Five Reasons to Quit Overworking (and How to Stop)

In today’s professional climate, getting ahead is hard work. We all have to stay late or work weekends occasionally but, for some people, long hours at the office have become routine. Many take work home with them at night, put in time on the weekends, and even check their smartphones while on vacation. If you’re one of these people, it’s time to stop. Overworking is less effective and more damaging than you think. Here’s why:

1. Your Most Creative Ideas Come When You’re Relaxing
Where do you think of your best ideas? In the shower? On your ride home? While jogging? In her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, journalist Brigid Schulte notes that, “…in the breaks, that’s where the ‘aha moment’ comes.” It’s when you are doing simple tasks that your mind has the time to come up with creative and innovative ideas, allowing you to return to work with a fresh perspective on things. You need to give your mind time to relax.

2. You Are Causing Mental and Physical Damage to Yourself
Working those 60-plus hour weeks will do more than sap your creativity; stress will cause you to burn out. The stress that goes along with working too much has been shown to lead to substance abuse, sleep disorders, anxiety and, ultimately, physical problems such as heart disease.

3. You Are Damaging Your Personal Relationships
Time spent working, including scrolling through your smartphone, is time spent away from those you care about. Relationships need meaningful time together, and children especially need nurturing to develop strong emotional bonds. If the people close to you say they feel neglected by you because of your work, take it seriously. And remember, no one can live solely in the office. You need meaningful interaction with others, too.

4. You Are Hurting Your Company
If you are a manager and are working long hours, ask yourself if you are failing to delegate to your subordinates? Staff development is a key part of management. Effective management requires you to trust your employees to handle important tasks. Working long hours also creates a climate where your subordinates feel that they, too, must overwork. If you are working long hours, your employees will also stay, even if you tell them to go home.

5. You Are Not Necessarily Getting More Done
Many people who overwork are perfectionists who have a need for control. If you work long hours, ask yourself if you are one of those people who are getting lost in the details of each task instead of moving on. Are you are looking for ways to be more efficient or just looking for more work to do?

What to Do If You Overwork

Here are several strategies to take if you overwork or, worse, have become a “workaholic.”

  • Place leisure time on your calendar. Take you family to a movie, go to a concert with your friends, or spend time helping a charity. Get away from the office and turn off the email on your smartphone.
  • Have a clean cut-off time from work. Place a hard stop on your calendar at the end of the day and honor it. Commit time to an interest or hobby to take your mind away from the office.
  • Cut out the busy work. Take a look at your calendar and focus on the tasks that will give you the most value. See which of the rest can be delegated to other employees.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Start taking an exercise class – power lifting, yoga, tai chi, tennis – whatever you enjoy.

So if you’re one of those people who find themselves working long hours week after week, consider if it’s time for a change. Ultimately you will be healthier, happier and more productive if you make time
for other things in your life.


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Mark Hammer

A fascinating and thought-inspiring book I read a few years back (… ) made the point that the barriers to achieving a suitable balance within an organization between all the various commitments people have to themselves and various others are often semiotic in nature.

They asked the basic question: What are the signs and omens of “competence and commitment” in your organization? That is, how would you show that you are competent and committed to the task and organization? One of the things the authors argue is that many of the symbolic behaviours that make up the social currency within many organizations are predicated on a male post-war frame of reference. In a sense, if you don’t have a wife to pick up all the slack, you won’t be able to rise in the organization because you won’t be able to show all the symbolic actions that signify competence and commitment to others within that workplace culture (e.g., like being able to make 6:00PM or Saturday meetings).

All of which leads one to ask the question: What is a person trying to “show” by putting in more work? If a challenge at work invades your off-line thinking, simply because it’s intriguing as all get-out, and you mull it over like some giant crossword puzzle, that’s one thing. If you are putting in the overwork and overtime in order to convey something to someone, that’s quite another.

I am reminded of an incident we experienced here just two years ago. The federal government had indicated that all agencies would need to find another 7-8% in their budgets, and most would find it by making cuts to staff. The target was set at the agency-wide level, which meant that some work units might go unscathed, and others might face >8% staff reductions. The reductions themselves were to be merit-based, such that managers had to determine, on a merit basis, who should be kept and who “declared surplus”. One unit in one agency, was facing a roughly 30%+ reduction in staff. A young lawyer, who, according to news reports, was already diagnosed with OCD, began putting in ridiculous amounts of overtime, according to his wife. One would assume he did this in an effort to show he was indispensable, because he was worried about losing his job. He ended up in a spiral of worry, and depression, and sadly took his own life.

