Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Four Questions To Ask Yourself. Inspired By MLK Day

Slaves needed to do whatever their master asked them to do, and they did not have the right to refuse work.  They also worked for free.

Dr. King pointed out in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that the legal abolition of slavery was not the same thing as freedom:  One hundred years after the Emancipatio Proclamation, “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

In the corporate world, we are not slaves, but how much freedom do we have?  Here are four questions to ask yourself.

1. Do you ever work for free?  During this economic downturn, I know several people who worked for no pay at a for-profit startup company, to “keep their skills up to date.” To be clear, they were not founders or owners, they did not get stock, or even minimum wage. They were not doing a favor for a friend.  I think they were crazy, and in the end they were frustrated and felt taken advantage of.  No duh, they were taken advantage of.  Working for free is akin to slavery.  

2. Do you have the freedom to say no to after-hours work?  If your boss calls you at 9:00 at night, do you have the freedom not to answer?  If you get an email at 10:00, do you have the freedom not to respond?  If you are asked to work the weekend, can say no?  Will you say no?  If the master asked a slave to do something, he or she had to obey.  A free person controls his or her own personal time.

3. Do you get paid for incremental work?  Of course not, unless you are a contractor or hourly employee.  A salaried employee is expected to work as much as it takes to get the job done.  Plus, the more senior positions carry a greater expectation that you will be on call all the time.  The more hours you put into these after-hours calls or other incremental work, the lower your effective hourly salary. Sometimes an incremental project brings a bonus if successfully executed, but sometimes it means overload, lower quality work, and negative career consequences.

In addition, “what it takes to get the job done” is rather arbitrary, and at the end of the day it depends to a large degree on the manager – even at the most senior levels.  One VP in marketing told me that the CEO would call him on weekends to complain about the color scheme in an ad campaign under development.  This was not a mission critical issue, but the VP did not feel he could refuse a call from the CEO.  Every after-hours phone call, no matter how trivial, is free to the company.

4. Do you really have to do it?  I’ve interviewed almost three dozen executives about these issues, and sometimes I get an interesting reaction that goes something like this.  “Don’t blame the company.  It’s not their fault.  I am choosing to do it.  I’m bringing it on myself.”  I know, I would think.  But why are you choosing to do it?  

On this MLK day, we are reminded that once in this country, African Americans could not choose when or how they worked.  We can.  Choose wisely.