It is Friday evening, and I just received 30 emails from my boss. Thirty. Three-zero. He spent the past six hours on a flight with no WIFI, drafting email after email. I am in a booth at Burger Lounge with my husband and children sharing a basket of fries. My ten-year old is telling us something about Arnold, the classroom bunny, but I have stopped listening. I am mentally drafting responses to work emails. And I am wincing about having to disrupt the weekends of several others, causing a domino effect of missed soccer games, birthday parties and weekend getaways.
Long hours are the tribal birth-rite of start-ups, high- tech and corporate finance. I still recall the one-upmanship culture of my first Silicon Valley job, where working until 1:00 am was flaunted like a marathon win. With the proliferation of mobile devices, and the push for more productivity, the average 40-hour workweek has increased to 47 hours, with 50% of full-time workers reporting that they work more than 50 hours per week. Intense hours that were once confined to urgent, big value projects — new product launches, big sales deals, IPOs, acquisitions — are now applied to projects as routine as a monthly report. Remember Bill Lumbergh from Office Space asking Peter Gibbons if he can work another Saturday? He has become every boss.
But is all this effort really “weekend worthy?” Is that TSP report truly urgent? Is it so urgent that it is worth sacrificing an employee’s health? Their relationships? How about their productivity and the quality of their work?
Arguably, there is no project that is worth someone’s weekend time. I could cite dozens of studies that show that working long hours leads to a decline in quality, productivity and morale. It also results in more average sick days, more turnover, and more people opting out of the workforce entirely.
So how do we find balance and set better boundaries in the age of burn-out?
1. Recognize that you — and only YOU — are in control of the hours that you are working.
Responding to email at 11 pm is a choice. Over time, you will condition those around you to expect it and they will consider it status quo. Take it from someone who found herself turning on the automated “out-of-office” response on her anniversary weekend.
Understand the demands of the job before you start. Certain jobs have crunch periods, where long hours may be the norm. Know your own boundaries, and make good choices.
Consider working in places that offer flexibility over where and when you work. If you are going to work long hours, see if you can trade off by getting out of your long commute.
If your boss is unreasonable when you attempt to set boundaries, it may be time to leave.
2. Learn to say “no” in the form of a “yes”
When you receive a request that is unreasonable in terms of time, consider framing your response by saying what you can do in the time allotted.
Practice the “80/20” rule, and offer to focus on a representative sample that provides similar results.
Another option is to put the onus on the requester to help you prioritize — you can say “I can absolutely get that done, provided I delay this other project. Which one is a priority?”
If you manage a team, consider solving by requesting more people or a smaller scope when time is not negotiable.
3. Seek Support
Make sure your boss knows that you are under water and ask for help.
Reach out to your colleagues for their support (and be willing to offer help if you see your colleagues struggling).
Ease your burden at home by outsourcing certain tasks — hire a handy man, bring in a house-cleaner (even if it is just occasionally), ask your teenage neighbor to help take out your trash, rake your leaves or mow your lawn.
4. Deal with the root cause of long hours
Consistent periods of overtime work suggest that there may be a deficiency on your team: (i) processes are manual or inefficient, (ii) people are not capable and/or (iii) the team is not properly staffed.
It is incumbent on you to determine the root cause of the long hours, and work toward diminishing them to drive better productivity, higher morale, and improved quality.
5. Establish clear boundaries
When you accommodate someone else’s inefficiency, you are allowing their failure to persist over time. Confront the problem when it begins and be sure to hold people accountable when they take advantage of your time.
If you are a pleaser, and cannot stand the thought of saying “no,” consider acknowledging that the request requires you to work overtime to deliver. Note that you’d be happy to accommodate this urgent request in exchange for an agreement that the requester will make their best effort to give you more lead time going forward.
Consider formalizing a “service level agreement” with people who consistently take advantage of your time. For example, agree to respond within 72 hours.
6. Turn it off
Consider carrying two phones so that you won’t be tempted to read email during off hours.
Proactively let your boss and colleagues know that you have declared certain times to be “tech free.”
Turn off your computer in the evening. If someone really needs to reach you, they will.
7. Be willing to walk
The ability to set good boundaries requires leverage. Either you need to believe that you are indispensable (unlikely) or you need to be willing to quit if your boss consistently disrespects your time.
Start saving money so that you can quit without a job. The conventional wisdom suggests 3–6 months of salary.
Keep your resume up-to-date, and a few recruiters on file.
Spin up your network and discretely let them know may be looking.
8. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
If you are good at what you do, odds are that you will come across tasks that you can fix, or do better than the person who should be doing them. Recognize that doing someone else’s work because they are failing at it, enables the company to keep that person in the role. You are contributing to the problem.
Stay focused on your own deliverables. If you are dependent on a process that is broken, do what you can to draw attention to the fact that it is broken. Offer solutions for fixing it, but not your time.
9. Make time for Me-time
Be sure to put yourself first. No one else will.
Schedule time for yourself on your calendar. Whether it is time to exercise, take a quick break, meditate or simply to make time to get tasks accomplished, your calendar can be an effective tool to block people from booking time with you when you need time for yourself.
10. Create an environment to enable healthy sleep
Part of saying “no” is also learning to let it go. Do your best to leave work at work.
Again, turn off that screen and silence your phone.
Consider meditation, exercise and yoga to help you sleep.
My story is not unique. In fact, the act of feeling pressured to obsessively respond to emails after hours is so prevalent, it has its own medical name: Workplace Telepressure. After countless weekends lost to projects that were not “weekend worthy,” I finally hit a wall and quit my job. It took me six months to recharge, and regain the passion and energy that typically propels me professionally. Instead of signing up for another 80-hour a week corporate finance job, I started my own business. If I was going to work long hours, I was going to do it on my own terms.
I am still learning to break the cycle of work for the sake of work. I am starting to say “no” in the form of a “yes.”
By Beth Crocker