In the most recent Culture Study, Anne Helen Petersen shares a talk she gave called The Librarians Are Not Okay. This talk sums up where we are as working adults. None of this is new and none of it has started with the pandemic. But it’s been exacerbated by it. It’s twisted the dials up to 11 as the machine that eats up people and spits out shareholder value continues to consume.

While this piece is focused on lLbrarians and by extension people who do care and passion work, it can be applied to anyone working today.

The librarians are not okay. The nurses are not okay. The teachers are not okay. The journalists are not okay, the clergy are not okay, the social workers are not okay. And we can’t start the long-term work of recovering from the burnout and demoralization of the last year until we acknowledgment as much.

The Librarians Are Not Okay

Though women, who are paid less because the of the circular logic of feminizing low-paid work to justify its low pay have to reckon with not being valued professionally while also performing the majority of the care work in their own lives and families.

The same is true, of course, for care workers, for educators, for nurses, and for so many people working in the non-profit sphere, and it’s such a convoluted logic that keeps it in place: the work is feminized, so it’s low-paid; the work is low-paid, so it’s feminized.

The part I’ve seen in my professional life most is picking up the work of more and more people. When I worked as a government contractor this was rampant through the government itself as positions would be cut and fewer people were left to do the important work.

The same thing happened in the IT space. Contractors are a staffed by companies bidding the lowest amount to get the same work done. So it’s going to lead a race to the bottom of pay and benefits and stability.

I talk about systemic problems with burnout, and exploitation, and overloaded jobs, I heard from a lot of librarians — people who really have absorbed responsibilities that were previously the work of three FTEs, if not more, and how they’re expected to just….have a better attitude about it?

I worked in one position for a little over three years. In that time, I was employed by no fewer than five separate companies. The final three were because they were generating shareholder value and would spin off, buy up, and generally screw every employee by saying “we can’t offer raises or reviews because we’re a new company” every single year.

Guardrails can be though of a “Work Culture.” That thing your company may be touting as the reason to return to the office amidst a pandemic.

Guardrails are things like: we don’t email when we’re off, and if you do send an email when you’re off, you’ll actually be taken aside to talk about why that’s not part of our culture here. Guardrails are: even if you, yourself, work really well at 11 pm at night, any communication you craft at that hour should be delay-sent to correspond with the start of others’ workday, so they don’t feel the need to be responding to work at that hour as well.

Guardrails are being very clear about levels of urgency: an email is not a five-alarm fire, and you shouldn’t train yourself to react as if it was, because that sort of vigilance is not sustainable.

This is the work culture that matters. How is time off treated? Is it something to be approved or acknowledged? When you’re off, are you really off or just working from a more fun location.

Culture can be devious. It may not be stated in the orientation or the handbook but as an expectation. Are you expected to be available all the time? Are you expected to be on call even if you’re not compensate for it or its stated as part of your job description?

Understanding the culture of where you work is looking at the unwritten expectations on your time, attention and life.