Do employees really have the freedom to pursue their passions outside of work?

I have only recently stopped being an “employee”, having worked for international corporations for the last 17 years. During that entire time, I never felt the freedom to be able to pursue my passions and hobbies publicly, for example, writing.

As many will know, an important part of the employee/employer agreement is that when you join a company, you “Join” the company.

I recall there was a long list of do’s and don’ts in all my contracts. How during “onboarding” they continuously repeated that I shouldn’t do anything that might compromise the image of the company that I was now a part of and presumably “representing” even outside work hours (although at the beginning of my career with the number of hours I was putting in, it was debatable whether I was ever outside of work!).

Additionally, as a lawyer, it was expected that I keep a strict professional appearance at all times. During my 17 years as an employee, I saw how the increased use of social media resulted in people losing their jobs or training contracts on account of online photos or posts that were deemed “not to reflect the company’s beliefs” or expectations of their employees.

Remember Juli Briskman, who famously flipped off Trump’s motorcade? She duly lost her job shortly thereafter. The company stated that she had violated the company’s social media policy on account of obscene pictures and profanities, even though she clearly wasn’t at work or acting on behalf of the company when the event happened.

There has been a lot of talk about encouraging employees to have a life and hobbies outside work, but presumably, this is only as long as those hobbies and activities fall within the accepted parameters of the company.

For my part, I have always loved writing. It started with poetry in my teens but the more I do it, the more it extends into other genres. However, for 17 years I suppressed it. Who wants to read poetry from their lawyer, accountant or financial advisor or learn that they are going through difficult personal issues?

There was an unspoken rule that my hobbies were allowed, provided they were either never made public or fell within the accepted parameters of the company. So the ‘oh look she is proficient at playing the piano’ was ok, but the ‘she writes poetry about heartbreak’ probably not so ok.

It is no wonder that depression amongst lawyers and other professionals is on the rise when you are only able to show or indulge a specific part of yourself to the world.

Sure, you can keep your “less desirable” hobbies completely private. However, part of social media’s enormous success is that it feeds on the human desire to share our experiences with others. In this respect, it is questionable whether by agreeing to work for a company you also agree to not have a separate identity outside of it or to be limited by its perceptions of what is acceptable.

This doesn’t even consider the fact that you may want or need to supplement your income on the side. Whilst it is understandable that your employer would not want you to have a side business that competes directly with it, even unrelated businesses seem to be out of bounds.

For years now, research has shown that employees that have a good work/life balance perform better at work. However, companies have taken this to mean that people’s lives are simply divided into a work vs leisure categories. Most companies have therefore focused on giving their employees ‘perks’ such as access to gyms or help with childcare.

However, as we know, people are far more complicated than this and overall happiness and well-being does not simply depend on a work/rest ratio. Personal fulfilment comes in many shapes and forms that may not fit the specific parameters that a company has deemed acceptable.

So is the answer, full freedom for employees and a ban on companies from being able to in any way restrict (whether contractually or morally) their employees’ activities outside of work?

Well, this is where it starts getting complicated. As companies establish their identities on social media, they have also somehow become accountable for their employees’ actions.

There have been numerous examples where companies have been “pressured” into removing a person from their job because of social media backlash due to the actions or even comments from that employee. Even if those comments/actions took place outside of their remit as employees or directors of the company.

Some will say that there is, of course, a difference between flipping someone’s motorcade, posting drunken pictures and following specific passions or hobbies.

But what if the person’s passion involves guns (even if only clay shooting), hunting, painting nude portraits or doing stand-up comedy? Who gets to say which hobbies or activities are acceptable and which ones are not?

Life before the internet and social media was certainly simpler for companies and their employees. As an employee, you showed up for work and then went home. There was little knowledge of what went on afterwards.

In today’s world, both companies and individuals need to learn to navigate this blended social world where the lines are continuously blurred.

Individuals cannot demand true authentic freedom outside work but then reprimand companies for the activities of their employees and expect them to take action, even when those activities have taken place outside of work.

Our current work-life overlap shows no signs of stopping, however for everyone’s sanity we need to devote more effort into figuring out how we can be free to openly pursue that which gives us fulfilment outside of work, in order to truly enjoy a work-life balance.

Reflecting on subjects such as mental health, self-worth and what it means to be human, with humour and compassion.

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