This is the second in a series of essays I’ve written on time. You can view a list of all of them on the first essay.

Once upon a time, people lived more by the natural rhythms of seasons, the movement of the sun, and their bodies. There weren’t clocks to tell them when to do things and there wasn’t electric light and heat to make it easy to pretend it’s normal to work in the dark (burning the midnight oil used to be a real thing, and wasteful!). People didn’t live by precise times and society didn’t require the sort of coordination and standardization we have today.  We’ve lived so long with clocks, it can be hard to imagine waking with the sun rather than at a specific appointed number on a clock every day. Clock time might even feel to us a more objective measure of time because it’s what we’ve used all our lives to determine our waking and sleeping, our work time and leisure, and our times to eat and exercise. In reality, it’s the most contrived measure of time, one deeply encumbered by social values and largely designed around economic needs.

Precision and coordination in measuring time was first used by monks to ensure they were adhering to the proper times for prayer, but even those times often differed depending on the time of year (the position of the sun). It wasn’t until Huygens developed the pendulum clock that clock time came into wider use, but this was also the moment of the birth of industry, which required time discipline, the “high degrees of standardization and regularity and coordination” of people’s time (Glennie & Thrift 1996, 287). E. P. Thompson, who wrote the seminal work on the growth of clock time in early modern Britain, writes about how quickly clock time and time as a commodity became the only ways of conceiving of time:

The first generation of factory workers were taught by their masters the importance of time; the second generation formed their short-time committees in the ten-hour movement; the third generation struck for overtime or time-and-a-half. They had accepted the categories of their employers and learned to fight back within them. They had learned their lesson, that time is money, only too well.

-E. P. Thompson 1967, 86

Even in that early-modern era, there wasn’t the sort of standardization of time we see today. The idea of standard times and time zones are a 19th Century invention that wasn’t fully adopted by the entire world well into the 20th Century. Localities used to have their own time — originally determined by the movement of the sun — which was not a problem until the growth of fast transportation and communication technologies made those local differences more glaring and inconvenient. Eventually, Greenwich Mean Time became the standard all were forced to follow, though even now, the main tower clock in Bristol, England has a third hand that denotes their original local time. Like so many things that stand in opposition to nature, clock time became a tool of oppression: “the Western separation of clock time from the rhythms of nature helped imperialists establish superiority over other cultures” (Zadeh). Barbara Adam (2002), who has written brilliantly on the sociology of time, rightly brings up the fact that those natural rhythms did not cease to exist with the invention of clock time: “Yet clock time has not replaced the multiple social, biological, and physical sources of time; it has rather changed the meanings of the variable times, temporalities, timings, and tempos of bio-cultural origin… Machine time has been reified to a point at which we have lost touch with other rhythms and with the multiple times of our existence” (513-14).

At the same time that this was happening, Protestantism was preaching time discipline, with leisure seen as an affront to God, and labor “serve[ed] to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will” (Weber Ch. 5). According to Max Weber, this Protestant ethic has become fully secularized over time, though the fervor behind people’s sense of vocation and the importance of money-making beyond real need still feels almost religious in its fervor:

If you ask them what is the meaning of their restless activity, why they are never satisfied with what they have, thus appearing so senseless to any purely worldly view of life, they would perhaps give the answer, if they know any at all: “to provide for my children and grandchildren.” But more often and, since that motive is not peculiar to them, but was just as effective for the traditionalist, more correctly, simply: that business with its continuous work has become a necessary part of their lives. That is in fact the only possible motivation, but it at the same time expresses what is, seen from the viewpoint of personal happiness, so irrational about this sort of life, where a man exists for the sake of his business, instead of the reverse.

-Max Weber, ch 2.

These forces all helped to place work time at the center of our lives and cement the notion of time as money; two things that have only been further entrenched in our contemporary neoliberal society. Time discipline was originally enforced by managers, but we have seen “a movement away from an outer, visible coercion toward an inner regulation administered by the individual himself” (Rosengren 2019, 622). We are driven to reproduce time discipline ourselves, more by virtue of our own sense of precarity (whether because of the nature of our job, our internal insecurity, or both) and individualistic desire to rise than by specific discipline from a manager. 

Luckily, some of us are starting to question what is behind all this. While business leaders were promoting the idea of quiet quitting as a dereliction of duty, most of us could clearly see that what they were describing as “quiet quitting” was “just doing your job.” We’ve been so conditioned to see going above and beyond as the minimum expectation that the idea of doing just what is required of us was seen as tantamount to quitting. 

