The big quit, the great resignation or the anti-work movement — employees who en masse turn their backs on work or are wanting to do so — it is apparently a phenomenon, and it raises the necessary questions. Really? Yes, really. As far as I'm concerned, it's quite understandable that this is happening, but then I'm such a 'quitter'. For those watching this movement with amazement, or just want to read more about it, here's my 2 cents on the reasons that so many break free from the regular 9-5 life.
Last December 2021 I quit my job as an interim (project) manager for the Dutch government, without the urge to find a new job soon. Why? The overarching answer is a yearning for freedom, a yearning for living a life that is more aligned with my natural rhythm. Because just like nature, we humans have a cyclical rhythm throughout the day, the month, and the seasons. And how is this reflected back in organisations? Exactly, it’s non-existing, zero. Below I’d like to break this down in more detail, but let me first elaborate on what I mean with your natural rhythm. This might sound alien to some, as many of us, especially in the West, have lost touch with (our own) nature.
Living your rhythm
With natural rhythm I mean your bio rhythm, your energy metabolism, the natural pace with which you do things, the operations of your emotional, physical and mental body and how this is dependable on the time of the day, the season, the weather and the environment you’re in. For example: in winter we need more sleep, more warming foods, more resting time, whereas in summer we are more energetic, can do with less hours of sleep and can digest better colder foods. How our body functions and how it responds to the environment, also differs from person to person; some people are more comfortable with the cold than others, some have more energy in the evening, others more in the morning, some need more food, exercise or daylight than others to feel good in their bodies.
Despite that we all know this, there seems to be a complete lack of awareness or underestimation in Western society of the importance of living your natural rhythm for your well-being, your health and your overall happiness. This in contrast to many Asian traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda, where this is at the core of living a vital life. That many of us spend 8 hours a day hunched over a laptop in fluorescent light, in often over-stimulating or under-stimulating spaces, where we have to be creative or perform when the deadlines/client/boss calls for it, clearly does not seem to match the diversity and changeability of rhythms and needs of people.
I used to have a manager who said that if I long so much for freedom, I should learn to be myself and blossom regardless of the environment. I’d love to reach that goal, but so far I haven’t been able to make that work. And I also wonder: is it realistic? Most species in nature only blossom in a specific environment, should we humans be able to blossom anywhere? If you’ve found a way, please let me know, because that would be one hell of a life hack!
Why 9-5 seems incompatible with working in your own rhythm:
There are certain times when you are expected to 'show up' (9-5) or produce, even if it goes against your natural rhythm of creativity, productivity and energy. For example: No one blinks an eye when you get into the office early, but when you leave early people tend to wonder whether you are committed to your work. I enjoyed working from home a lot as it is more easy to follow your own rhythm. I for example often slept in, as I have difficulty catching enough sleep. During the lunch break I enjoy cooking a warm, fresh meal which nourishes my body. I’d also use this time to go for a walk, a run or even a surf session, if waves and work allowed it. I used some of my evenings, or even a rainy Sunday, for lighter work, such as reading papers. In general, I think it totally makes sense to align work days as much as possible with the weather. In the Netherlands, this means taking enough time outside for daylight and maybe even swapping your Sunday with your Monday, if Monday is a sunny day. Before all the critics come to point out that this is not possible for many jobs. I know. But in the many office jobs where this is possible, at least you’d expect more flexibility here.
You exchange your most valuable assets in your life – namely your time and energy – for money! Scientists agree that the maximum amount of hours we can be productive is about 6 hours a day. With a 9-5 job, you use your peak energy (in the morning) for your work. After 8 hours, there is not much energy left for other matters that are important to you. I not only see this as problematic to my personal life, such as for my hobbies, friends and health, but you could also broaden this to the impact it has on society. If we’d be working less, we perhaps would have more time to take good care of ourselves, our families, our kids, the environment, the communities we are part of — things we usually outsource now, or perhaps even neglect. Who hasn’t heard of people struggling with juggling all the balls of life? I sometimes wonder: if we’d work less, would we have less expenses and time spent on fixing things that are going wrong?