If the “social currency” of an organization is such that people who put in copious overtime are viewed as intrinsically more committed and capable than those who simply do a great conscientious job during working hours and then go home, then your organization may well have a problem on its hands.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Important relevant post. I agree with Mark that when there is a system wide problem it’s a good idea to look at the system not just the individual’s propensity to overwork.

There is an element of sexism here. A parallel is leadership structure. I just read an article on the subject of what it takes to be a CEO (not the article for today’s post.) The person interviewed for the article said that one thing it takes is the understanding that if you marry, your mate must be “subordinate.” Eg this is why “career gals” to use the old fashioned term have trouble getting married.

I found the whole article morally offensive even of the observation was based in fact. Why not have co-CEOs! What are we saying when we tacitly endorse this kind of setup? What corporate culture do we get when those at the top are barking orders everywhere they go, or holding all the cards? (There is a scene in Blue Jasmine where Alec Baldwin announces he is leaving Care Blanchett for a younger model…it is heartbreaking.)

Similarly on workaholism. It is an addiction, no different than eating addiction, shopping addiction, drug addiction, etc. Marketers feed off of compulsive shopping and companies feed on workaholics. And it’s not a functional addiction at all. Instead it actually MASKS the problems that need to be faced at the management level.

The healthy worker goes home at 5:00 and live outside lives. The company or agency should make sure they are encouraged to do that. What that means is, the work can wait.

I was sad to hear about the lawyer who killed himself. That alone says it all.

Mark Hammer


Since 2002, the Canadian equivalent of the FEVS has asked a cluster of questions about “To what extent, if at all, have any of the following adversely affected your career progress in the Public Service over the last three years?” There were eight different factors listed, with one of them being: “Conflict between work and family or personal obligations”. Other factors included restrictions in who could apply for positions, discrimination, your education, lack of access to developmental opportunities, etc.

The data could be broken out by broad position-type categories, such as “technical”, “admin support”, etc. One of the categories was what we call “EX” or executive category – essentially managers and above (e.g., the head of a directorate), right on up to the level of what I guess you’d call assistant undersecretary. Where employees in most other categories tended to list things like lack of access to training as a career slower, folks in the EX category listed “Conflict between work and family or personal obligations” as a major slower more than any other employee group did, and also listed it head and shoulders above all ofther factors listed. I can’t think of another bar chart I’ve ever prepared that told a stronger story.

And one of the reasons why that is the case is because the EX group aren’t eligible to claim overtime, so there are no limits, fiscal or otherwise (with the exception of health), to how much time they can put in during a week. If you don’t have a partner or children or parents who need assistance, you’re good to go. But if you have any of those other things, you better be ready to either forfeit those things, purchase surrogate care, or have a spouse who is willing and able to take up all the slack. Naturally, folks in those jobs have some tough choices to face. And since they are the sort that are generally not content to stay at their current level, they have to show that they are capable and committed, which naturally means wads of overtime, and trying to accomplish everything all the time. That’s a very tough row to hoe, and I would imagine there are many who had ambitions to rise higher, and at a certain point said “Nope, just not ready to sacrifice that other stuff. The train stops here.”

Peter Sperry

Good leaders understand #4 and #5. I’ve worked with leaders who would go through the office and send people home. Calvin Coolidge (who is regaining respect among historians) operated a strict 8 hour a day schedule in the White House and encouraged his Cabinet to do the same. He maintained that any man who could not accomplish his duties during normal business hours was probably disorganized and a poor manager. Although many current professionals take pride in working insane hours, this is primarily an American post WWII phenomenon. If you read some early managerial textbooks, they emphasize that excessive overtime among subordinates is a telltale sign of poor work assignments by supervisors. Our grandparents really were able to catch an 8:00 train, work 9:00 to 5:00, catch a 5:30 train and sit down to dinner at 7:00. There is no good reason our generation should not be able to do the same.