I’ve been working in libraries for 20 years at this point and I’ve felt over the past thirteen years more overburdened and exhausted than I did in the preceding seven. The pace of work feels like it’s accelerating. And I could assume that it’s just me and aging and the fact that I’ve been a parent for all of those latter years, but the literature suggests that this goes far beyond my individual experience. We’re being asked to do more than ever before. As a liaison librarian, I remember reading New Roles for New Times a decade ago and thinking how difficult it would be to develop expertise in all of the listed areas. Since then, we’ve been asked to become experts in even more, like AI, algorithmic bias, open educational resources, and more. And we’re also subject to more interruptions than ever before (as Lennertz and Jones; Bossaller, Burns, and VanScoy; and Nicholson all highlight). Bossaller, Burns and VanScoy (2017) found that the librarians they interviewed “experienced time famine, time pressure, time poverty, and time fatigue” (15). Even if you’re not working more hours, the feeling that you can never catch up, that you’re drowning in to-do’s can have a significantly negative impact on your mental health and relationships (Giurge, Whillans, and West 2020). 

I’ve seen the argument made that since people aren’t actually working that much more than they did 30 years ago, this stress is of their own creation, but I take that claim about as seriously as the claim that people just aren’t as “resilient” as they used to be. There are systemic changes that some are trying to frame as individual changes to get us to grind harder. I’ve written in the past about the normalization of overwork and Brons, et al. (2022) have written about how precarity helps to further entrench overwork as the norm. Mazzetti, Schaufeli, & Guglielmi (2014) demonstrated that while there might be personality characteristics common to workaholics, the greatest determinant of overwork is the organizational climate. When overwork is seen as the minimum expectation and it is rewarded with promotions and raises, it becomes the base expectation. Yet the research on the negative long-term effects of overwork is unequivocal:

Overwork refers specifically to the cumulative consequences of operating at ‘‘overcapacity.’’ Additional hours spent at work eventually creates fatigue or stress so that the worker’s physical or mental health, well-being, health, or quality of life is not sustainable in the longer run. Adverse effects of excess work on various indicators of worker’s well-being from individuals and families to employers and the (national or global) economy have been fairly well established empirically.

-Golden & Altman, 65

Our organizations are short-sightedly running their employees into burnout or worse when a sustainable pace would likely provide better long-term outcomes for the organization (and the individual!). 

Urgency is also a huge part of the timescape of libraries. Lennertz and Jones (2020) write about a study that “found greater urgency in the university than the factory” which surprises me not at all. I think that’s become true of a lot of knowledge work-type jobs. I’ve seen libraries go through multiple overlapping cycles of “crisis” and what Meyers et al. (2021) refer to as “the exceptional present” in order to create urgency and pressure us to overwork. Because when there’s a crisis, we all need to step up and do our part. But what if we’re just in a constant state of crisis? It seems like there’s always another reason to step up and do more and its treated like a temporary blip. I remember for years at the past two libraries I worked with, we kept putting off major departmental planning until things settled down because we felt we were always in reaction mode. But things never settled down at either library. And being in a constant state of crisis and urgency eventually wears you out and numbs you. We can’t operate in reactive mode forever; it’s just not healthy for us as individuals or for the organization. It makes thoughtful and inclusive planning impossible. And urgency has been called out as being a characteristic of white supremacy culture.

There’s also this feeling that we need to keep growing and building limitlessly; there’s no vision for what enough might actually look like. I remember years ago when I first became an instruction head, my boss asked me to have as an annual goal to increase instruction sessions by 25%. A daunting task, right? Well, through quite a lot of outreach and the generosity of my fellow instruction librarians, we actually met that goal! Woo hoo! But to my surprise, my boss wanted me to put the exact same metric into my goals for the following year. This time I objected. The first reason was because we had a lot of folks who were new to or were uncomfortable with teaching and it made a lot more sense to focus that year on the quality of our teaching than the quantity (because who cares that you’re teaching a lot if your teaching is not effective? We’re not made of magic). But her request also made me wonder at what point would we be teaching enough? What was the magic number? Would I be expected to increase the number of classes we taught endlessly? And how would we manage all that teaching (and outreach!) with already full workloads? Our profession is incredibly bad at defining what enough looks like and I think it’s a key reason why we constantly add new projects and services without considering long-term sustainability. We feel like we have to constantly do more and new things to prove our worth, and the worth of the library, and it’s an exhausting treadmill we could run on forever.

