My BlackBerry is the last thing I see before I sleep and the first thing I lay eyes on when I wake. I panic when I plan vacations and discover my destination doesn’t have an internet connection, the idea of travelling without a laptop horrifies me and I barely bat an eyelid at the thought of working on a weekend. If you, like me, are finding the time you spend with your email inbox is starting to eclipse your quality time with friends and family, you have a problem: you’re living a life of ‘weisure’ - letting your 9-5 infiltrate the hours which really should be dedicated to leisure.
According to UAE Labour Law, working hours shouldn’t exceed 48 a week. For certain commercial establishments such as hotels, cafeterias and security services, the maximum working hours should be 54 hours a week. But how strictly people stick to those limits is another story. A 2010 survey by YouGov Siraj showed that 59 per cent of UAE residents were stressed out and 65 per cent of that was because of increased workloads.
Drawing a line between your work and leisure life isn’t an easy task and if you’re finding it hard, you’re not the only one. What was once considered “workaholic” status now seems to be a norm, so much so that New York University sociologist Dalton Conley even coined the term “weisure” for it. “Increasingly, it’s not clear what constitutes work and what constitutes fun,” said Conley in an interview with CNN, adding, “All of these worlds that were once very distinct are now blurring together.”
According to Conley, we’ve come a long way from the 1950’s when work was kept in the office. Back then, leisure time was strictly for personal enjoyment and the two worlds didn’t mix. Nowadays, however, those lines have become ambiguous. Long work weeks have encouraged busy people to try and maximise their time by combining business and pleasure, not realising they’re losing important boundaries and beginning to live a life of weisure.
Technology is one of the main culprits. Designed to help make our lives easier, now it not only helps us do our jobs, it helps us work more often and work harder. In a world filled with smartphones, social networking and instant messaging, we’ve become accustomed to instant gratification when it comes to communication. “It’s an instant high,” says marketing expert Tanya Carter, director of GAA-Marta Consulting (martaconsulting.com) and Co-Founder of 85 Broads’ Dubai chapter (85broads.com). “The reason why people are so addicted to their BlackBerry is because the use of them releases the same hormonal rush that you get from eating chocolate or going for a run. It’s almost an affirmation that your life is important because you’re connected.” Susan Soliman, Lecturer of Business Studies and Management at Middlesex University (mdx.ac), Dubai, agrees: “I heard a funny and somewhat sad report on the radio recently saying a lot of people who have iPads use them in the bathroom most of the time. Not being able to leave behind your texting and emailing even when you go to the bathroom is absolutely insane. People think their whole lives are wrapped around a phone call or email, and feel they must be up to date all the time.” The Internet doesn’t help either. With the idea-based society it encourages and work becoming increasingly intertwined with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, it’s even harder to distance ourselves from it. And we don’t always want to, either. Such sites make work more fun, and the more we enjoy work the less we fear allowing it to invade our personal time.
“Through technology, the world has become smaller,” says Carter. With the UAE being such an hub for global business, having clients around the world means working the weekends of other countries as well as our own and sometimes taking calls until the wee hours of the morning. The hours don’t just take a physical toll, however – the mental strain becomes a burden as well. “With all the work that has to be done trying to catch overseas clients within a specific time so you don’t risk losing an entire weekend, that’s a lot of pressure,” says Carter.
Pressure and competition
Of course, residents of the UAE are no strangers to pressure. “It’s a very competitive society,” explains Soliman, adding, “The UAE attracts some of the best potential in the worldwide market. People who come here have honed their skills to perfection, so that puts pressure on others to continuously improve and develop. The materialistic nature of the society doesn’t help either – people here often compare their lives to others and feel they always need to do better to match up.” Carter agrees: “Humans are social creatures, and so we want to fit in. Here, the way to fit in is to achieve certain things, and most often that’s a material good that you have to work harder to obtain.”
In these shaky economic times competitiveness is second nature to those determined to prove they’re indispensable. “Flexible working hour schemes aren’t very common here,” Soliman continues. “Many people are afraid to take a sabbatical for fear of coming back to work months later only to find they’ve lost their jobs. A study on human development published by the Knowledge and Development Authority (KDHA) found that Dubai is a place with one of the highest numbers of children in nursery and unlike in Sweden and Germany, where many children typically don’t go to school until the age of 7, here many women don’t have that option. Even if you don’t have kids, most people who like their jobs will do anything to keep them, even if it comes at the expense of their health.”
The nature of the UAE’s expat-heavy society is another key factor. “Many expats see the UAE as a transitional phase in their lives so they don’t establish a real home or a social life that sustains them. By not building anything long-lasting, they allow their jobs to become their main focus and constantly think, ‘I have to work hard and save money and then I’ll leave one day’,” says Soliman. “As people come and go, there’s no bonding and this lends very little in the way of community support.”
Even people with a strong network of friends and family watch their relationships suffer. “By working all hours of the day, quality time is compromised as everything you do is only done with partial attention. It’s very stressful, not having anyone to lean on,” says Soliman. Indeed, earlier this year, YouGov Siraj stated that 12 per cent of the UAE spends only one hour or less each day of quality time with their family.
“Stress is a silent killer,” says Carter, adding, “we take it for granted that everything is all okay until it’s too late. The dangerous thing about stress is that you don’t physically see it. You can bottle it up on the inside and appear calm on the outside, but if you have that eating away at you ten times a day, that’s when you have problems.” In September 2011, Gulf News reported that 69 per cent of UAE residents don’t sleep enough due to insomnia. “That kind of burnout can exacerbate a whole host of other problems, such as lack of exercise and making bad diet choices when exhausted, which contribute towards diabetes and obesity, both huge problems in this region,” says Soliman. And she speaks from experience: “I suffered from that personally. For five continuous years I didn’t exercise at all. When I was a consultant years ago, I was travelling around the clock and had to be mentally switched on all the time. My anxiety levels were so appalling I was hospitalised at one point due to stress. When I saw my medical report, it scared the hell out of me and it inspired a change in my attitude.”
She continues, “Awareness is the number one step to a better lifestyle. People have to know how quickly it can all go downhill and change their attitude – that’s the most radical and effective change. The one that comes from within.” Carter echoes the sentiment, saying, “There needs to be more acceptance and education when it comes to this weisure phenomenon. You can’t ignore the importance of time management. It’s difficult, but you have to sit down and say ‘these are my goals, these are my priorities, this is what I want to accomplish.’ We’ve allowed technology and the fact that business isn’t just conducted on a local level anymore but on an international level now to get in our way. The misunderstood notion of what success is helps to combine these two worlds of work and play, because we can’t turn off. It takes a long time to define our values, but we really need to force ourselves to look at them and define success individually.”
Making a conscious effort to keep your work and leisure life separate is a start, but how do you start to do that effectively? Setting personal ground rules helps, such as not checking work emails once you’ve left the office and opting out of receiving them on your smartphone if you can. Not giving your personal mobile number to clients will help create a boundary, and if your work requires you to be accessible by mobile, having a separate personal and work mobile will ensure the two don’t mix.
Treating yourself to relaxation helps, but it doesn’t always need to be material. “Make time for three sit-down meals each day. Look at your last week and wonder, how many times did you actually sit down with no phone, no television, no newspaper, and just concentrate on your food?” says Carter. Soliman agrees that simple things are the best remedy: “Some of the best ways of relieving stress are doing meditation or yoga, walking in nature or just being outdoors and breathing fresh air.” Figuring out what it is that truly winds you down after a long day of work – and committing yourself to some “me time”, even if it means scheduling it in – isn’t an easy task. But it’s the first step towards taking control.