I work long hours, sometimes 12 or more. While I realise this is part of my work culture as I am a corporate lawyer, I am struggling to keep up. Some days I am so tired, it takes up to eight cups of coffee or energy drinks to get through the day. I realise this lifestyle is unsustainable. How can I find a balance? Is it a case of negotiating with my line manager or leaving the industry altogether? TA, Dubai
This sort of question is coming up more and more in the correspondence I receive. Within the management structure of many organisations there seems to be a growing culture of “more for less”. When the resource in question is people, this generally means more work, more hours, more pressure, all to be undertaken by fewer and fewer people.
You’re right that it is not sustainable. But I am more concerned with the collateral damage inflicted on individuals until such time that organisations work out that this policy, which I call “boulders for shoulders”, falls into complete disrepute.
I was introduced to “boulders for shoulders” 35 years ago by my first senior manager. I had commented, informally and over an after-hours drink that my workload was increasing. He explained his policy: “Imagine that on your back is a rucksack. My job is to put boulders into that rucksack. Not many to start with, but more and more over time. Eventually you will hardly be able to walk for the weight of the boulders. That’s when I reach in and remove the smallest boulder. What’s left is what I call your maximum efficient workload.”
I am not a fan of the policy, but it neatly sums up what many organisations do – and when work is hard to find and job-switching is not as easy as it was, people find that they can carry far more boulders than they ever thought possible. They need help, of course: artificial stimulants, doing work in the evenings and at weekends, taking short cuts, not being professionally diligent all the time – whatever it takes to get through the work as close to deadline as you can manage. As professional lifestyles go, it’s about as healthy as swimming with sharks, but what can you actually do about it?
The trouble is, whoever hears your complaint is probably as overworked and exhausted as you feel. They are as jaded, as dispirited, as demotivated as you – and their boss is probably even worse off. Sometimes self-help is the only route. Take an inventory of your professional life. Do you have to do what you do? Do you have to do it where you do? Is there any flexibility to change roles or careers or location to win a better balance? Sometimes doing the same job in another town, city or even country opens up possibilities: the chance to live closer to work or to carry fewer boulders, for example. There will be compromises to make, but the thing to bear in mind is the assertion in your question: you realise that what you are doing is not sustainable.
I have friends and colleagues who are retraining into less demanding and time-consuming industries or roles. Others are going part-time and accepting a smaller pay packet for a set of lower demands and expectations. Others restructure their lives and remove the daily commute by moving closer to work, or seeking work closer to home. Others explore home-working, and commit the commuting time to working, giving themselves more time in which to carry their boulders.
If you do nothing, you will become progressively more tired, more disheartened, less efficient. Eventually your performance will decline and then your options will swiftly decrease in number. The time to act is before it is too late. By all means, negotiate with your line manager but bring sensible, actionable options with you. And of course, consider a career change, but be aware of what you give up as well as what you gain, and make sure you are content with the bargain.
Doctor's prescription: The important thing to remember at the end of every working day, is that you will never live that day again. So please don't keep getting to the day's end full of fatigue, full of regret and full of bitterness. If you don't enjoy what you are doing enough to feel as you feel, if you don't enjoy the income you generate enough to live as you live, then please take it upon yourself to make a change – because if you don't, then perhaps nobody else will, until that point when you can no longer cope.
Roger Delves is the director of the Ashridge Executive Masters in Management and an adjunct professor at the Hult International Business School. He is the co-author of the book The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast Solutions to Everyday Challenges. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on any work issues
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