We talk a lot in libraries about work-life balance, but I’ve come to believe a balance is really impossible if work is always treated as more important than life. Work time dominates and shapes the rest of our time, impacting our wellness and our relationships. Arlie Russell Hochschild (1997) documented how work time encroaches on family and leisure time in her ethnographic research: “the more its deadlines, its cycles, its pauses and interruptions shape our lives and the more family time is forced to accommodate to the pressures of work” (45). When we are at home, work interruptions (like a quick email or something) are considered no big deal these days, but we’re expected when we’re at work to be 100% focused on work and pretend that we don’t have bodies, caregiving responsibilities, and worries in our lives. We’re expected to shut those parts of ourselves off. But how many times have you checked work email before you’ve gone to work or on the weekend “just in case?” It’s become totally acceptable for work to encroach on our personal lives, but not the other way around. We take pains to keep our lives from spilling into our work. 

I remember when I had a baby and experienced the absurdity of being expected to suddenly show up back at work and do exactly as much as I did before. I was suffering from postpartum depression and both my son and I were dealing with one health issue after another, but the message coming from work and society was that if I wasn’t just as productive as I’d been pre-baby, I was a failure. I didn’t feel like I could ask for help at work because we’re socialized to see that as weakness and asking for preferential treatment. I felt pressure to be perfect at home lest I make some minor mistake that harmed my child’s entire future (the mommy message boards were full of fear-mongering) and to also prove that I could still do all my work, speak at conferences, write book chapters and articles, and do everything at just as high a level as I ever did. It almost killed me. And I truly believe that our culture pushes caregivers to pursue a level of perfection that is unsustainable. I identified so much with this quote from Mitchell, Magnusen, and Hampton’s (2023) autoethnography about burnout:

I knew that being a single mother made me a liability – at least in a world where capitalism is valued over having an actual life. I say this because in my experience, in academic spaces, it was expected that all employees leave our personal lives at the door. We were strictly meant to focus on work and not concern ourselves with our personal lives once we were on the clock. (166)

We live and work in a society that believes we shouldn’t have bodies, loved ones, or needs outside of the workplace at any time while we’re working. Stuffing those things down while we’re at our jobs tends only to exacerbate those issues. As someone who taught and worked reference shifts with migraines, I can attest that muscling through the pain only made it more difficult to get rid of the migraine once I got back home. I once ended up spending over $1000 and a whole summer in physical therapy (and pain) because I ignored the harm my desk chair was causing me and kept sitting in it for work despite the growing pain in my hips. Yet I blithely let work bleed into my personal life without a second thought and gave so many hours of my personal time to work without thinking about the cost to my well-being and that of my loved ones.

I’m going to write more about things that push us out of sync with work temporality (disability, caregiving, etc.) and more embodied and interdependent ways to be at work in a future essay in this series. We can’t just be floating brains at work with no encumbrances; what makes us great at our jobs is everything that makes us who we are. We are whole people and deserve to be valued for our wholeness. We need to stop punishing people (whether explicitly or through the cultural norms we’ve created) for having needs that may sometimes interfere with work. 

Some might counter with the fact that we have more flexibility at work than ever. Some of us can work from home. Some of us can flex our time to be at our child’s play or our loved one’s medical appointment. We can often work from anywhere we have an internet connection. Workplace flexibility has been touted as being beneficial for workers (especially caregivers and those with illnesses or disabilities), but is usually gamed to benefit the employer. Golden and Altman (2006) and Anttila, et al. (2015) found that workers with more flexibility tend to work longer hours. I’ve certainly seen it myself where those who take advantage of flexible hours to accommodate caregiving needs feel obligated to prove their worthiness by working even more. It’s like how so many child-bearing academics are afraid of accepting a tenure clock extension because they fear they will be seen as weak or their tenure packet judged more harshly (and in many cases, they are). I’d imagine that those who do accept the extension feel enormous pressure to prove that they are even more productive as those who do not have such a gap in their CVs.

