July 5, 2021 • Work

I Refuse to Be Indispensable

A computer keyboard on a desk

About six months before I left my last full-time job, I started asking about promotions and raises. When I first took the position at a professional school, I thought I would have more input in curriculum design. It turned out I was a glorified administrative assistant. The person who interviewed me told me I was overqualified for the job, but the person who hired me said they would start my salary in the middle of the pay range and “we’d go from there.” I needed work so I accepted. After 3 years, I’d begun writing online and wondered if I could make that my full-time career, but I was afraid of the loss of stability and health insurance. I decided to petition for a new position, one I’d created to help with marketing and recruitment, and put together a portfolio of my skills lying dormant (curriculum-building; copywriting and -editing, etc.). I scheduled appointments and ordered supplies when I could have been doing so much more — and been less bored. The person in charge of the department was impressed and slightly annoyed that she had not been aware of the full extent of my professional skills. However, my immediate supervisor told me if I wanted to prove my value, I had to make myself indispensable. That’s when I knew I would walk away from that job.

I was already overqualified, underpaid, and underused yet they needed more. That “more” meant putting my work email on my phone, being available after-hours, picking up someone else’s children from school. I refused to burn myself out so someone else could exploit me. So when Naomi Osaka tried to compromise with the press demands of the French Open by taking some on-court interviews but no press conferences, in order to maintain her mental health and create the environment she needed to succeed, I fully understood. When spectators and French Open officials responded with disdain, in effect questioning why she should not continue to meet the unreasonable expectations of her job, I understood. When she walked away from the Open and later Wimbledon, to focus on herself and the Olympics, the most significant of her goals, it felt like I was back in my old office, shutting down my computer for the last time, ready to move on to something bigger. 

Riding a desk and clicking through shared calendars is nowhere near as physically demanding as an athletic career, but I know what it’s like for a job to think it deserves all of you, even when you tell your bosses that it is unreasonable. 

More recently, Serena Williams let the world know she was not going to the Olympics. Although she suggested she had reasons she didn’t want to disclose, she also admitted that she had not been thinking about the Olympics and wanted to continue not thinking about them. Her decision was reported as Williams not giving a reason, but as I tweeted, her not wanting to go should be reason enough. There may be many factors we the public don’t need or have a right to know, but what if it is as simple as “I don’t want to.” 

American work culture is such that we’re expected to keep working until we break, mind or body, and even then, we’re told to keep going. Toughen up. Wrap the injury and get back out there. Shake it off. When someone like Osaka or Williams say no, when we take a step away from something doing us harm before we reach a crisis point, it’s confusing, especially to those who hoped to take advantage of the “work until you drop” edict. 

“It’s your job to entertain us. It’s your job to be subjected to unpleasant questions. It’s your job to do what we want until we decide your job is over.” 

We’re expected to keep working to satisfy consumer entitlement and unrealistic workplace expectations until we’re fired or sustain life-threatening injuries. It doesn’t matter if your salary is $2/hour or in the seven-figures. You’re not supposed to stop working until something breaks. It’s unhealthy and more and more workers, regardless of industry, are saying they won’t do it anymore. Not all of us have the means to walk away from an exploitative job, and it’s never an easy decision to make, but if you can put your mental and physical health first and decide to move on to something better, you do not need to feel bad about it. 

When my former boss said I had to make myself indispensable, I knew I was quitting, but I stayed for another six months, hoping the work I’d already done would be proof enough that I was worth more. I brought up the possibility of a promotion again, and my boss said I didn’t show enough enthusiasm, that I seemed like I was there to collect a check. By the time I made it home that day, I was having pains in my left arm and thought I was experiencing some kind of heart episode. The following Monday, I submitted my two-weeks’ notice. When I was gone, they split my duties between 3 people who eventually quit because they said it was too much work. It looked like I had been indispensable after all.

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