Thursday, April 30, 2009

Do You Have a Job? (Or, The Truth About Self-Employment)

“Are you an epidemiologist?” the man in the seat next to me asked, gesturing towards the 200-page deep stack of journal articles I’d been attempting to annotate for most of our flight.

“No, but it would sure make this easier if I were. I’m a writer,” I told him. I noticed he was reading a book about epidemics, and for the last twenty minutes of the flight, we had a great discussion about disease, drugs, and the social influences on the two.

Turns out, he works for a tiny pharmaceutical company where the handful of employees work mainly from home. We left diseases and drugs aside to discuss working from home—or, more accurately, the misconceptions about it and the hidden benefits of it. I work from home part of the time, and I was traveling to speak at a symposium about young adults with chronic illness in the workforce, so this was definitely up my alley.

I’ve been told I’ve been a bit feisty lately, and this subject definitely gets me animated. Despite how many people telecommute or are self-employed, I still feel like sometimes there’s this attitude that working from home is somehow easier, less demanding, or less real “work.” My fellow passenger has noticed the same vibe.

Um, no. It’s different, but not easier. This isn’t an illness-specific post; so many writers, editors, artists, designers, consultants, sales people, etc work from home or are self-employed, and they know it’s just as draining as the 9-5 grind, but in its own ways.

A few days a week I do not have to deal with commuting, and I realize how fortunate that makes me. But I’m also at my computer, chest PT completed and coffee consumed, and at work by 7:30 at the latest every day, so I put that commuting time to good use. While the isolation of working from home can be an issue, my airplane companion pointed out a real bonus of that isolation: he doesn’t waste time being distracted by office chatter, people popping in to ask him questions or procrastinate; he just gets his work done.

“I get more done working straight through from early morning to lunchtime than most people do in a whole workday,” he said.

I can relate. My office is my laptop, and while I break for lunch and then again at dinnertime to go to the gym, I come home and usually get back to work, sometimes not stopping till 11pm. This is not a complaint, and it’s partially just my personality to be like that so I have no one to blame for the lack of boundaries but myself. I’ve started trying to leave my laptop up in my office after 8pm so I’m not tempted to work, and the physical boundary of the staircase is helpful.

I don’t have to slog through snow and rain when I leave the office at night (well, I do during the semester, so I know it stinks), but the flipside to that is that I don’t ever “leave work at the office.” (Does anyone ever, really? Even if it’s just thinking about it?) Any writer or teacher can relate: weekends, evenings, and holidays equal copious essay reading and grading and client deadlines and research and e-mail requests. I’m being honest when I say the last time I didn’t do any type of work on a weekend or vacation was my honeymoon almost four years ago. Anyone in any kind of freelance position knows that when you’re not pitching, pitching, pitching now, you’re not getting paid later. It’s exhilarating and a good motivator, certainly, but only if your risk tolerance can take it. It’s not for everyone.

Again, this is by no means a complaint. I’ve made these choices in my life and am responsible for the outcomes and I love writing books, teaching college students, and freelancing. I love that I have the flexibility to go to the doctors when I need to and make up the work, and that I can avoid public places where I could catch things during bad months. I also know those of you who are not self-employed can say the same thing about working weekends and vacations—most people I know log incredibly long hours and they don’t have the choice to do it from their homes like I do.

Really, I’m just saying that while there are many, many positives to working from home, like setting our own schedules or wearing comfortable clothes, that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of cakewalk where we’re merely lounging in pajamas and watching television, or that our workday hours aren’t as valuable (or as stressful) as other people’s.

Can you tell that I’ve heard comments like that and that I get lots and lots of interruptions during the day because I’m “not at work?” Does anyone else have this problem? I think part of the reason I struggle with work-life balance and boundaries on my own is because I have to work so hard to combat the assumption I do not have a job because I am not in an office environment. Seriously, it’s been a few years of doing the teaching and writing thing, and I have someone who still asks me if I have a job…well, my college students don’t teach themselves and books and articles don’t write themselves, and so yes, I’d say I have a job. And I have two offices: one on campus, one in my house. Neither is more “real” than the other.

(And as an aside, the days where self-employed people who are also chronically ill actually are in their pajamas? No cakewalk either, despite how good I've gotten at typing while hooked up to my nebulizer.)

I’ve done both, and there are definitely things I miss about the traditional workplace: the interaction with co-workers, the stable paycheck, the benefits, the ability to take a real sick day. I know, I know, there are also many downsides to 9-5: cranky bosses, gossipy co-workers, office politics, long commutes, unwanted travel, unfulfilling projects, etc. I guess that’s my whole point: neither option is without its benefits as well as drawbacks. Let's make sure we respect the work that is done on both sides.

