The 40-hour workweek is a bygone. The workday is longer, the pace of work is faster, and most projects tend to be open-ended. A successful corporate career now demands a high-level of performance for sustained periods. At what cost, though?
The “Activity is Productivity” Fallacy
Regrettably, companies still tend to measure an employee’s commitment by how many hours he is willing to put in. In the absence of a meaningful yardstick for the productivity of knowledge workers, companies continue to cling to the outdated equation that time worked equals output, a residue from the mindsets of the Industrial Age. Late nights and shorter weekends have become implied signs of employee loyalty.
Companies strive to get more from their “right-sized” staffs and have come to depend on cadres of hard-working professionals. Therefore, companies look upon employees willing to put in long hours as assets. They bestow swift promotions and pay big bucks to employees who are willing to take on demanding assignments, be available around the clock, and forego a healthy separation between work and personal time.
The unspoken imperative is that employees have to work longer hours to get ahead, and defiant employees who wish for a balanced life may hurt their careers.
Our Society Endorses Overwork
As a society, we respect overwork. We praise hardworking, career-driven individuals, even if they have lost their sense of work-life balance. Canadian psychologist Barbara Killinger asserts in her book, “Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts,” that workaholism is now talked about as a virtue.
Overwork has become a social problem in many countries. Surveys have revealed that Americans put in more hours of work each year than employees in other countries put and do not use a fourth of their allotted vacation. Working mothers take shorter maternity leaves than they used to. Entrepreneurs sacrifice way too much for relatively modest payoffs.
In Japan, overwork has led to some of the highest rates of work-related deaths and suicides in the developed world. This social problem is rooted in the samurai culture that judged the allegiance and personal fortitude of its warriors by their willingness to work long hours and sacrifice self-interests. In the 1960s, the Japanese even coined the term karoshi to describe death by overwork. Currently, the Japanese government is considering regulating work hours.
Chinese employers have recently faced a spate of suicides and ill health caused by overwork and deteriorating employee welfare. Most newsworthy of these episodes is the deaths of many migrant workers at a factory that contract-manufactures iPods and iPhones for Apple. The Mandarin term guolaosi refers to the destructive consequences of this intense work ethic.
Long Work Hours Just Don’t Help
The all-work, no-play mentality is serving neither employees nor their employers.
Employees spend fewer hours at home, preoccupy their minds with work even when they are at home, ignore the emotional needs of their families, and ultimately strain their relationships with loved ones. Overworked employees suffer from a lack of sleep. Their unceasing fatigue debilitates their immune systems and results in serious health problems. Often, they resort to excessive smoking or alcohol and substance abuse, develop poor eating habits, and ignore physical fitness.
Long hours and lesser vacations are not good for the bottom line of companies either. Longer hours do not add up to better work.
Overwork weighs down on organizational effectiveness in terms of productivity loss, inaccuracies, poor relationships at work, and plummeting employee engagement. Employers also face increased medical costs from the decline in the physical and emotional health of their employees.
Please Stop Working So Hard!
Look, there is nothing wrong with working hard and having a passion for what you do. I agree that putting in the extra effort, undertaking challenging projects, and pursuing career growth are all very gratifying. Nevertheless, do not ignore the needs of the other aspects of your life. Here are seven suggestions that can help you work hard, but not indulge in overwork.
- Pace yourself. Do not think of your job as an endurance contest. As a knowledge worker, for the most part, you are paid for your intellectual work. Ingenuity and creative aptitude tend to spring in intense bursts. Therefore, your capacity for intellectual work drops dramatically when you are weary and stressed-out. Plan your day on how much you target to achieve before you can take a break and rest.
- Understand and cling to the critical path. Recognize the big picture of everything you work on from the customer’s perspective. Then, concentrate on the essentials. Remember, there are several things you can do, many things people want you to do, but only a few that you must do. Focus on what you must do, not what you can. Prioritize relentlessly.
- If you are struggling with managing your time, follow my simple, three-step process (time logging, time analysis, time budgeting) to discover how you tend to spend time currently and how you could focus on the things that matter the most. Remember, effective time management is truly about managing priorities, not about managing time.
- Stay on top of your tasks. Identify areas of inefficiency. Ask for help, delegate, outsource, or invest in tools and technologies that can help you achieve more in less time.
- Limit the amount of time you spend in meetings. Screen the agenda of each meeting for items that can be resolved by e-mail or delegation or a prior meeting.
- Learn to set limits on your workweek. Don’t take your time for granted. Reflect on what you would truly like to achieve and make the right work-life choices. No one can make the choices for you. Remember that the true yardstick of your performance assessment is not the number of hours you put in, but your accomplishment in these hours.
- Set aside personal time. Plan and use your vacation time meaningfully. Have the discipline to leave your laptop, blackberry, and other electronic devices behind. Disconnect from work and enjoy your time with loved ones.
The Right Choices for a Successful Career & a Balanced Life
Work as many hours as you think you need to achieve your goals, realize your aspirations and be happy. Do not overwork and let your career progression become an obsession.