When I first moved to Africa, I negotiated what I thought was a great salary. I soon found out that I was selling a five-day week (with the option to work on the odd Saturday). However, my employer was buying a seven-day week (with the option to call on every single one of the 24 hours in each day). My company wanted me to work hard, not smart, and hard meant long hours in the office, where a concept called “visible working” played out on a daily basis. It was their way of justifying my salary and showing that they had made a good hiring decision. I soon found out the hard way that it really was the hours you put in that counted, and that weekends – particularly Sundays – gave you a double score or a trip to Human Resources (HR) to explain yourself on Monday.
And thus it was that I found myself in the HR director’s office one rainy Monday morning. In his hands were printed copies of an email exchange between me and a senior colleague requesting me to attend a 2pm meeting at the office on Sunday. The emails happened between 11 and 11.30am on that Sunday. I unwittingly replied to the first email that I had unfortunately made prior arrangements and would catch up with the minutes on Monday. This, I found out, was the wrong response. I was cautioned, my commitment questioned, and I was made to vow that I would always put the company first at all times. It was rule number one in the playbook on how to work hard and not kill yourself trying. The better way to respond to such an email request I later learned was either, “I’ll be there,” or “Sorry, I won’t be there because my wife/child/parents are dying as I write this.”
Two weeks later I stumbled on rule number two and the consequences of not adhering to it. A female colleague misguidedly left the office at 6pm one evening to deal with some domestic issues. At 7pm we (the executive team) were called in to a last-minute (and might I say needless) meeting. At 7.10pm, when the boss realised she was not in the room, he called her mobile number, which wasn’t answered. At 7.20pm she returned his call. By 7.25pm she no longer had a job and by 7.26, I had quietly sent a text to my wife telling her not to wait up for me.
At work, people are measured by their ability to show up at a meeting, how visible they are in the office, and the number of hours they put into a project – never by the quality of those hours. The concept of that new-age expression “work smart, not hard” is very much against the corporate culture in many African organisations. Emails copying as many people as possible are sent early in the morning and late into the night, and responses are expected. Phones are never switched off and rarely muted, and this applies to holidays as well as sick days. I was once told to send some work to a junior assistant and when I pointed out that she was off sick that day, I was told it did not matter; it was her job and she was expected to do it. And she did – from her sick bed, perpetuating the misconception that she was not really ill at all.
Burnout is considered a western concept, for wimps who do not understand that hard work is the key to success. Just as the American dream demands a stroke of good luck to hit the jackpot, so the African dream requires only relentless hard work to ensure success. Stress is a word that the lazy and unambitious use, and like malaria, no one takes it seriously, even though it is a potential killer.
Except for my wife, that is. She took it very seriously and started sending me articles on work-life balance to encourage me to spend more quality time at home. Since my encounter with HR, quality time for me now meant sitting with my phone or laptop (usually both) pretending to hang out with my family. One article she sent me was about how some leading US companies were creating work-life balance policies to force employees to have down time and reduce the stress levels in their environment – simple policies like banning the sending of emails over the weekend. I bravely (in retrospect, stupidly) sent it to a colleague, who immediately responded with “you know Americans are not like us.” He warned me it would be a career-limiting move if I forwarded it to anyone. I pressed delete and told my wife I never received it. Like me, she would have to come to terms with the fact that this job and this company was concerned with taking a pound of flesh. I had seriously undercharged for it and there was nothing I could do. Next time, I would negotiate a contract and financial compensation that was commensurate not just with my experience, but also with the number of hours in the two-year contract I would sign. I had visions of retiring very rich someday if I did not die of a stress-related illness before the contract came to an end
*JJC is Nigerian slang. It means Johnny just come and refers to a recent returnee from abroad. Fresh from the US, I am sharing my adventures in Corporate Africa at www.ventures-africa.com. It’s the survival guide I wish had been written for me! Follow me on Twitter @jjcAfrica.