“I could see that work wasn’t working for people,” said Eva Dienel, Journalist and sustainable work expert. She added, “So, when I met (my husband) Adam, we started talking very early in our relationship about building work around our lives rather than letting work determine the lives that we were stuck with.”
Although burnout damages health and productivity, our culture rewards the behavior that drives it. And careers, woven with identity, become full of emotional landmines. It’s hard to untangle our real desires, from how we’re conditioned to think. And post-kids when we need reliable income, schedules and benefits, the work choices narrow.
Modern careers leave little space for caregiving or passion pursuits. And Eva knew she wanted meaningful work without the confines of corporate life. But leaving a traditional job is a counter culture move that’s often met with skepticism. Why is it so hard to create professional leeway?
No. Safety. Net.
Eva said, “We would have conversations with good friends about our long-term plan, but we never revealed that we would eventually leave our jobs. Because you can kind of get screwed over in the workplace if you’re deemed ‘not committed’ to the job.” Exactly. Although most of work’s benefits are tenuous, it’s not trivial to step off the merry-go-round. She added, “One of the reasons I never left my earlier jobs is that I was always afraid. It didn’t feel right to leave and do everything on my own. I’m a cautious person and the United States doesn’t have structures in place that help. So, leaving your job means you’re leaving a safety net.” Exactly.
Going Against ‘the Grain’ of Culture
But what if you could break free of the work rules and live better? Eva decided early in her career what ‘having it all’ meant and has aligned her professional life to those ideals. She ditched corporate America and relocated from the US, to rural Australia, with her husband and children. As a journalist, she examines the role of work in culture.
She said, “I don’t want to say that it’s perfect. When you make this decision, to live the life that you want, it’s not romantic. And part of the reason, that it’s not romantic, is that the system of work is not working in favor of employees.” We often forget that the infrastructure of work underpins financial security here. Eva explained, “Adam and I are able to do what we’re doing, because we are in Australia and we’re not paying for health insurance. So, people who do what we’ve done, either have some amount of privilege or some amount of stomach for risk taking. Because they’re going against the grain of culture and where it orients you.” Yes. So, what does ‘having it all’ mean without a rigid occupation?
The 4 P’s of Having it All
Eva began to research the ingredients for satisfying work, for herself and others, in college. “People, place and profession are the things that I need to feel fulfilled and I would now add a fourth ‘P’ for purpose. That’s important to me,” Eva said. She’s intentional about her life experience. And she applies thoughtful criteria to choose assignments in her freelance business. “I don’t want to do content work for a company that isn’t trying to make positive change in whatever sphere of influence it has.” Bravo! Although she left non-profit journalism, she maintains her advocacy for systemic change.
Choose Your Rules With Care
Eva has a formula to evaluate her pursuits, “I like to write about social, environmental or human progress. So, I write for companies in the field of sustainability and that pays well. The middle choice is work that other people assign, like in a journalism job. It’s more of what I want to do in my writing life, but it doesn’t tend to pay as well and is less reliable.” Sigh! The calculation includes tradeoffs. She admits that personal writing is the most fulfilling and falls into a special category, “There it can be unpaid work. But it would have to be professionally fulfilling to me.”
When Your ‘Purpose Drivers’ Compete
“I recently started an essay about the need to end overwork and how the American culture prizes work over everything else. And as I was writing this essay, it was hard to focus.” We laughed because of course, Covid is still raging. She said, “Okay, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and my kids are home, right outside my door. It was a very visceral conflict because I had this urgent desire to write this, it’s something I’m very passionate about and writing is very fulfilling to me. But it’s hard to write when you’re not getting sleep and when you’re constantly distracted. And that is being a Mother!” So true.
She became curious about why she felt this way. “Those two things came into direct conflict! So, I started doing some research because I felt like I was having an identity crisis and I learned, that in fact, I was.”
It Becomes an Identity Conflict
Well, there it is. She said, “There are two types of identity crises. One is what they call a ‘deficit crisis’ which is this sense of wanting to do something, but you don’t know what it is. So, it’s that feeling of loss or purposelessness. And the other one, is an ‘identity conflict’ and that’s when you know exactly what you want to do but you have too many things going on to feel like you can’t achieve any of them.” Many of us live in this state of perpetual work/life conflict. Eva added, “So, you feel like a failure. I felt like I was unable to be a good mother, a good writer or a good wife. At one point I was only feeling successful as a runner. I was actually achieving that one thing each day. And then I got tendonitis and I couldn’t even run!”
Why doesn’t it feel like we ever do enough? Eva said, “I was listening to podcasts while I was running. And one of the women I interviewed many years ago and like to listen to is the Psychotherapist Esther Perel. She described that right now we live in an ‘identity economy’ and the home identity and the work identity are paramount for us.” Is the pressure forcing us to choose?
In the Pandemic, Work is Winning
Traditional fields never fit neatly with life. And most people trade some level of wellbeing, for economic security. In a global health crisis, the ‘choice’ to maintain income and health insurance isn’t a real choice. Eva described how this tension affects many of us. “We’re worried about losing our jobs. We’re worried about the lack of face time, because that seems to be an indicator of loyalty and devotion to the job. And work is winning.” Right, a full circle back to the lack of social safety nets.
Eva said, “I’m reading all these news stories that say, ‘Oh my God schools are going to close and what are parents going to do at work?’ And I’m thinking, why, why, why isn’t the conversation about how can we ease up work, so that parents can be parents, in the middle of the health crisis! Our caretaking should come first.” This, dilemma which predates Covid is only more stark. The inability to mix employment and childcare has forced millions, often women, out of the workforce in the pandemic.
Can we Bring Self-Care to Work?
Eva said, “I’ve always had that personal pie chart, where profession is just one piece of it. You need to take care of yourself in all of those realms. Self-care shouldn’t always happen outside of work. It should happen within work. A lot of my clients are in the US and I live in a rural, isolated area. So, taking care of myself is having some human connection. And I am drawn to choose clients who bring some humanity into the conversations. One of the reasons I love working with a particular client, is not so much the work itself but the people that I work with. So, for me self-care isn’t just running, it’s working with people who feed me in the way that I need to be fed.” Beautiful!
And Make Work/Life Harmony Sustainable
Eva said, “Self-care is not just going to our local National Park but choosing a place to live where I have nature nearby. I was thinking about the components that make up the life that I want to live. And how to integrate them, in a deep way, from an early age. Self-care is in my daily choices. It’s not, ‘well now I’m going to meditate or do yoga’ there’s more depth to it. Self-care should be a more long-term choice to make it sustainable.” Amen! Eva said, “I’m tremendously proud of what we have done but it should be accessible to other people. Work changes us. And we need to change work, to make it ‘work’ for our lives.”
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Eva is a writer, editor, and communications consultant with more than 20 years of experience telling stories that matter—stories with an environmental, social, or human focus that engage people in making the world a better place. Her clients are global leaders in sustainability, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Participant Media, ClimateWorks Foundation, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, Gap Inc., Futerra, and many more. She is also the co-creator, with Christine Bader, of the storytelling project The Life I Want, about a future of work that works for all.She started her career as a magazine journalist at Outside, Mother Jones, Fitness, and Imagination Publishing, and spent the next several years as a book editor at Sierra Club Books and Wilderness Press. Most recently, she led content, media, and communications strategy at the global nonprofit sustainable business network Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). She has a master’s degree in magazine publishing and bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where she also taught in the National High School Institute “journalism cherub” program.