Careers Issue

Overworked? Here’s how to deal

The good news is you still have a paycheck. The bad news is, as staffing ranks have shrunk, your workday is lengthening and your in-box is bursting at the seams. What’s an overwhelmed employee to do? Try these eight tips from career counselors.

By Alison Lobron
March 7, 2010

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Nearly 10 percent of Massachusetts workers are out of a job, and the other 90 percent may be counting their lucky stars. But a recently released University of Puget Sound study, which followed thousands of workers at Boeing over a decade, suggests that people who get laid off may fare better over time -- be healthier, less depressed, and less prone to substance abuse -- than those people still at their posts. After all, while unemployed job seekers face a difficult path, layoff “survivors” sometimes find themselves on an impossible road: a doubling or a tripling of their workload. “People left behind are forced into overwork,” says Cambridge career counselor Phyllis R. Stein. “Some of my clients are trying to absorb three different jobs.”

If you suffer from overwork, you may feel you have no choice but to grin and bear it; when layoffs still loom, who wants to be the one whining about working weekends? But local career counselors say there are steps you can take. First, you need to make sure you’re overworked, and not just driven to work a lot. “Some people define themselves by saying, ‘Look at me, I work 16 hours a day,’ ” says Stein. “They wear it as a badge of pride.” But if that isn’t you -- if you’re just scrambling to get all your assigned duties done in a day -- then see if you can find a little time to check out our eight tips for the chronically overworked.

1. GET HELP First, you have to recognize that your situation is untenable, or nearing it. Maybe it’s when your family stops setting a place for you at dinner. Maybe it’s realizing you haven’t been outdoors in daylight since Scott Brown was still a little-known state senator. Maybe it’s finding you’re gaining weight, drinking more, sleeping less. Whatever your moment of recognition, says Sharon Teitelbaum, a work-life coach in Watertown, your first step should be asking for help. If you’re a manager, ask yourself whether others can absorb any of your tasks -- particularly if you’re doing a lot of your own administrative work. “It’s better for an organization to have someone at an admin salary do admin work and someone at a higher salary doing higher-level work,” says Teitelbaum. And if you’re a lower-level employee who feels overwhelmed, ask your manager to help you set priorities. You may not be able to drop any tasks, but you might feel more confident if you know which fires absolutely must be put out before you head home for the night and which ones can wait until morning.

But maybe there really isn’t any help at work; maybe all of your colleagues are as stressed and as pressed for time as you are. Teitelbaum also advises looking for help in the rest of your life. “I work with someone who figured out that her middle school son is very capable of doing the laundry,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes there’s help where you haven’t been looking.”

2. MAKE FRIENDS If you feel overworked, your colleagues probably do as well. So don’t suffer alone, says Stein. “If there’s a culture of overwork in your workplace, it’s very difficult to fight alone,” she says. The less you feel as if you’re the one person sticking a neck out, the more you may feel able to make suggestions to the boss. Stein stresses that the type of suggestions are highly dependent upon the profession, but that the more you find allies with whom to talk to the boss -- even without the protection of a formal union -- the harder you are to ignore.

3. LOWER YOUR STANDARDS “If your job increases at 30 percent or 100 percent, you cannot keep doing everything the way you’ve been doing it,” says Teitelbaum. She urges the overworked to consider which areas of their jobs -- and their lives -- they can open up to some compromises. “Where can you lower a standard to a place that is still OK for you but gives you some bang for your buck?” she asks. “Where would a B plus be adequate? A lot of people don’t realize how much of a slave they are to their standards.”

Determining ways to lower standards is very much field-dependent (no one wants doctors to skimp on hand washing). If you’re a teacher who likes to spend half an hour on every paper a student writes, but your classes are 20 percent more crowded this year, trim that time down to 20 minutes -- or decide what’s absolutely essential in the way of comments, and do only that. If you’re a realtor and normally send hand-signed cards to everyone in your database, consider an e-card or other electronic marketing.

Teitelbaum remembers one client who was certain she was the only one able to do certain tasks well and was wary of delegating them. “I encouraged her to try giving some to her administrative assistant,” says Teitelbaum. “It turned out to be a perk for the assistant, since it became the most challenging aspect of the assistant’s job.”

Teitelbaum also advises clients to lower standards in the rest of their lives, wherever they can. “Do you need to make handmade holiday cards? Is there a volunteer committee you’re on that you used to find engaging but has since become pure obligation?” she asks. “Most people, I find, have a few things on their plate they can simplify, reduce, or ditch.”

