21 June 2023

I transitioned out of full-time traditional work, and I can't imagine ever going back

| Zoya Patel
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office workers crowding a woman at a computer

Around 72 per cent of Australians are unhappy in their jobs (are you shocked the number is so high? Or so low?) Photo: Aaron Amat.

I recently stayed with a friend for a few days who works in a senior management position in a private company.

On the last day of my visit, she had to work, and so did I before I flew back home. We took the dog for a walk, bought our morning coffees, and then she settled into her home office and I settled in at the dining table for a few hours of work before I left. Through her open door, I could hear her morning unfolding – meeting after meeting, check-ins with staff, project management discussions, the endless dinging of her Outlook notifications.

Sitting in front of my own computer, pottering away at my current consulting engagement, where I am working with an organisation of very specific projects for a limited period of time, the sound of my friend’s workday was giving me anxiety. It reminded me starkly of my former life when I was in an executive role for an organisation, leading a team and working full-time.

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How on earth did I do it? I wondered to myself. And would anything ever compel me to go back to that kind of work?

The answer, simply, is not if I can help it. And the weirdest thing to realise is that now, completing probably a quarter of the workload I used to have, I still feel at capacity. So how was I managing to operate to such an insane schedule before with the exact same number of hours in the day? And how do the millions of Australians with similarly high workloads do it? No wonder workplace satisfaction is generally low – a report last year found 72 per cent of employed Australians felt unhappy at work over the previous year.

I used to spend my workdays in a constant state of activity, starting with a full inbox in the morning, at least 3 to 4 hours of meetings a day, approving and reviewing staff outputs, and trying to cram my own work into whatever time was left. I would then come home, collapse in a heap and wonder how people with caring responsibilities managed because I had zero energy to do much other than cobble a meal together and watch reality TV on the couch.

This work pattern is not unusual – most of my friends and family who work in full-time office-based roles have a very similar experience, and being manically busy is just the norm.

Now that I work on a consultancy basis, I choose the projects I do, I have a set of outcomes that are agreed to at the outset with my clients, and I manage my work days so that I’m making the most of when I’m productive, and balancing other activities – like exercise, housework, creative projects etc – around my work in a way that gets the most out of my time.

And I still feel busy all day – it’s just that instead of feeling bone-crushingly exhausted and like I have to jump from thing to thing constantly, I can put my focus onto my tasks, enjoy being productive, and still have energy left actually to live life after.

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If I had never made the switch, I don’t think I would see anything wrong with my old work life. It was just the norm, and it was clearly possible to manage because I worked like that in various roles for a decade. It’s only now that I have seen a different way of doing it that I realise how insane it is that we are expected to work with such intensity as part of a ‘normal’ workload.

Of course, the other side of the coin is not having the security of permanent employment and managing things like unpaid leave and my own tax and superannuation contributions. But I’ll take a little admin and more considered budgeting over the stress and constant pressure of traditional work.

That morning with my friend was a useful reminder of what I don’t want ever to experience again. I ended up creeping out of her house without saying goodbye as her meetings rolled from one to another, and her Outlook notifications sounded a melody.

Shutting her apartment door was like shutting out my old life which, if I can manage it, I hope to never return to.

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