Flexibility and our 24/7 culture combine to create an expectation of constant availability. And the flex tends to be toward work, not toward the needs in our personal lives. We stay late, we check work email at night or when we first wake up in the morning, we do work on our laptops while watching TV with the family and pretend that it’s quality time. Lennertz and Jones (2020) found that the vast majority of library workers have had to do work during vacations, which is patently absurd in a profession where no one is going to die due to our lack of availability. Bourne and Forman (2014) suggest that flexibility won’t help fix work-life balance issues as long as our society continues to value work time and devalue what we do outside of work.

Nothing will materially change until we 1) change the calculus where work is seen as more important than anything else in our lives and 2) resist norms around overwork, availability, and response times. And really, it has to be those of us with the most privilege and job security to fight the hardest to change these norms in our organizations because those working in precarity will not have the safety to do so outside of a union (and even then, it can be risky in some orgs). Every time we check our email outside of work hours, every time we “just finish this up” when we’re supposed to be spending time with loved ones, every time we overwork, we are helping to reproduce the existing norms. I’ve written in the past about uncoupling our sense of worth from our work identity and achievements and I think that’s an important first step toward changing work’s dominant place in our lives. But it’s going to require real collective action and solidarity to change the norms, especially when there’s always the promise that if you, as an individual, work harder, you will be rewarded. This monstrous treadmill will never stop unless we stand together.

What you contribute to work is not the measure of your worth. And it’s certainly not more important than you or the people you love. Can you imagine how things might look different if work were not centered?

Adam, Barbara. “Perceptions of time.” In Companion encyclopedia of anthropology, ed. Tim Ingold pp. 503-526. Routledge, 2002.

Anttila, Timo, Tomi Oinas, Mia Tammelin, and Jouko Nätti. “Working-time regimes and work-life balance in Europe.” European Sociological Review 31, no. 6 (2015): 713-724.

Bourne, Kristina A., and Pamela J. Forman. “Living in a culture of overwork: An ethnographic study of flexibility.” Journal of Management Inquiry 23, no. 1 (2014): 68-79.

Bossaller, Jenny, Christopher Sean Burns, and Amy VanScoy. “Re-conceiving time in reference and information services work: a qualitative secondary analysis.” Journal of Documentation 73, no. 1 (2017): 2-17.

Brons, Adena, Chloe Riley, Ean Henninger, and Crystal Yin. “Precarity Doesn’t Care: Precarious Employment as a Dysfunctional Practice in Libraries.” (2022).

Glennie, P. and Thrift, N., 1996. Reworking EP Thompson’sTime, work-discipline and industrial capitalism’. Time & Society, 5(3), pp.275-299.

Giurge, Laura M., Ashley V. Whillans, and Colin West. “Why time poverty matters for individuals, organisations and nations.” Nature Human Behaviour 4, no. 10 (2020): 993-1003.

Golden, Lonnie and Morris Altman. “How long? The historical, economic and cultural factors behind working hours and overwork.” Research companion to working time and work addiction Ed. Ronald J. Burke, Edward Elgar Publishing (2006): 36-57.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1997. The Time Bind : When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. 1st ed. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Lennertz, Lora L. and Phillip J. Jones. “A question of time: Sociotemporality in academic libraries.” College & Research Libraries 81, no. 4 (2020): 701.

Mazzetti, Greta, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Dina Guglielmi. “Are workaholics born or made? Relations of workaholism with person characteristics and overwork climate.” International Journal of Stress Management 21, no. 3 (2014): 227.

Meyers, Natalie K., Anna Michelle Martinez-Montavon, Mikala Narlock, and Kim Stathers. “A Genealogy of Refusal: Walking Away from Crisis and Scarcity Narratives.” Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship 7 (2021): 1-18.

Mitchell, Carmen, Lauren Magnuson, and Holly Hampton. “Please Scream Inside Your Heart: How a Global Pandemic Affected Burnout in an Academic Library.” Journal of Radical Librarianship 9 (2023): 159-179.

Nicholson, Karen P. “Being in Time”: New Public Management, Academic Librarians, and the Temporal Labor of Pink-Collar Public Service Work.” Library Trends 68, no. 2 (2019): 130-152.

Rosengren, Calle. “Performing work: The drama of everyday working life.” Time & Society 28, no. 2 (2019): 613-633.

Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present 38 (1967): 56-97.

Weber, Max. 2001 [1930]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Zadeh, Joe. “The Tyranny of Time.” NOĒMA, (3 June 2021)