In the Netherlands the minimum amount of holidays is 21 days per year (after getting approval from your boss) — isn’t that bizar little? For some people they might be able to bring in much of their personality, dreams and skills into one job, but if you are not able to do so, these 3 weeks are too little to explore and develop different parts of yourself. This counts especially for those that have less of a specific passion/focus in life, and are more a jack of all trades kind of personality.
Related to the previous point: in organisations you usually work for someone else's dream, vision and/or succes. Hopefully you can align a large part of your vision, your personality and the direction you wish to develop in with theirs, or otherwise you will need your scarce spare time to make these a reality.
Norms and cultures in the working place can be very rigid and old fashioned. Perhaps even more so towards women. Unwritten rules about how to behave “professional”, how to dress, how expressive you can be, which parts of yourself you can share and which you should keep private, etc. Especially in larger, established organisations, where the managers are still mostly white, 60+ males (hello government), I often felt like a misfit. In general, organisations have a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity. How many official institutes have I entered where there's a wall full of white males (e.g. all the past presidents of the institute). Sure, we do not need to erase the past, but how does this lack of examples of people that you can identify with impact your sense of belonging in the workplace?
This point has less to do with the incompatibility of 9-5 with your natural rhythm, but it's still bothersome: the amount of unfulfilling tasks that are part of many office jobs. So many meetings with no clear goal, papers circulating around where every person down the hierarchy wants to change a comma, things people do to please others but do not serve the higher purpose of the organisation. You know what I mean?
Last but definitely not least: males by large still set the tone in our societal structures and in many established organisations, but if one is in touch with the cyclical rhythm of nature, it's us women (if we wouldn't en masse take hormonal contraceptives, that is)! A 9-5 job gives the pressure to show up the same every day even though it's completely against our body's natural rhythms. The graph below is obviously simplified, but it helps visualise the point I'm making.
Work stress & burn out
In my previous job I went far to sync work with my preferred rhythm. Yet I still lost joy and fulfilment fast, as there's only so much room to maneuver with a 36 hours work week. Looking at the number of quitters, but also at the number of people that get burnt out, I’m definitely not the only one. In 2021, on average 50% of Europeans experienced a burn out or felt at the verge of a burn out! In the Netherlands, one in six employees have burn out related complaints. There is some awareness growing around this topic, but it still lacks urgency. Organisations are trying out ways to bring more fun into the work place by introducing activities like laser gaming on Fridays, or bringing a pool table into the building, but lack of fulfilment in a job is not replaced with such superficial actions.
How COVID has pushed the big quit
The more I've distanced myself from regular working live, the more alienating I find the concept of 9-5 jobs. I have had these thoughts and feelings about work as long as I can remember. COVID however, really hit the final straw for me and many others. As many forms of distraction and pleasure disappeared, it became clear what role my job actually has in my life. Having all the noise unsolicited removed from my life, it revealed what does and does not align with my believes, values and rhythm.
Are job quitters anti-work?
The big quit has often gone hand in hand with the label ‘anti-work’. I am however not anti-work, and I think that is the case for most job quitters. I’d argue we are rather disappointed with work life. I think most agree that getting paid whilst making a positive contribution to society, exploring your interests and developing your talents, is of course fantastic. I know people who have found work that they love, also within the current structures. But many of us do not have this experience. We need to be the ones that pioneer and push for change; we need to create new structures that serve our humanity. Because it's all interrelated: exhausted and stressed people aren't going to bring out the best in a society and visa versa. The lack of connection to our own nature is reflected in the lack of connection to nature as a whole. Re-establishing that connection is in my eyes the pathway to a healthier society with healthier ways of getting things done.
Did you find a way to work in alignment with your rhythm? I would be interested to hear your stories; you never know who you might inspire!