Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Remember the One Thing You Can Control At Work In Any Circumstance

Chapter 5: The Role of Circumstance Part 16, Conclusion

As a technical writer, Mary’s life changed dramatically for the better.  She started working normal hours, and was recognized and appreciated for her work.  Interestingly, it took her about three months to accept the new lifestyle.  “I kept asking myself when is it going to get crazy again.” Now she wishes she had made the move earlier.  “I just feel like I suffered for longer than I needed to [in my previous position].  This year has been a recovery year.  I haven’t felt guilty about the number of hours I work.  If I leave at 3 to work out and get the kids, I don’t feel guilty about it.  I was getting my work done, and was still moving the position forward.”

It sounds like more than just moving forward – Mary was recognized and complemented by the General Manager at the summer picnic, something that never would have happened in her previous position.  Moreover, Mary is still connected to the high profile project, which allows her to leverage her previous experience and contacts.

At the start of this chapter, I wrote about the illusion of control, and how it applies in the workplace.  There is so much that happens which is beyond our control, but as humans we are naturally susceptible to the illusion that we can control far more than we actually do.  And the consequence for these illusions, as Mary’s story illustrates, is unnecessary suffering.  To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, we cannot control what happens to us, we can only choose how we respond.

In the next chapter, we’ll cover the biggest thing we cannot control – the overall company culture.

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Mary Prioritizes Family Over Work But Work Over Sleep

Chapter 5: The Role Of Circumstance Part 15

In the last few posts, we have been following the story of Mary as she was overwhelmed with work coming back from maternity leave.  Even though Mary worked till midnight on email, she felt guilty about leaving the office at five, in part because many decisions were made after hours when she was no longer in the office.

Mary had the option of staying later every night.  Her husband was unemployed and could have assumed all childcare duties.  As it was, he shouldered most of them.  “If I would have stayed at work consistently most nights till 7, I would have been able to build those relationships with R&D that you need, so they have your back.  I saw it happening, but I just couldn’t [stay].”   Mary’s top priority was the family.  She left every day at 5 to make sure she could eat with the kids and put them to bed.  “I thought I could make it work.  The baby goes to sleep at eight, and I would work till midnight.  I kept getting further and further behind, and relationships kept suffering.  If I had any free time I was trying to catch up on some project.”

While it is likely that staying until seven every night may have eased the work-related guilt and facilitated the relationships with R&D, I doubt it would have changed Mary’s overall level of happiness or health. In fact, Mary would have had little time to see her family, which would have engendered guilt of another kind.  To her credit, Mary continued to put her family first, in that she went home to be with them.  At the same time, she was prioritizing the company over her health, which was not sustainable.

Things finally came to a head when Mary tearfully told her boss that enough was enough – “I said if that is really what you want me to do, I am not sure I’m the right person for that job.   At the time you don’t expect you were going to say those words, and when you walk out you say ‘shit, I’m basically getting myself fired.’  In another way you feel good that you finally stood up for yourself.”  To his credit, Mary’s boss found her another position in the organization, one that was protected from an upcoming round of layoffs.

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Ever Work Till Midnight But Feel Guilty About Leaving the Office At 5?

Chapter 5: The Roll Of Circumstance Part 14

In that last post, Mary came back from maternity leave to find herself at a disadvantage because many of the key decisions were made after hours.  And moreover, her subordinates kept going directly to her boss, as they had done when she was out.

What was worse, Mary had to defend those decisions to the rest of the department.  “To sit in all hands meetings where senior managers were pointing fingers, and then I am the one who has to stand up and defend decisions I wasn’t making.  That got really old.  That and the hours.   The sheer amount of work.  I was putting the kids to bed, and [working] up to midnight every night.”

One of Mary’s team left for another role in the company, and she was quickly overwhelmed.  “I couldn’t hire quickly enough.  There were a couple of months where I was working 80+ hour weeks.  I would ask my husband to take the kids to the zoo on Saturday so I could have the whole day to catch up.”

Nowhere in this part of the conversation did Mary mention love or devotion to the company.  It was no longer about a family atmosphere, or changing the world and in fact, I don’t think she even liked the company. Mary was driven by other factors.  She worked each night until midnight, often worked a full day on Saturday, yet felt guilty about leaving work at 5.  “I think I thought I was going to get fired.  It was right after the merger, and there was all this pressure.  All these managers from Boston who wanted to know what was going on.  The pressure was crazy.”  To further compound the stress, Mary was the sole breadwinner.  “If I got fired from my job, I didn’t see the monthly bills [getting paid]; everyone was on my  [health] insurance.”

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Back From Maternity Leave, Mary Is Undermined By Subordinates

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 13

In the previous part of the chapter, we looked at Mary’s experience as a newbie out of grad school.  Like many people in their first corporate experience, she got totally caught up in the company mission, and as  result spent many hours working at the expense of her personal life.

Fast forward ten years. Mary was several companies down the road, and did not love, or even like, her company.  Yet she found herself once again overly devoted.

Mary has grown in seniority, and is managing an experienced team.  However, she had not yet made director, which is troubling and painful to her.  As was usually the case, Mary was working on the most high profile and high pressure project in the company.  This was no start up, but rather one of the largest in the life sciences research industry.  Once again, the product was billed as (and in fact was) a game changer in the world of cancer detection.

Challenges presented themselves right away as she came back after four months at home with the baby.  The senior managers she was managing had been reporting directly to the director in her absence, and they resented and resisted being pushed back down a level in the hierarchy.  What was particularly challenging was a culture of after-hours discussions and meetings, where decisions were often made when she wasn’t present, by either her reports or her manager who did not share her level of expertise.  “Decisions could be made where you wouldn’t know [the impact] for a few months.  You could really dig yourself in [such that customers would be livid].”

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Discover the Downside To The Dream Job

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 12

In the last post, we talked Mary’s excitement in her first job out of grad school working for a small, rapidly growing company. They quickly established a dominant position in the market, and it had a “familyish” atmosphere.

Describing herself at the time, Mary laughs. “I was very green.”

For Mary and many others, the President was the embodiment of the company. He was charismatic, smart, and visionary. In monthly company meetings, he would lay out his inspiring vision for how the company was going to change the world, and when he spoke, it was almost impossible not to give him your full attention.
At a scientific conference, the President once riveted a room of top scientists with an inspirational talk about a friend of his with cancer, who was receiving the same nasty chemotherapy treatment that had been used for 30 years. “We need to make sure that 30 years from now, there are better options available.”
More importantly, he made an effort to say people’s names and say hello in the hallway. Mary describes her memory of the President.

“He was almost a father figure, an uncle. He fostered a love of the company, you felt that you belonged.”

So to recap, Mary was in her first position out of graduate school, at a small company with exciting products that were successful in the marketplace, which was led by a charismatic, visionary leader.  In many ways, it was a dream job.

This is the second draft of this post, and the question I got to the first one was: dude, what’s the problem with having   a dream job?  You make it sound like she was doing something wrong.

No, she did nothing wrong.  Anyone in that circumstance would have been very devoted to the company.  But remember a few posts ago?  Mary later described herself as “thirty, single, and killing herself for the company.”  Ultimately, she found the dream job unfulfilling because she was alone.

So can the job ever be enough?  In other words, if you have your dream job, will that bring happiness and fulfillment if it is the best thing in your life. A dream job is a wonderful thing.  But if you are not ok without the dream job, you won’t be ok with it either.  People are happy when they have connections to other people.

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