Opinion

Being over-worked isn’t anyone’s fault but your own

 Prentice Mathew PorterIn this guest post, Prentice Porter argues that if you are being asked to work unreasonable hours, it is your responsibility to say no.

I write this knowing it won’t be a popular sentiment, but I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it. Within six months, two young creatives quite literally worked themselves into an early grave.

After the death of Mita Diran last week it seems the industry is now beginning to realise that we have a problem. Not only are people being exploited well beyond their contractual hours, but their health is suffering to such an extent that many people are falling very ill indeed.

Thus far, the industry response to the tragedy has been dismal. The death of this poor girl will no doubt fair the same as the last incident (Li Yuan) a few months ago who died in similar circumstances – and will be forgotten in a matter of weeks while everyone rushes to complete whatever deadlines preoccupy them. Corporations remain quiet, and employees – while outraged – do nothing.

When unfortunate events like these take place, there’s a tendency for a collective abnegation of personal responsibility, and to instead point fingers at almost every other possible factor. “Failure of account management” one article read, “poor leadership”, “unreasonable clients”. Nobody would deny that these are problems, but the underlying reason people are being over-worked is because you (the workers) just won’t say “no”.

I’ve seen it time and time again – a few prominent leaders implore other industry leaders to take measures in introducing policy to ensure tragedies like the two we’ve witnessed don’t reoccur, only for them to fall on deaf ears as deadlines continue to roll in and clients remain as unsympathetic as ever.

The inherent contradiction and stupidy within most agency management is their eagerness to enforce start times – often referring to contractual agreements – all the while completely ignoring contractually agreed finishing times. If anyone has forgotten, the contract you signed mandates an eight-hour working day. Not 12, or 16 as some would have you believe.

Look at any movement in history: the abolishment of slavery, the enlightenment, gender equality, the American Revolution, the labour movement, rights for homosexuals, anti racial discrimination – and you’ll see that not in a single instance were rights ever given without a fight. Usually it’s a long and arduous battle, and it only begins with those who are oppressed. And believe me, you are oppressed.

If you don’t want to hear it, tough, it’s a fact. You only get the rights you fight for, and relying on management or industry leaders to hand them to you is a sign of servility and complacency – not to mention an exercise in futility. Until you’re willing to stand up for change, don’t expect any.

I worry that many people in our industry will continue to suffer unnecessarily until there’s a fundamental change in attitude, and with people falling ill at the rates they are, I think the time is now. You don’t just owe it to yourself, you owe it to those who don’t quite have the courage to stand up for what has to happen, and also to the newcomers who are vulnerable to the harsh world they’re entering.

So I urge this industry – not CEOs, not GMs, not CDs, but the copywriters, art directors, designers, programmers, traffic managers and everyone else who spends their nights at their office desk rushing an impossible deadline that’s been imposed on them; to power down, go home, and let your immediate supervisor explain to the client why they haven’t managed their deadline properly. If everyone adopted this approach, a chain reaction would (and will) occur, and we’d be working in a very different industry.

An active and free labour movement is one of the most crucial elements in the maintenance of democracy and economic development. Get yourselves organized and stop being complacent. Isn’t it time?

How much of your health are you willing to sacrifice? How many birthdays and anniversaries are you prepared to miss? How many nights are you willing to spend slumped over your desk for a deadline you had no say in deciding? Grow up and speak out. Make it a group effort. Set up a trade union. I promise you you’ll not lay on your death bed in your last hours wishing you spent more time in the office. Stop working yourself to death. It’s such a horrible waste of life, and you only have yourself to blame.

I’m going home because it’s almost 7.30pm. You bloody well should too. It’s your right.

Prentice Mathew Porter is a senior art director at Digital Arts Network Singapore

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