Monday, August 8, 2011

Further thoughts on overtime: avoiding the extremes

This week, one of my colleagues became very ill and left work in the middle of the day due to an unbearable headache.  She could barely see, kept throwing up in the women's room, and couldn't stop crying from the pain.  One of our managers followed her to the hospital, where she learned she was having a compound migraine.  The physician on duty in the ED said that it was likely cause by a prolonged lack of rest--not just lack of sleep, but lack of rest.  No one was surprised, in a way--all of us who sat near this colleague knew she had been working a lot on her project, but it turns out that even with being out sick for nearly three days, she still managed to log 51 hours for the week.  Yeowch.

What I also find interesting about this incident is that the colleague in question is not an intern with a couple of years' worth of experience trying to prove herself, but rather a licensed architect with 12 or so years in the business.  But I knew her before she was licensed, and she did the same thing--worked and worked and worked until she nearly couldn't see straight, then accidentally hurt herself in some way, either by cutting her hand while fixing a sandwich or getting into an accident on her bike or in her car or something else along those lines.  My coworkers and I respect our colleague deeply and admire her work ethic and the quality of projects she puts out, but at what cost are these results happening?  Is it worth it?  We've suggested to her that she temper her work schedule a bit, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

When it comes to working overtime, neither extreme is a good one.  If you never work overtime, especially when it's clearly available and needs to be done, you make it clear that work is really not that important to you--not the client, not your colleagues, not the project, nothing.  It will make your colleagues resentful and reluctant to work with you in the future ("Really? S/He can't come in for one weekend day or just stay late or come in early for a couple days this week?  Nothing over 40, really?").  It will also make advancement difficult if not impossible; no one is going to give you more responsibilities or more interesting or complicated work if you have shown that you're barely willing to do the smaller stuff you were given at first.  If doing the minimum at work is what you want, then have at it...but bear in mind that you'll be easy to get rid of if management needs to thin the ranks at some point.

But always working overtime is no better than working none at all really.  It's Bad, but it's a different flavor of Bad from never working overtime.  Sure, you prove yourself worthy of being kept on versus someone who never works overtime, but you run the risk of becoming one of these people (who, by the way, are all personalities that I've personally witnessed in the workplace):

  • The Muck-Up: you work lots of overtime because you mess things up during the 8-to-5 and have to fix them.  You think your dedication to your job and the projects makes you look good--I'll fix my mistakes even if it takes all weekend, because I care!--but what it means is that you're not getting the training or support you need from your project manager and your more experienced colleagues.  Solution: check in with your colleagues and/or managers more often, perhaps even three or four times a day.  Getting regular input can stop a small misunderstanding from being a huge eff-up that robs you of a weekend.
  • The Surfer: you work overtime because you waste time during the 8-to-5: chatting away with colleagues, surfing the internet (hence the moniker "Surfer"), taking long lunches, or constantly running personal errands during work hours.  (Note: while there's room for all of these activities in a workday and workweek to a point, the Surfer does them extensively and very regularly.)   You think your overtime makes you look dedicated, and even gives you a bit of the Martyr flavor (see below)--I just can't get it all done during the day, so I'll work overtime and look good!--but your colleagues know how much time you waste...and maybe you do too.  Solution: Really do a gut check about how much time you spend working, and/or how that time is spent.  I personally used to think that I could get work done while IM'ing my sister, but I realized that the constant interruption was keeping me from focusing.  Know that there is a season for everything--a time for checking out LOLCats, and a time for getting those plan details knocked out with some real attention.
  • The Martyr: you work constantly and complain about how much you work and all the things you have to do, but you don't take the opportunity to solve the problem: get more staff, get your manager to take something off your to-do list, move the deadline out a little (occasionally, this can be done), and so on.  You work the overtime thinking that you're the only one that can do it and that everyone will notice--they'll see what they're doing to me when they look at my timesheet and my haggard expression and wrinkled workclothes!--but it often gets overlooked and frankly taken for granted.  Your boss only know that you're doing the work and it's getting done, but s/he has no idea about the self-flagellating monologue in your head.  Solution: ask for help--there's no way around it.  Your boss will take whatever you'll give him/her, and s/he only knows that you're giving too much when you speak up.  If you're giving too much week in and week out, show him/her what needs to be done and what would be the ideal solution (i.e., another person to help out for a week or two, more time, someone to check the drawings).  Failing that, take a weekend off or only work 40 hours a week now and then.  It's not going to kill you, and you'll probably be more productive when you've had a break.
  • The Go-to Guy: you work overtime constantly because you've been willing and available to do so in the past, so your boss (or other bosses) put you in the position of having to work yet more overtime.  You work the overtime thinking that it makes you look like a keeper--Well, they know they can depend on me and I'm capable...and I can always use the money!--but it's likely that you agree to overtime because of fear.  You're afraid to turn down the work because you think you might get fired for saying no, so you say yes to anything and everything, and you become exhausted and run down...and burned out.  (I've seen the Go-to Guy and the Martyr most during the recession, by the way.)  Solution: I know it's hard, but say no once in a while.  Just like with The Martyr, your boss will take as much as s/he can get out of you, so it's up to you to set and maintain your boundaries with work and your energy.  This can be one of the hardest things to do, but holding a boundary, saying no once in a while, and refusing to let your boss make you feel guilty or frightened because of the occasional no is very empowering.  Also, it ultimately helps you save your energy so that everything you do is of high-quality...which is why they asked you to help in the first place!

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