Keep your sanity while clocking in long hours on the job
By Dan Rafter
Rosemary Maellaro knows about working long hours. When she was vice president of human resources for The Pantry, a large convenience store chain in the Southeast, she routinely logged long workdays. And she rarely left her office without a briefcase stuffed with paperwork.
Some days, she dove into that work, pushing aside her personal life in favor of her career. But on others, her body and mind gave out, exhausted from another impossibly long workweek.
"I used to leave the briefcase by the door, and then when I didn't get around to doing the work, I'd look at it all night and feel guilty," recalls Maellaro, now an assistant professor and director of the Dallas Graduate School of Management's human resources program. "If I had just left it at work, I wouldn't have had that added stress."
Maellaro isn't the only person out there who's put in extra-long workdays for the benefit of her employer. Whether it's staying at the office until the wee hours of the evening, bringing work home every day or getting up an hour early to get a head start on the workday, employees today are putting in more hours than ever.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Employees who love their work often enjoy working long hours. But for others, working overtime can cause problems. Overworked employees might come to dread their jobs, making heading into the office an agonizing chore. Others might lose interest in their personal lives as work problems dominate their thoughts. Still others might fall into depression.
Fortunately, if you're an overextended worker, there are steps you can take to restore your sanity. Basically, you need to define your limits, work up the courage to speak with your boss and be willing to take the big step of moving on to another position if necessary.
A look at the problem
A recent study by Xylo, a provider of Internet-based services for human resource professionals, says that many U.S. employees work far more than the traditional 40 hours a week.
The report, released in November of last year, says that 40 percent of employees put in overtime or take work home with them at least once a week. The study, titled "Shifts in Work and Home Life Boundaries," found that 14 percent of employed women feel that they must work overtime or take work home with them every day. The report adds that 11 percent of women feel they must do this two or three times a week, while 6 percent feel the need once a week.
While women work overtime for many reasons, workers looking for something specific to blame can look at the country's low unemployment rate.
"Businesses are having a hard time finding people. They have a lot of work to do but not a lot of people to do it," says Roger Herman, chief executive officer of the Herman Group, a business consultancy based in North Carolina, and the author of How to Become an Employer of Choice. "The work is being spread out among a smaller number of employees, and that leads to long hours."
Richard Whiteley, owner of the Whiteley Group, a business consultancy based in Boston, and the author of Love the Work You're With, points to corporate downsizing as one of the culprits leading to long workdays.
"The spate of downsizings in recent years has simply reduced the number of people available to do the work," he says. "At the same time, the amount of work and resulting performance expectations have increased."
But whatever the cause, long workdays can cause serious problems for harried employees.
"[Too much overtime] can cause burnout in people," Maellaro observes. "It can lead to depression, actually, or a loss of interest in life. People who work these long hours may think they don't like their jobs. Then they change jobs and end up doing the same things at their new jobs. Once they start working the long hours again, they find that they don't like their new jobs, either."
Fortunately, you can do something about reducing the stress caused by longer hours.
Talk to your boss
This sounds obvious, but many workers never speak with their bosses about the amount of extra hours they're logging. The reason is obvious: They fear that asking for more reasonable hours will only disappoint or aggravate their bosses.
But Herman says that employees have an obligation to speak to their bosses when their workload, and the hours needed to complete it, becomes unbearable. After all, stressed, exhausted employees rarely turn in their best work.
"You have to approach your supervisor and tell him or her that, although you really like your job and the work you're doing, it's important that something be done about the hours," Herman said. "You have to tell them that with your lifestyle or family you cannot work these kinds of hours. Are there ways in which we can change things?"
Good bosses will respond by offering solutions, Herman said. Perhaps they'll suggest flexible schedules, giving employees the option to come in after lunch if they've spent the previous evening logging overtime. Or maybe they'll offer employees the chance to leave early on Friday afternoons, or work long hours one day and fewer hours the next.
Take care of yourself at work
One way to make long workdays more bearable is to take the free time available to you. This means taking your lunch break, and taking it away from your desk. It also means taking your allotted personal days and vacation time.
Too many women, though, don't do this.
"Leave your desk at lunchtime," Maellaro. "The amount of work you'd get done during that half-hour doesn't make up for how tired you'll feel the rest of the day. And when you do take vacations, actually relax. Don't take work along with you."
Find work that you love
If you're going to work long hours, you might as well enjoy them. One way to do this is to find a career that you love.
Cynthia Stine, president of Dallas-based PRTek, Inc., a public relations agency serving high-tech companies across the nation, used to regularly log beastly hours. These days, though, she's cut down - she now limits herself to an average of 50 working hours every week and has trained herself not to work on weekends.
Because Stine owns her company and maintains an office in her home, she often found herself working late nights in an effort to finish her projects according to the tight deadlines she had set for herself. It wasn't until she gave herself more realistic deadlines that Stine stopped logging unhealthy hours.
"Over time, I found that nobody noticed or commented if something wasn't completed when I thought it should be done," Stine reports. "They accepted my timeline. It was a heck of a shock."
Stine doesn't regret her long hours of the past. Building a business takes time, she says, and it has been a rewarding experience. Still, she looks forward to the day when she can cut down even more.
"It took me about six years before I could take a vacation without being afraid something would go wrong in my absence," she said. "As the company grows, I am able to delegate more and more. I'd love to put in 25 to 30 hours a week some day. That would be enough to keep me jazzed but also give me time for other activities."
Herman agrees with Stine's approach. Working long hours needn't seem like a chore if you're putting in this time working a job about which you feel passionate. For those who are working long hours in a job they don't enjoy, Herman has some simple advice: leave.
"You can always find a new position," Herman added. "With the labor shortage out there, it's easy to find a new employer. Now you can do something about working in a job you don't like."
Employees should take these tips to heart; it looks like the longer workdays are not going to end anytime soon.