Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

A Step You Can Take Today To Relieve Chronic Overwork

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 8

If you are hoping for dramatic change in your life overnight, it isn’t going to happen unless there is a crisis.  The David model from the last few posts is a perfect example of this.  But if you’d like to change before you have a stroke or run screaming from the building hope is the best answer.  As I’ve written before, I went from working 90 hours a week to 60 hours a week in less than a year without changing jobs, and without anyone at work noticing.  Here are three steps to help you do the same.

  1. Remind yourself that you are the type of person who puts people first, and the company second.   As you make decisions, try not to think about the consequences of your actions – think only about what a person who puts people first would do.  (See this post on the Time Audit too.)
  2. Secure a goods night’s sleep every night by stopping work 1-2 hours before bed time.  When I made this change, my internal dialog went something like this.  My health is more important than work, so I will not check email after 9 PM to give me time to wind down before bed.  Keep this rule no matter what.  People at work will adjust, assuming they even notice.  And focus on the positive, the benefits of sleep.  You will feel the difference right away.
  3. Make people the priority in the moment.  For example, if it is story time, or you are having a drink after work with a friend, don’t answer your phone or listen to the message until much later. Imagine being on a date with someone, who says “It’s my boss calling, but you are more important to me, so I’ll listen to the message in the morning.”

Think about your life, and look for an easy win, the smaller the better.    All you need to do is show the elephant that change is possible, and it will start to move on its own.  Start with one change only!

What is one rule that you could put in place that would prioritize people over the company?  Post it here, to get the support of our community.

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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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Why Good People Do Bad Things At Work

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 16 (conclusion)

In my last post, I wrote about a meta-study of over 49,000 people that identified three drivers of unethical behavior at work: people, circumstances, and the corporate culture.  The last post focused on unethical people.  This post examines the elements of circumstances and corporate culture that can lead to unethical decisions.

Circumstance-centric drivers of unethical behavior

When the researchers analyzed what about a given situation can lead to an ethical or unethical decision, it basically came down to one thing: how does the decision maker perceive the consequence to other people?  With a perception of more immediate, severe, or local consequences, an unethical decision is less likely. Conversely, people are more likely to make an unethical decision if the potential consequences are long term, less severe, or will impact people far away.

Cultural drivers of unethical behavior correlate with the values of the organization.

As I have tried to demonstrate throughout this chapter, corporate culture is largely defined by the values and behavior, and certain cultures are more likely to encourage corporate idolatry.  In a similar way, Treviño’s research has shown that it is possible to identify certain elements of corporate culture that encourage unethical behavior.  A company with an “everyone for himself” mentality is much more likely to see unethical behavior than a culture that emphasizes the “wellbeing of multiple stakeholders such as employees, customers and community.”[i]

In addition, the presence of a written code of conduct did not correlate with ethical decisions, but “a properly enforced code of conduct can be a powerful influence on unethical choices.”[ii]  In other words, this paper reinforces the notion that actions and behaviors are the only true test of a value system.  The authors warn that “performance management systems that reward individual bottom-line achievement (no matter how it is achieved) and that failure to discipline self-serving behavior” are likely to give rise to a climate that tolerates unethical decisions.[iii]

As I studied the transcripts from the 80 hours of interviews I conducted for this book, I found corporate idolatry is influenced by the same three things: people, circumstances, and corporate culture.  The details, however, are different.  For example, Trevino found that age does not correlate with ethical behavior, I think it does correlate with corporate idolatry.

So on to Part II of Busting Your Corporate Idol.  The corporate ladder revisited is three chapters that examine how people, circumstances, and corporate culture contribute to a life of corporate idolatry.

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[i] Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):21

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

When Work Came Before Family, & What I Did To Change

Stress by topgold via Flickr CC

At one time, my work and not my family was the most important thing in my life.  I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit it.

I had always told myself that family was my top priority, but when I look at my actions, decisions and time spent, it was all about the company. I thought about work in the shower.  I talked on my cell phone as I drove in to work, and as I drove home at night.  I worked after dinner, and I had trouble falling asleep because I was going over the day in my head.  The next day I would get up at 5 AM, to work on email, and to communicate with my colleagues in Europe.  I worked at least a little bit most weekend days.

I did, however, eat breakfast and dinner with my family every day.  And believe me, that wasn’t easy.  If I hadn’t set that firm boundary, I would have worked straight through dinner.  I can’t say that I was there mentally.  It doesn’t just switch off, but it was better than nothing, for both me and everyone else.

Today my life is radically different, and I trace it back to an insight I had on Yom Kippur in 2005.  (More on that in Chapter 1 of Busting Your Corporate Idol, that will be blogged starting Monday June 11.)  I didn’t suddenly get myself in that situation, and I couldn’t suddenly get myself out of it.

Gradually over time, I started working later and later, taking on additional responsibilities, which led to more work.  People began to expect a response from me any time of the day, which served both to increase the volume of email, and to increase the pressure on me to answer right away.

But after I decided to put my family first, I gradually started to regain control of my life.  Over the course of the year, I went from working 90 hours per week to 50 per week, without changing jobs.  But it took deliberate action on my part, and a change in the way I saw the world.  Here are  three steps to get started with changing your life.

Step 1: Stop working every night at 10:00.  Your health is important, & you need time to unwind before you go to sleep.

Step 2: Stop working every night at 9:00 to spend time with your spouse.  Sit together and cuddle on the couch.  You will be amazed at what happens.

Step 2b: If you are single, stop working at 5:30 2 times during the week and go on a date or a social activity that includes singles your own age.  (Dance class, book club, volleyball team, etc.)  Leave your work phone in the car, and use a personal cell phone if you need to have one with you.  To be clear, this is two times in addition to Friday and Saturday night.  After the date, do not check email or do any work – allow your self to enjoy the feeling of connecting with other people.  And who knows, without the thought of email hanging over your head, the date may last longer!

Step 3: One weekend a month, lock your computer and phone in your desk for the weekend.  Then, fill your weekend time with non-work activities.  Don’t focus on working less.  Focus instead on making fun or restful things a higher priority than work.  Yes, some housework may need to be done.  But as you work less during the week, you will reclaim your weekend time for leisure.

To reiterate, I didn’t become massively overworked overnight, and I didn’t get control of my life overnight either.  But with a few solid rules and deliberate effort, I began to see improvements almost right away.  So don’t despair if all you see is more work on the horizon.  It doesn’t have to be that way.