I stopped caring so much about my job, and I’m better for it

Setting workplace boundaries is necessary, but not possible for everyone


Collegian File Photo

By Catherine Hurley, Assistant Arts Editor

I loved my high school job. For a 15-year-old me, it was the perfect way to spend my otherwise empty weekends. I made money. I made friends and stayed at work late to spend time with them. I learned a lot about my older co-workers and how different our lives were.

It was a positive experience, but I wouldn’t do it again.

A mix of genuine enjoyment and naivety led me to ignore some of the glaring issues around me. I looked the other way when my manager told teenage employees to clock out her shifts hours after she left the building. I advised customers to keep their jackets on when indoor temperatures fell to 30 degrees each winter. I cleaned up countless piles of waterlogged ceiling tiles, never stopping to consider that I could work somewhere without a leaking roof.

I liked working and didn’t want to say no if I could help it. Now, I wish I had.

I’ve since learned that there’s no harm in working solely for the money, and I think doing so can make you a better, happier employee.

According to University of Washington management professor Dr. Kira Schabram, “burnout rates tend to be higher in people who view their work as a calling, and ‘not just a paycheck.’” This means professionals like doctors and teachers experience work-related exhaustion more frequently, likely under the pressure to serve a greater good.

For me, a part-time job squeezed between classes and extracurriculars is not a calling and I no longer feel responsible to treat it as such. Now, instead of dropping everything for work, I try to say no when I can. I don’t put my job above other commitments and nobody should be expected to. I feel responsible for putting forth my best effort and helping my co-workers where I can, not for going above and beyond.

Aligning my commitment levels with my priorities has been a positive shift and I find myself more likely to work when I don’t feel like I owe every available moment to my job.

The labor shortage over the past few months, palpable in empty grocery store isles and short-staffed restaurants, reflects a nationwide desire for better treatment in the workplace. People are no longer willing to accept low pay and little flexibility from their employers.

The New York Times reports an increase in drug and alcohol use, chronic pain and suicide among the working class. Those with limited job mobility are more likely to be taken advantage of and suffer for it, but they shouldn’t be.

Amy Michelle Smith told the Times in September that she quit her high-stress advertising job to focus on her mental health.

“‘It made me feel a little bit like a failure — like someone who just couldn’t take it, who wasn’t strong enough for the hustle, to be seeking out something that put my well-being first,’” she said.

Though I believe in the benefits of workplace boundaries, I say so from a very specific perspective.

If I’m offered an extra shift and don’t want to work, I have the luxury of turning it down. Many don’t, and I recognize my ability to stifle income for the sake of boundaries colors my experience in the workforce. I learned early-on that my minimum wage job, used to pay for gas, lunch and books, was the same supporting entire families — that saying no to work isn’t possible for everyone. That shouldn’t diminish the need for self-advocacy but point to the necessity of structural labor change.

I’m fortunate as a college student that my part-time job isn’t a life-sustaining commitment.

If I had things all figured out, I wouldn’t be writing this article between customers during a closing shift. But for now, it works, and I believe finding ways to separate your personal and professional obligations is the key to a happier workplace for all.

Catherine Hurley can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @cath_hurley.