Opinion: Can I be happy while working overtime?

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A column by Active Minds. Matthew Reagan/The Occidental.

I am currently taking a leave of absence from Oxy and working as a counseling intern at a high school; my main job is to assist seniors with their college applications. The school provides on-campus housing, which, a few weeks ago, I thought could be a problem.

My walk to work is only three minutes, which tempts me to work overtime because I don’t have to worry about traffic. I also don’t have to set aside time to cook since the school has a cafeteria. But after working day and night, meeting with students and attending Zoom counselor workshops, I started to wonder if I had compromised my non-professional life too much, whether I was overworking and ignoring my mental and social health.

The answer is no.

While there were some weeks when I felt completely exhausted by Friday, I was more perceptive than I predicted I would be. I can distinguish between being worn out and being fulfilled.

At one point, I got confused by the phrase “work-life balance.” I made a sharp distinction between work and life: after work, absolutely no checking emails, texting back colleagues, preparing for tomorrow or even reading work-related material that I came across accidentally. Otherwise, I thought, I would be straining myself and not respecting my boundaries, and if I become “flexible” for long enough, others would get used to not respecting my boundaries as well.

I made work-life balance a strict rule, a doctrine and eventually, a compulsion. It was supposed to enhance my mental health, yet I seemed to have understood and executed it in a way that made me feel torn and perplexed.

Then I came across people online who argued that the boundary between “work” and “life” does not have to be so clear-cut. This philosophy is called work-life integration, which advocates for people to see work as a part of life, as opposed to putting the two in antithetical, competing positions. My high school math teacher once told me that he and his colleagues would talk about work a lot even after work because they’re passionate about education. Being a teacher is a part of their lives, so they don’t see those conversations as a burden. On the contrary, he said, it would be sad if one doesn’t enjoy what they do and has to make a sharp divide between work and life. 

Indeed, I enjoy everything I do when I work overtime. When I listen to students’ stories to help them brainstorm their college essays, I get to learn about their idiosyncrasies and interesting character traits, as well as provide them emotional, academic and writing support in the nerve-wracking college application process. I also advise a club and I love learning about students’ leadership styles and seeing them grow more proactive while updating my own paradigm of leadership training. 

It was Flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which refers to complete absorption in a task because it is beyond enjoyable. 

When I had the idea of writing about mental health at work, I thought of another Active Minds column written by Paul Charbonneau on self-responsibility as an alternative to self-care. Paul expressed that his approach to self-love isn’t to have an occasional respite from life but to be responsible for himself and his future.

I resonate with Paul’s idea. What one person categorizes as work could be someone else’s approach to self-love. The number of hours worked is not the key. Work-life balance, integration, harmony, whatever, is not an inflexible prescription. It’s the individualized level of fulfillment or exhaustion that is the indicator of mental wellness at work. I have refrained from preemptively labeling an act as conducive or destructive to mental wellness, opting instead to be more observant of my body and heart. When I am tasked with something and I think to myself, “That sounds like a great learning opportunity! But dang, it’s at 9 p.m.,” I listen to what my gut –– as opposed to my contemplative brain –– tells me. I have come to diversify and individualize my approach to mental wellness. If work fulfills me, then working is my way of approaching self-care, for which self-actualization is essential.