How much should you work?

Finding the perfect balance between work and life continues to elude us. You don’t have to search far to find studies showcasing the negative health impacts of working too much. Still, successful and well-regarded companies expect to see results faster and faster. Dedicated employees are taking their laptops home, reading their mobiles at dinner and finishing projects on the weekends. And, the question about what constitutes the right amount of work creates organizational stress. Managers are finding out that a new generation of staff will firmly assert their time off for leisure and non-work-related pursuits. Clashes occur when a person’s commitment and work ethic are doubted.

For leaders, the topic of workload assignment and organizational expectations is especially important. Leaders are accountable for both the short-term productivity and the longer-term health and stability of a functional team. Here are some thoughts to consider on the issue of how much work is enough.

1.  Work as much as you are being paid to work.  Your value, in the eyes of the organization, is written in hard copy on each pay stub. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the praise you get from your peers or your direct boss increases your value. It may increase your motivation and stamina, or even your marketability (if they agree to give you a job reference). It likely makes your workday more pleasant. But stay clear-headed and remember – whatever the organization is paying for your time and talents – that is your workplace value. Go ahead and give the company its money’s worth, and also make sure you don’t feel you’re being taken advantage of.

2.  Work more if it means something to you. Maybe the project you are on is important to you because of the impact it will have on the customers, on other employees or on you. Perhaps you work for a non-profit or a business whose product you have a real passion for. Perhaps you are self-employed. For some people, professional output is directly related to feelings of satisfaction and significance. If this is the case, then go for it. Do the work knowing that no matter who you are working for, you are doing it for yourself. Just don’t be cajoled into putting in extra work on someone else’s agenda. In the end, those who suffer burnout at work are often those who are operating under someone else’s expectations – not their own.

3.  Work more to learn something new. Often an opportunity is presented that will mean more work, but will pay back in new learning. It may mean spending more time, or doing more research, or shadowing a more experienced person. If, at the end of a set period of time, doing this hard work will gain you experience, knowledge and skills that you really want or need, then go ahead. If you’ve been told you must establish this competency before you can be promoted, go learn it. But don’t expect the promotion to be automatic. In most organizations a competitive promotion process always overrides vague promises made.

4. Work more if it’s for a limited time period. Occasionally you’ll be asked to work harder because someone didn’t do his or her job. In a new job you may decide to work harder to until you are better oriented or they see what you can contribute. Be cautious about the expectations you are creating. Set a sure end date. Many high performers end up sucking up a whole other job – without the entire salary of the position – because they make it look so easy when they backfill. Even when a new person is hired, you might end up training them for months until they are qualified to take the role. Don’t be afraid to ask for a bonus for your time and trouble. And, if your boss is promising a raise or a promotion in the near future, get it confirmed via email and ensure at least one layer up is aware of verbal promises being made on behalf of the organization.

5.  Work more during peak times for off-peak benefits.  Many businesses have cycles of high volume work. You may have been told its just part of being in the industry. Take care that the busy season hasn’t become 12 months long – as it has in many established industries that long ago figured out how to fill their quieter months and stay successful. Smart managers take accountability for adjusting resources up and down for volume changes, including having trained people on call. At least ensure that you are rewarded with additional time off or other benefits to make the peak cycle worth the extra work.

6.  Don’t work harder in an effort to meet unrealistic demands. For some reason, when you are able to work hard and pull off the impossible – it now becomes the possible! Many high performers have been rewarded for working hard with the gift of more work. If an expectation is unrealistic, sit down and discuss it with whoever is waiting on the outcome. Make sure you aren’t the one who is enabling someone else’s poor performance. If you must do the additional work, decide what you can delay or delegate to others to find the time.

7.  Don’t work more if you’ll sacrifice something irreplaceable. Everyone knows that dying people don’t wish they’d spent more time at work. Pay attention to your own personal needs. There will be times when the needs of the organization conflict with or even compromise the needs of your family, your friends, your body and your spirit. Only you can decide which takes precedent. Many people have worked hard to make a better life for others. There is honour and nobility in sacrifice – as long as it is a conscious choice. Pay attention to those who love you if they say you’re working too hard – you likely are. 

Jill Malleck is a Coach and Organization Development consultant. She works with individuals, leaders and teams to accelerate positive change.

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