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Ron Ashkenas

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Chronically Overworked? How to Cope

Posted: 10/24/11 10:10 AM ET

Let me start this post with a confession: I'm usually the last person to leave my office. I get in around 8:00 A.M. or earlier and often don't get home until after 7:00 P.M. But I'm not complaining. I love my work (and have an understanding family). But since there's always more to do than there is time to do it, I've gotten into the pattern of expanding my workday.

I'm not the only one. In fact, a recent study suggests that nearly two-thirds of U.S. companies report that their employees have worked more hours over the past three years. It's likely that there are similar percentages in other countries.

This growing trend is predicted to continue. An unintended consequence of our global, connected world is that customers, clients, partners, and colleagues expect immediate responses to their demands. At the same time, jobs are in short supply in many fields, so nobody wants to disappoint. As a result, more employees are putting in longer hours, and many regularly face the dilemma of whether to stay late and finish a critical task or put it aside until the next day.

But once you begin expanding your work hours on a regular basis, working "normal" hours starts to look like slacking off. In other words, if you establish a pattern of staying late, your extended hours become the new normal.

Given my own inclination to work late, I'm probably the last person who should give advice on this subject. However, if you don't enjoy working late (like me), doing so can have serious consequences. A large study last year of 6000 British civil servants showed that those who regularly worked over 10 hours per day were 60 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease. And if you don't have an understanding partner, being away can put a strain on the relationship.

So what can you do to avoid the stay-late work pattern or at least avoid its negative consequences? Here are a few thoughts to help you prioritize:

Reflect on your goals -- both professional and personal. Think through the aspirations you have for your career and your life. What do you want to achieve? What are the priorities? What gives you fulfillment? It's remarkable how many people wander through their careers without a sense of "true north" to guide their decisions. As a result they lack criteria for determining whether to invest more time in work, and at some point may wake up and realize that the accumulation of small choices has taken them to a destination that they did not intend.

Talk about it at home. Discuss your goals and priorities with the people closest to you -- your spouse, partner, friends, or children (if appropriate). Find out the extent to which their expectations match yours.Without this dialogue you run the risk of constantly disappointing each other.

Open up a dialogue at work. Make it clear to your boss and your colleagues that you are indeed willing to stay late and pitch in if there are legitimate reasons (a client deadline, a customer crisis, a seasonal overload, etc.). But also emphasize that this should be the exception, and not the rule. In fact, if there are constant crises and deadline dramas, you might want to talk with your team about how to redesign the work process so that you're not held captive to it.

And don't stay late just because you want to be perceived as a hard worker. Mostly everyone sees through that ploy. Only stay late if you enjoy what you're doing (as I do) or if there is a really legitimate work requirement. Remember that if you don't take conscious control of your own work hours, the work hours can easily take control of you.

How do you manage the dilemmas of staying late?

 

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