4. TRIM, TRIM, TRIM Remember when your company was 20 percent larger than it now is? If you took on extra tasks outside your specific job function -- from mentoring the intern to organizing the softball league to proofreading everybody’s memos -- you may have to try to scale back. Amy Mazur, a Newton career counselor, says she thinks women are particularly prone to volunteering for (or failing to refuse) amorphous extra tasks.

“I had a client who kept being asked to play a public role -- do the PR -- for her practice because ‘she was good at it’ or ‘it came naturally,’ ” Mazur recalls. In small companies, tasks like mentoring, public relations, and event planning often fall to women, and, says Mazur, “they get no credit or compensation for it.”

If you can’t trim or say no to the extras, at least make a point of asking whether they come with additional compensation and, if not, which other duties the boss would like you to stop doing.

Mazur cites an example from her own family: “My husband is an elementary school teacher, and if he’s asked to do extra work, he’ll say, ‘How are you compensating me?’ That’s a very traditional female field, where you get asked to do these extra things and are not compensated. He automatically will say, ‘How does this work in terms of my duties, responsibilities, and pay?’ ”

5. TURN OFF YOUR iPHONE Electronics may exacerbate your feelings of overwork. “The nonstop technology that assumes you will be available is a cultural thing that’s new,” says Stein. If you’re working a 10- or 12-hour day and checking e-mail after you get home, ask yourself whether you’re really expecting any urgent new messages -- or whether you can keep the computer and BlackBerry off at night. While not all fields allow you this freedom, you may find it easier to designate only a few times during the day when you will read and respond to e-mails.

After all, sometimes what feels like “overwork” is merely “inefficient work.” You may be at work 12 hours a day, but if you’re spending any of it IM-ing friends or reading blogs, you might be adding a few unnecessary hours to your workday. If you lack the willpower to close your in-box or turn off the wireless in your home office, there’s software to help, such as Gmail’s “e-mail addict” function: It allows you to bar yourself from your in-box from a set period of time, a little like putting yourself on a casino’s “do not admit” list. If you work on a laptop, consider taking it to a coffee shop without a wireless signal for a few hours of distraction-free work.

6. EAT, SLEEP, WORK OUT If you’re overworked, you may feel you have no time for the yoga studio, farmers’ market, or even your own bed. But career counselors say cutting out exercise and, in particular, sleep compounds the problem of overwork. When you’re sleep-deprived, you don’t perform as well, and all your tasks take that much longer. “It’s possible you can’t change your 70-hour week, but you have to make it work as well as you can,” says Stein. “Exercise, sleep, and eat well.”

But how -- or, more accurately, when? The solutions will differ for everyone, but an ideal approach is to make exercise part of your daily routine. Can you walk as part of your commute? Are there relatively mindless work tasks you can take care of while on an elliptical machine? It can be easier -- and cheaper -- to own a piece of exercise equipment than pay for a gym you never find time to visit. Or try using your lunch hour (assuming you still get one) for exercise, then eat while catching up on e-mail.

7. ASSESS THE TIME FRAME When your workload gets untenable, it’s useful to try to gauge how long you will face the situation. Is it likely to improve as the economy begins to turn around and the company resumes hiring? Or are you in a field like, oh, say, print journalism, where staffing may stay tight even when the economy picks up? “Is it a short-term crisis or a long-term thing?” asks Stein. If you can imagine things turning around in the foreseeable future, you may want to focus on making changes in the rest of your life -- get the kids to help with yardwork and cooking -- and keep telling yourself the situation will eventually improve. But if you don’t see any end in sight, you may need to shift from trying to fix your current job to looking for a new one.

8. GET OUT In some jobs and some fields, there is no cure for overwork. All the counselors I interviewed stress that there are some situations where employees may be unable to affect a workplace culture -- and others where an employee’s personal financial obligations may make taking a stand too risky. So if none of the above tips helps, or if you feel you can’t try them, you may need to look for a new position or a different career. As you interview, make sure you ask what’s considered a “normal” day’s work in any new role -- and that it’s one you think you can live with.

One local professional woman, who asked that her name and job title not be used for fear of employer retribution, said she began job hunting because she was working from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. many days. But what drove her over the edge was learning that her employer didn’t see those hours as a problem -- and didn’t appreciate her efforts. “I wanted some recognition from my superiors that my efforts were acknowledged, and if not, then I wanted some clarification that what I was doing was ‘what it takes’ in their eyes to succeed,” she says. Getting neither, she realized she needed to make a change and found a new position.

Of course, like the advice about getting exercise, an overworked employee rarely has enough time to look for anything new. Stein recalls a corporate lawyer who was too busy to start a search for another job and who ultimately did what may be the last refuge of the overworked: taking whatever vacation time you have to search for that new job.

Alison Lobron is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. Send comments to

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