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I spent 9 months in the public sector. Here are the lessons I brought back to tech.

My time working in the public sector taught me many lessons that we can all stand to learn about building a healthy relationship with work.
I spent 9 months in the public sector. Here are the lessons I brought back to tech.
Photo by Yeray Sánchez / Unsplash

Sustain issue #46 (Get Sustain in your inbox next Thursday)

For the majority of my career, I’ve worked in tech companies. I know the fast pace, territorial nature, and abundance of work that comes with them.

But in 2019 I worked in the public sector. It was an amazing breath of fresh air after my first tour in tech.

I just crossed two years being back in tech (see my LinkedIn post reflecting on this). But I credit my time in the public sector to help me reset my relationship with work. I was determined to call my own shots and not have work dominate my life. Two years in, I feel happy with how I’ve achieved that.

Today is all about my lessons from 9 months working in the public sector that I’ve brought back to tech.

A job is just a job

A job is just that: A job. It’s not your life. It’s not your identity. It’s what you do to enable your life and identity. If you’re salaried, remember that you get paid the same whether you work 40 or 60 hours.

My actions back in tech // I have the mindset to downsize my relationship with work and I aim simply to like my job, not love it.

You can be successful in 40 hours a week

You can be recognized for doing great work and be financially rewarded for it within the confines of a normal workday. You don’t need to prove yourself through the hours you put in. At my first review in my public sector job, I was pleasantly surprised to learn I would receive the highest percentage raise allowed.

My actions back in tech // I place my efforts on prioritizing myself. And at work, I do the highest impact work that can be done in 38 hours a week. I got promoted last fall so something’s working 🤷

You’re allowed to protect your boundaries

Starting my career in tech, I was always taught to say “no, but” and to help the person to find a solution. (i.e. I can’t do that exactly but let me see if I can add that request to this already complicated project.) But in the public sector, with no malice intended, people are very comfortable saying no – hard stop.

My actions back in tech // While the people pleaser in me has trouble saying no flat out, it’s the most powerful tool for focusing on high-impact work that helps me and the company succeed.

Work and life separation is the norm

I had a dedicated work cell phone and it made a big difference. While I did feel dorky at times carrying two phones, it allowed me to completely be away from work when I wasn’t working.

My actions back in tech // Tech hasn’t followed suit and likely won’t but there’s lots you can do to create strong boundaries on your phone when it comes to notifications, where you place your apps, and settings.

Work emergencies are planned intentionally

Every department had an on-call schedule. I was on call typically one week every other month to respond to any outside-of-hours incidents. And if people got called in, they would be given (and actually take) rest and recovery time later. I loved the explicit nature of this rather than in tech where many people implicitly feel they are always on call. And thus are always checking, always responding, and never resting.

My actions back in tech // While very few departments in tech have on-call schedules, I’ve had explicit conversations with my management team about how I don't check-in outside of hours and they know they can call/text if urgent outside of hours or on PTO. Two years in, nothing so far. I’ve also been working within my department to normalize the behavior of people tracking time for projects outside of hours so they get the recovery time later.

DEI & Belonging

Working at a large international airport, I was exposed to the most diversity (and designing for the most diversity) I’ve ever been around. I’m so thankful for that. The colleagues I had came from all walks of life and generations. I really enjoyed getting to learn their stories. In addition, there was careful planning to make the airport accessible for all modalities and an amazing sunflower lanyard program to give staff a visual clue to those passengers with hidden disabilities.

My actions back in tech // TBH it’s challenging since tech today is such a homogenous group of people (though there are MANY people working hard to change this). But in the marketing work I do, I aim to make sure we feature a diverse viewpoint when selecting speakers. I work to make programming accessible and educate myself so I help to create an environment where people can bring their whole selves and belong.

When I started my second tour in tech, I remember this strange feeling of embarrassment and inferiority when I told people that I had been working in the public sector. There’s a general sense of elitism in tech that I don’t like about stereotypical ‘clock punching’ people who do the bare minimum in the public sector. My experience was very much the opposite of that. The people I worked with were warm, diverse, hard-working, and deeply thoughtful.

And to be honest, people in the public sector I found to be generally happier, less stressed, actually logged off/took PTO. They’ve had the right approach to building a healthy relationship with work all along. So who’s actually the sucker here?! 😉

Ready to downsize your relationship with work and quit burnout?

Hi, I'm Grant Gurewitz. I'm on a mission to eliminate burnout at work. I've been in tech for 10 years (ex-Zillow, current: Qualtrics) who suffered deep burnout and came back from it even though I never found a playbook for doing so. So, I'm writing it myself.

✉️ Want my top tips? I share my full step-by-step playbook in How I Quit Burnout, my premium newsletter. Get the next one delivered straight to your inbox >

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