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Feeling Overwhelmed — Brigid Schulte on Work and Life

Contributor: Alice Liu

Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday from 7 pm to 9 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Brigid Schulte, staff writer at the Washington Post and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One has the Time. Schulte speaks about being overwhelmed and how we can address it.

Following are edited excerpts of Friedman’s conversation with Schulte:

Stew Friedman: What inspired you to write the book in the first place?

Brigid Schulte: Brigid SchulteI’ve described it as an accidental book. I was a completely overwhelmed working mother of two. I worked full time. I felt very guilty. I didn’t really stop to ever think about it. I just thought, “Well maybe this is the price I have to pay for being a working mother.” I was incredibly over-involved. I was not only working the second shift, but come holidays, I was working the third shift as well.

SF: Let’s define second shift. That’s the term Arlie Hochschild wrote about twenty-five years ago, that moms not only work at work, but then, when they come home, they’re working another shift as well. What is the third shift?

BS: I describe holidays as the third shift for women, because women are traditionally expected to put on the holidays, do the kin work of reaching out to keep the family bond strong, and creating the magic of the moment. That’s still a very strong image in our traditionally gendered roles. So come Thanksgiving or Christmas it’s women doing a lot of the work and planning. I was very much caught up in that, and I really didn’t think that it could be different. Everybody I knew was feeling that way too. Lots of other mothers I knew were also feeling guilty and overwhelmed,   angry with their husbands, and worried about their kids and whether they were doing right for them by working.

When a sociologist who studies time told me that, in general, women like me have 30 hours of leisure a week, I just about fell out of my chair and said, “You’re out of your mind.” That amount of time was so completely out of the realm of my imagination, as if it didn’t even exist on the same planet that I lived on. Since I didn’t believe him, he challenged me to keep track of my time. He said, “Keep a time diary, and I will show you where your leisure is.” And so that’s really what started this entire book. I kept a time diary, and I began to write, not only about what I was doing, but how I was feeling about it. I would argue this gives a much more real sense of time, because our perception is what shapes what our time feels like. It’s really about how you feel about it. That’s much more real than saying I was on a bike ride, for example. It looks like leisure on the outside, but if you’re worried and thinking about a million things – the memo you still need to send, the carpool you have to arrange, the groceries you have to buy ­– then all of that contaminates your time.

SF: It’s what some psychologists call psychological interference. The worries from one life domain invades another. What happened after you kept a time diary?

BS: I kept a time diary until I had both the real time and the contaminated time recorded. Then the sociologist analyzed it. He took out a yellow highlighter, and he highlighted 27 hours of what he called leisure time.

SF: So he was right?

BS: Well I looked at that time, and I about burst into tears because to me that didn’t feel at all like leisure. It was 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there – little bits and scraps of time that didn’t align with what I considered leisure to be. For instance, there was a time I had taken my daughter to a ballet class and the car broke down on the way home and we were stuck on the side of the road for 2 hours waiting for a tow truck. He called that leisure time, and I said, “You’re kidding,” and he said, “Oh, that’s right you were with your daughter so that’s technically childcare,” and I said, “So if I had been by myself that would have been leisure time?” and he said, “Yes.” That really started this journey for me of trying to understand what is leisure time? What does it mean to have that sense of refreshing your soul that the Ancient Greeks said was the point of having a good life? And if I didn’t have any of that time, why not? Was there a way that I – and other imperfect souls like me – could find it?

SF: So what did you do Brigid?

BS: I took a leave of absence from the Washington Post. I wanted to use my skills as a reporter and as a journalist to look deeply at modern life. What I quickly learned is that you cannot look at leisure time without looking at what Eric Ericson called the three great arenas of life. If you want to know what’s happening to leisure, you have to know what’s happening to work, and if you want to know what’s happening to work you have to know what’s happening in the home sphere and with love. The three great arenas of life – work, love, and play – are very interconnected.

