they demanded uninterrupted availability irrespective of religious observances or a death in the family. For everyone operating within this work culture with even a modicum of power, habitual line-stepping was as much an addiction as it was baked into the ethos of the organization.

While I didn’t possess the luxury of being able to quit emphatically and immediately due to financial obligations, it did reinforce the importance of identifying my non-negotiable boundaries and the importance of autonomy. When it became clear that psychologically-healthy statements and improved boundary-setting skills were disregarded and dismissed, it was obvious that my next job needed to have a work culture that, at the very least, didn’t seek to trample over my boundaries by wielding their otherwise meaningless titles. 

From there, I sought to write down what kind of expectations I would set forth at my next job. No, the world doesn’t cater to my specific needs, but my firm boundaries dictated from the beginning that midnight emails and Saturday evening slack messages can wait to be addressed until the next workday. Working towards a collective goal and giving my full focus and effort fostered a sense of pride — but not on the umpteenth sleep-deprived day in a row.

While Beyonce bemoans the job that works her (and her nerves) so hard she can’t sleep at night, and while the next eye-catching job posting on LinkedIn may seem like a boon to the familial atmosphere you’ve always sought, the healthy option likely falls somewhere between lengthy introspection on workplace boundaries, non-negotiables flagrantly disregarded by management, and self-sabotage to fit in with deceptively overeager culture.

Jamie Evan Bichelman is a director of communications at a California-based nonprofit and has been a lifelong disability rights advocate with an academic focus on workplace psychology. He lives in North Park.