My mother always said she could tell I was feeling better when I got feisty (really, a tactful word for ornery when she used it) so I guess this is a good sign.

Oh, and the presentations about employment were a blast. Once I’m up there I have a lot of fun. The icing on the cake? Having dinner with the equally fabulous Paula Kamen and Jenni Prokopy, where we ate delicious GF food and talked about one of my favorites subjects: narrative medicine.…and of the work that is writing, of course.


Lissa said...

I quit teaching to stay home with my daughter. Since then I have started a business selling my handmade jewelry, and I wrote a book. When a friend asked me if I miss having a job, I told her that I am more busy now, than when I was actually employed! Besides, being a mom is enough of a job by itself.

Never That Easy said...

What a fabulous dinner that must have been - three of my favorite Chronic Babes sitting around discussing some of my favorite topics... I'm glad the whole thing went really well!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great conversation. Here's my own experience.

My manager has been adamant about not giving me VPN access at my accounting clerk job, which both annoys and delights me. He knows that (a) I deal with a chronic condition and (b) when I get sick, it's worse than most people in the office.

When things were really busy, I fell way behind and wanted a couple hours every night to catch up. (And yes, I ended up with sick days in there because I was so stressed out about getting things done in 8-10 hour days, it was making me sick.) Also, I live further from work than most co-workers and rely on public transportation, so when it snows, it's difficult to put in a full day's work. Now that things are slow, I don't really need access and I don't want the assumption that I'd be available at the drop of a hat.

Work from Home said...

Successful self employment means self discipline and self motivation. If you don't learn HOW to employ yourself you may be better off working for a boss.

Beth Parfitt said...

I can totally relate! As a twenty-something in the city (who teaches and works from home) it's great to be able to go to the gym during non-peak hours and to work in a sweatsuit on a cold winter day. But you're right that working from home is absolutely... work. In some ways it's more stressful because the only boss lurking in the room is your own conscience telling you to get things done.

That said, your routine sounds like a great one--and I commend your self-discipline to put those commuting hours to work! Even I will admit to sleeping that extra hour every now and again...

Laurie said...

Great points you guys make!

NTE--thanks so much!

TalesofMy30s, what a blessing and a curse that access is, huh? I can totally see the danger in people assuming you are now available 24-7.

Beth--you're so right! Being your own boss is great but it's also an exercise in guilt and conscience sometimes. And I'll be honest, part of the fact I am up and caffeinated and at work so early is that I have chest PT so early every day--30 mins of vigorous whacking def. wakes me up :) Or else that snooze button would be very tempting...

(As an aside, though it goes without saying, I sort of wished I'd said it in the post anyway: for those with CI who are home and not able to work, that is most definitely no cakewalk, either. And it most definitely a full-time job.)

Kairol Rosenthal said...

I have only been employed by others during brief stints of my adult life and only to obtain health insurance to cover my cancer care.
I have no time for the b.s. of office politics. I'm all about rolling up my sleeves and diving into work on my own terms.

Agreed the downside is that I'm a workaholic and there is no office to leave so I often work until 3AM and am back at it at 10 the next day. But the benefits are many. Especially strolling around my hood mid-day while walking my dog and seeing the cute little high school kids making out in the park after school.


Anonymous said...

Being self employed and dealing with diabetes and fibromyalgia is not easy by any means. I not only have to keep reminding people that I do have a job, but also that my energy runs out around 3 every day.
That doesnt mean I get out of my home office every day at 3, because I rarely do. But I cannot tackle errands at that hour at all.
Add to this pressure from a spouse who is very worried about work right now (things are really slow) and his stress is added to my stress (ie he isnt sleeping because he is worried about business, so it affects me etc). We keep thinking of ways to try to get work to pick up, and that ends up taking all day long. Marketing is a lot of work!
I want to spend much more time as a housewife, with God, taking care of my home and meals etc, and have more time for reading and crafts.
I dont get those things in it seems, until very late at night.
And the thought of going back to the job market, when the want ads are now down to only six columns in the newspaper (used to be two whole sections) is not very encouraging. I don't really even have the energy to consider most jobs, though telecommuting is looking like an option if one can find it.
Looking to God to keep us all working and looking to Him to help me get my days under better control.

Benjamin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tough Cookie said...

Great post! I'm trying to pull off graduate school myself right now and I get nervous just thinking about working full time with all of the pain I am in.

Merrian said...

I am at an interesting time because I am between jobs and as I sleep my necessary 12 hours and do things at a slower pace every one is telling me how well I look - not like I normally do yet I need to work and my expertise doesn't lend itself to working from home so I am feeling a bit daunted about returning to work.

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