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What I Learned About Boundaries From Working For A Company That Had None

When I’d just started working with my first startup, the COO said something that stuck to me like a burr:

There is no such thing as a work-life balance.

To him, when you care about what you’re building, you don’t set boundaries. Instead, work is always on your mind, no matter where you are or with whom you’re spending time. You will do anything and everything to make it work. You are that round-the-clock hustler, because that’s what it takes to succeed.

That sounds great in theory, especially with all the bootstraps hoo-rah we hear surrounding startups these days, but we took this to severe extremes. I was literally living with my coworkers — 12 people in a four-bedroom house. We’d wake up and eat breakfast together while checking emails, then work until we fell asleep that night.

If a customer had a problem at midnight on a Friday, I was there. If someone in South Africa had a question about our software, and could only talk during their preferred business hours, no problem, we set the call for 2 AM PST. If an investor wanted to test our new chat service at 10 PM on a Tuesday, I’d respond.

It was a recipe for burnout.

When we finally got an office and started hiring, the team believed there would be some relief. Instead, the only difference was adding in a commute. We’d spend 9+ hours at the office “to set the tone for our new hires,” and when we got home, you better believe we had our laptops open around the dinner table.

We went from a group of 10 to over 50 at one point, but still, we kept these hours. Most days, the office would open at 7 or 7:30 AM, and we’d shut up shop by 10 or 11 PM. Granted, those who hadn’t lived in the company house weren’t usually doing the same, but the pressure was still there. Every time someone packed up by 5 PM, someone would semi-jokingly shout “later, slacker” from across the office.

Even after I moved out of the company house, I was still living with a team member — my at-the-time boyfriend…I know, never again. I don’t believe in dating coworkers and strongly advise against it, but the one time I don’t follow my own “don’t shit where you eat” rule, the relationship outlasted the company. But I digress.

We’d go into the office before 8 AM daily, head out no earlier than 7 PM most days. We’d still pull out the laptops before and after dinner, and we’d work straight through most weekends. There were even all-nighters.

We were adults, dammit. And we were still forgoing sleep in favor of finishing just one more report, or design, or whatever it was.

We eventually talked about it and started to put the laptops away, but there was still this insane pressure to be in that 24/7 #bootstrap mode. If he had his laptop open, I felt like I was slacking off, and immediately ran for mine. It wasn’t healthy in the least.

I was with this company for three years. How we all managed to live this way, I’m not sure I’ll ever really know. It wasn’t until I moved onto my next company that I realized that, as addictive as it became, working round-the-clock was unsustainable and downright toxic. I had to wean myself off of working 10+ hour days, and probably wouldn’t have been able to, had my new coworkers not constantly reminded me that I had to leave the office at some point.

I’ve since adjusted to the 8-hour work day (more or less), and while I still feel that pang of guilt if I pack up before 6 PM, it’s been so much better for my health — both physical and mental. While I’m still obsessed with startups, I’ll never go back to those bad habits again.

This post was originally published on a fledgling blog meant to help the author eliminate anxiety from her life, and to help organize her thoughts.

Image via Pexels

  • What a crazy experience. I have always been drawn to these types of engagement/projects and every time I wound up finding something out about myself that I didn’t know before. I love chasing the impossible, but to your point, its not sustainable. Were there any positive takeaways from all of this chaos?

    Or did it just “build character” much like my father used to say when he had me to cut the lawn? HA!

    • I’m extremely thankful for the experience — there couldn’t be a better crash-course in business. Because of this insane round-the-clock hustle, I gained up skills and relationships that have kept me running ever since. I don’t regret it in the slightest, but I wish I’d found my balance much sooner.

  • jdub

    This is exactly why I’ve decided to stay in administration instead of moving into a more senior role in my industry. You get your shit done for the day, then you can shut down and go home. When you’re on vacation, you don’t need to check emails because there’s someone covering for you while you’re away. If you’re sick, you can just stay home, sick.

    I know a lot of people with demanding careers don’t have that option if your employer isn’t on board, and that SUCKS. I wish more employers put an emphasis on work-life balance, and in the same vein, encouraged their employees to take care of both their physical AND mental health.

  • Desirae Odjick

    Oh my gosh, minus the living together, this was my entire first job experience – to the point where the CEO would literally give you gifts if you stayed later than your coworkers, and I used the excuse to be a workaholic to avoid my entire life. I still sometimes have “HR PTSD” when I start a new job and slip into those habits, but the most helpful mantra for me is that I need to start as I intend to continue. If I know I can’t sustain more than an 8 (or sometimes 9) hour day long term, and will burn out, I need to start out holding myself to not overworking so that I can actually stay, do well and enjoy the job.

  • aeverson12

    American’s are definitely obsessed with the idea of being busy at all times, and I often find myself listening to people simultaneously complaining and bragging about how busy they are. Our capitalistic society equates business with success, and it’s a toxic combo. Why do you think heart disease is the #1 cause of death in the U.S.? It’s because we work ourselves to death and don’t even have time to cook a proper meal. Is your job really that important that you are willing to sacrifice your health, your relationships, and your other interests for? For me, working to live is always more important than living to work. I make a conscious effort each and every day to balance my priorities to maximize my personal happiness, and that to me is the best measurement of success.