Rethinking long work hours

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“She loved her cubicle.”

On long bike rides, I often ride by rural cemeteries. To this day, I haven’t seen a tombstone with an epitaph celebrating a life spent in a cubicle.

In some countries in Europe, they get 6-8 weeks of vacation. Every 365 days. Some of us in the U.S. find it hard to take our allotted two weeks.

Once in high school, our boys’ basketball team made it to the state tournament. My mother drove a bunch of us to Des Moines to cheer them on. When we took my friend Marla home afterwards, the fog was so heavy we couldn’t see her country house. When we got closer, we realized there WAS no house. It had burned down while we were gone. (No one was hurt.)
Seldom does this happen. If we miss a day of work, the building typically doesn’t burn down, the stock exchange doesn’t collapse, and the sky does not fall. Typically.

Further, when we miss a day of work, our favorite client typically does not leave us, our teammates don’t feel stranded, and our boss doesn’t change their opinion of us. The problem is that many of us just don’t believe it.

Corporate America’s problem isn’t our problem

One hundred seventy-six million people are in the workforce. A few of those are leaders. A few of those leaders work in corporate America. It took a long time for those leaders’ decisions to get us into the pickle we’re in today. It will take a while to dig ourselves out. In the meantime, it’s not entirely our problem. Okay, if we end up on the front page of the New York Times, we might be partly to blame. Otherwise we’re probably safe.

Some of us, by choice or by default, have become mired in attempts to resuscitate the economy. We often have budget constraints within our departments that translate into small teams working long hours. We may be on a first-name basis with the janitors. Because we are responsible and have a good work ethic, we want to create change in the workplace, fully support our staff, and do the extra work that will help our organization thrive.

I understand this sense of commitment and concern. If our organization doesn’t survive, we will be out of a job. But we didn’t personally create this mess and it’s not our responsibility to fix it all today, by working long hours, again. And if misplaced fear around our own job security is driving our behavior, it may be time for a fresh perspective.

We can’t just walk away

It’s not reasonable to simply get up from the desk at 5 pm, grab the coat, and walk out. Unfinished work doesn’t reflect well on us or our department. Deadlines are important and so is our integrity. Mandates handed down from above seem to leave us little flexibility.

Look at the big picture

In these tough situations, we can benefit by examining our life from 30,000 feet. By asking a few key questions, we can begin to better evaluate our situation and choices. The answers may help free us from the long hours and some of the fear-based decision-making.

1. What am I tolerating?

Are there parts of our job situation that we could address? Are there pieces of our daily duties that are unnecessary and distracting us from our real work? We sometimes have the power to fix an issue that we inadvertently live with. Improving a system or process that is eating up our time can create new space in our day. What’s not in our job description that we can hand over to someone more appropriate? What’s eating up everyone’s time that needs to be jettisoned? What’s standing in the way? Make a decision to talk to other key individuals about options for quick resolution. Advocate for a one-month trial with a quick fix and see whether it achieves the desired outcome. Often others will go along with an idea if they know that the decision is not set in stone and can be reviewed at a later, specified date. As a bonus, we can also ask other team members to examine what they’re tolerating and promise support in addressing their situations. No one will turn that offer down. Then we can use that freed-up time for the most important work on our plate and make it more possible to leave at 5 pm.

2. What beliefs are limiting me?

We often play worn-out tapes in our heads, telling ourselves petrified stories about our own limitations, others’ personality flaws, and unchangeable situations. We can create new opportunities by changing our beliefs. For example, if we believe that our boss favors our colleague over us, we likely feel threatened and overly competitive. What if we decide that our boss highly values our contributions and ideas? Going into a meeting with a fresh perspective on our own standing can take the lid off the pressure cooker. With less pressure, we can think more creatively and find better solutions, improving our contributions and ideas and impressing our boss. By asking ourselves, “I wonder what would happen if I flip this belief around?” we can expand our thinking and increase our positive energy. Along with it, we lose some of the fear that keeps us tied to our desks past 5 pm.

3. What do I want more of?

It’s extremely powerful to ask what we want more of. Do we want better health? Do we want a partner so that we have someone to share life with and can ditch the loneliness? Do we want more intrinsically-fulfilling activities in our life? More spiritual meaning? Deeper social connections? More play and fun, like when we were 12 and went on the roller coaster with our friends all day at the amusement park? If we reflect back on the times of our life when we’ve been the happiest or most engaged in our life, we can often pinpoint what’s currently missing.

4. Which goals are competing with each other?

Once we have a better picture of the overwhelm at work and the missing pieces in our lives, we need to take a hard look at our competing goals. If we have a long commute, limited time with our kids, but a solid paycheck that is helping put away money for college, are we happy with this trade-off? Saving money for our kids’ education is important. On the other hand, what are we teaching our children about the value of family? If we were with our children more frequently, would they flourish more? Would that result in more motivation and energy for them, which could lead to better study habits and more success in school? Would that lead to better scholarships for college? Would that make our need to save money less important?
Your life, your answers

I don’t have answers, only questions. I believe each of us has our own answers for our own lives. Weigh it all out. Talk it over with your loved ones. Find out what’s important to them. You may be surprised at what they say and what they want for you and from you.

We can often feel trapped by our employment circumstances. Living with constant stress and energy-draining obligation can be debilitating. I know we can’t change every aspect of our lives in some Cinderella way, but we can take steps to mitigate work-related stress and enhance our physical and mental health with a few smart moves every now and then.

What are some creative ways you’ve managed your time at work? What has worked for your friends and family that you’ve admired? What beliefs have you changed in order to create new opportunity or a fresh perspective?

Julie O’Keeffe of Wauwatosa is a speaker, coach, author and owner of Next Step Goals LLC.

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