I have been thinking about work (since I will be returning to work soon, as my doctoral journey is almost over) particularly on the subject of setting boundaries. I have been practising this with my freelance clients — no, I could not send over a 2,000 word proofreading work in 2 hours; no, I could not copyedit a 90-page document in 2 days — and once I explain to them that it is unfair for a work to be rushed as some details might be overlooked, that works of which one has spent some considerable amount of time working on often have better quality, and give them a new deadline that we can both agree on, they would usually say OK unless there were some pressing deadlines. I enjoy freelancing and I enjoy doing work for fields and areas I had never been involved in before, especially organisations that do good e.g. organisations that work to increase awareness for women’s rights and gender equality, organisations that highlight the harms technology can do for the marginalised, and many more. But I also feel like after PhD, I want to be more involved in these projects more than just copyediting and proofreading their documents, possibly something that involves more of research and community management. I have done great things and I believe I am capable of doing greater things. But first things first, which is: get that PhD, sis.
Anne Helen Peterson’s Substack newsletter the collected ahp has been one of my favourite newsletters now, ever since Jocelyn K. Glei featured this post of hers on alleviating burnouts for yourself and for others collectively. Her latest post talks about making things better for people at work, those “seemingly small practices has your manager or boss (or you, yourself) put in place that had made work less shitty, less of a life-sucking slog, or just more enjoyable”. The responses she got ranging from installing seltzer machines at work, to more profound ones such as more flexible working hours, no email after 8 pm and weekends, no obligation to explain for taking sick time, and many more. In lesser words, “everything I can think of involved being respectful of my time.” These things should be normalised, and in an ideal world lesser than these should not be accepted — employers might have different ideas (I’m ready to listen) other than the excuse, “we need to set ground rules so our employees won’t cheat”, can you imagine hiring someone to work with you and not trusting them in the first place?
Once you’ve internalised a standard of work, no matter how shitty, as just the way things are, it’s natural to express gratitude when it’s ameliorated in however small a way: It was a game changer when I started a job where my boss didn’t ask for a doctor’s note every time I had an appointment. It was huge when I could be ten minutes late and then work an extra ten minutes at the end of the day. It made a huge difference when they actually allocated a room for nursing.
That expectation of gratitude — and its flipside, the label of ungrateful when we ask for more — is at the crux of our current conversations about labour, but it imbues so many other millennial experiences. You should be grateful you have phones, grateful you have a job, grateful you’re driving Uber instead of in the coal mine, grateful you got to go to college, grateful you’re not at war, grateful you don’t live in North Korea, the list goes on. But here’s the thing: you can have an underlying sense of gratitude while also asking for things to be different, for your work to be less dehumanising and all-consuming and in service to a never-ending drive for profit and growth, with only the barest minimum returning to you.