What I found is that our workplaces are still organized as if no one has families, as if the best workers are the ones who can work all hours all the time – particularly now with technology – and that hours and face-time are rewarded rather than performance and flexibility. I found that our gender roles at home still very much slide unconsciously into traditional roles. The ideal mother, the all-sacrificing icon, was very powerful in driving a lot of my personal guilt at home and a lot of my ambivalence about working. And then I discovered that in this country, we really do not value leisure time. We value busyness and being productive, and that comes from not just working hard but over-working. We have, what I call, “busyness as a badge of honor” where you almost brag about how busy you are and that’s how we show our status to one another.

SF: It seems that the tide is starting to turn there, particularly among young people. Do you see it differently?

BS: I think there’s some great hope and real excitement amongst young people, whether you want to call them Gen Y or Millennials. There are things that they value that perhaps people in my generation did not. When I talk with young people, they look at middle-aged men and women, particularly women, and they say I don’t want what you had. I still think I can work and make an excellent contribution. There’s new science that’s emerging that says that all of that face-time and over-work doesn’t make us more productive. It doesn’t make us more innovative or creative and, in fact, it really burns us out and leads to disengagement. I think that the younger generation is getting smarter about it. Now we just have to convince the people in power who set the tone for all those workplaces.  

SF: In our first hour, we had one of those folks, Doug Conant who ran Campbell’s Soup, and he was talking all about what it was like for him to create a culture where the whole person is valued.

BS: One of my favorite stories in the book is “If the Pentagon Can Do It, Why Can’t You?” We think of the pentagon as the ultimate face-time, work-long-hours kind of culture. Michèle Flournoy came in as the number three civilian in the Obama administration, and she, in her interview with secretary Gates, said, “I will work my rear end off for you, but I’m a mother of three, and I am going to be home for dinner when I can, and I’m going to have to have touch stone anchor time with my kids.” He so supported her in her drive to be authentic – fully present at work and fully present at home – that she turned around and said, “How can I then do that for my staff?” She didn’t look at this as a working mothers’ issue. She saw this as a human capital issue, because what she saw were people in her office over-worked and burned out. A lot of the people in her office, for example, were between deployments so they were coming from a very stressful combat environment. This was supposed to be their home leave, and yet they were never seeing their families.

SF: So what did she do?

BS: She took pulse surveys to get a sense of how people were feeling. She brought in consultants to figure out how things could be done differently. She put two young fathers in charge of this effort.

SF: That seems like a good move to de-stigmatize it as a women’s issue.

BS: Exactly. She also made a real point that this was not about working less, this is about working smarter. They came up with what they called an alternative work schedule. After a certain number of hours in a certain period of time, you got the rest of your time back as your own. They trained the managers on this new model, which was really important. She also made sure that this work schedule was implemented in policy, in regulation, and in performance evaluations so that it became infused in the culture. We all know that there are so many corporations out there with policies that sound wonderful in the books, but the culture is such that nobody takes advantage of them because they know that it violates the norm of over-work. So what she sought to do was really rewire the culture. She told me she knew that it actually worked when one day she went to give a speech in the middle of the day and she turned to the Colonel who was with her and asked if he wanted to ride back to the Pentagon building. He said, “No I’ve worked all my hours in this pay period, and I’m going to take the rest of the afternoon off to go sledding with my son.” She said, “ I knew that it had caught on then. I knew that it was a success.”

Schulte discusses how she started on her journey of examining leisure time and how that connects to the  constant feeling of being overwhelmed that many people experience. She also discusses how leaders in organizations can rewire the culture of the workplace so that employees can feel less overwhelmed, more productive, and more authentic. Do you feel overwhelmed in your life? Do you experience contaminated leisure time? Join us in the comments section below with you thoughts.

To learn more about Schulte’s work, read her book, follow her on Twitter @BrigidSchulte, or visit her website.

Join Work and Life on Tuesday, May 20 at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Janet Hanson and Nilofer Merchant. Visit Work and Life for our schedule of future guests.


About the Author Alice LiuAlice Liu is an undergraduate senior studying Management at The Wharton School and English (Creative Writing) at the College of Arts & Sciences. 

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