How do I know if I'm working too much?
March 16, 2010 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice or rules of thumb on how better to strike a good work/life balance with the risk factor that I actually love my work and feel very possessive toward it. Further, I work for a small company and I understand that my work is integral to its future. I understand that it is probably not going to be possible for me to wrap it up everyday at 5 pm and forget about work the next day until 9 am, and maybe I don’t even want to. However, I don't need to work 20 hour days or weekends, and I'm looking for thoughts from others in the same situation, and rules of thumb as to how to keep a good balance.

I work for a small biotech company that has been around for several years – we have some good IP and could be close to launching the product bigtime, but there are still some things to work out, so it may not so close as it appears. For now, we live on contract research work for larger companies. This contract work is tied in to launching our IP product. The company is not overflowing with money, but most of the time things seem alright; we have what we need to work with, good benefits, and ‘treats’ like out-to-dinner bonuses and free snacks in the breakroom. I also feel that we are paid significantly more than others in our positions.

I am one of five or six scientists that are all relatively equal in seniority and responsibility, but we do have different specialties and expertise due to our backgrounds. I would say we are all very well-trained, talented and intelligent annnnnd that each of us has some weaknesses, myself included. We are not some sort of dream team.

The rest of the team is really good at the 9-5 schedule. I however find myself working a lot of irregular hours. Part of it is the specialty of the science that I do (and the others do not). Certain assays just take ten hours to complete and cannot fit into an 8 hour day. I try to compensate by flexing with short days, but I actually just find that confusing sometimes. And part of the long hours is a compulsion to just get things done the right way. I do not see this sort of 'get-it-right' always happening with the rest of the team. I have not lost the possessiveness over my projects that I remember having in grad school (I am a year out of my degree). Sometimes, I think that I am more careful than my coworkers or even our boss about the level of science going on. I feel compelled to get the project done and done right because I understand how much of our future depends on it.

I do worry though that another part of it is an irrational fear that I am not doing enough, a perfectionist sort of thing where I have to get everything right or else it will not be good enough. As a student, that actually didn't seem so bad to me -- it *was* my project - if I wanted it perfect, it was at least mine. But this isn't my project, and I'm not getting paid more than everybody else to stay and work all evening while everyone else is home with their families.

How do you know when you're doing more than your share, when you're not all necessarily doing exactly the same thing?

(anonymous for reasons of wanting to keep my job and good relations with my coworkers)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it's productive to worry so much about whether you're "doing your share", so long as you're doing your best and putting in reasonable hours. However, it's important to maintain a balance so that you can continue to put in reasonable hours without getting burnt out.

One thing I've found useful for keeping myself from staying at work forever or keeping it on my mind after I leave is to schedule activities which require your presence at some reasonable time following the work day (e.g. 6pm or so). Good activities would be classes (music, foreign language, etc.) or sports (bowling/golf league, etc.) These will give you an obligation to leave at a reasonable hour and provide you with healthy distraction to get out of the work mode.
posted by Cogito at 2:10 PM on March 16, 2010

Hey, thanks for posting this question. I've been thinking about posting a similar one. So, given that I'm facing a similar question, I would urge you to take my advice with a grain of salt, but: do you make a weekly work plan? This is something I've recently started doing - every Sunday night (yeah, I probably shouldn't be doing anything work-wise on Sunday evening, but it helps) I sit down with a calendar organized into 2-hour blocks and figure out everything I need to do. Then I figure out the three priorities and make sure I schedule time for those things. Everything else gets scheduled around the three priorities.

This way, I know I'm at least getting the really getting the important stuff done. Other stuff inevitably comes up throughout the course of the week, but having my workplan helps me say no to the less-important stuff, and saying no is an important skill in the workplace!

I do worry though that another part of it is an irrational fear that I am not doing enough, a perfectionist sort of thing where I have to get everything right or else it will not be good enough.

Recognize that this is a feeling, not (necessarily) a fact. Again, the workplan helps with this, because it gives you a concrete record of the fact that you are doing the things that are really important. So when you start to get that nagging feeling of not doing enough, you can tell that nagging voice to shut up.
posted by lunasol at 2:18 PM on March 16, 2010

It seems to me that advice might vary based on information on your off-work life. Do you have a significant other and kids, for example, where carving out time to spend with them could be a priority? Or, if you're single, is being with friends something that would make you happy while off the working grid? Are you interested in getting involved in civic activies? (I once kept books for and put on the Queen Show for a local festival, which was a lot more fun than I thought it might be.) One company I worked for encouraged civic activity by giving paid time off for tutoring kids at a local elementary schools or participating in Habitat for Humanity projects. Some of that might seem like another kind of "work", but it put us out into a differnent social circle and brought a different kind of involvement. I guess it depends on how you want to define "work."
posted by path at 2:44 PM on March 16, 2010

"Am I doing my fair share" is a regular question for people just out of college. It takes everyone a while to realize that until money problems arrive the company is in fact desperate to hold on to existing employees. They won't just fire you one day -- if there's a problem they will work very hard with you to rectify it.

As for yourself, there's nothing wrong with working long hours if you enjoy what you do. Starting to resent your coworkers, on the other hand, is a sign that you are probably taking things too seriously.

This is a mistake. The company is not yours, and hanging your mental health on its success is a sure path to a nervous breakdown. Do your own work and do it well, but remember that a company rises and falls as much on business, marketing, and customers as anything else. You and the rest of the science team could perform completely flawlessly and still be out on the street in three months.

In summary: Working long hours because you love what you do is great. Working long hours because you feel responsible for the future of the company is a surefire road to burnout and unhappiness.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:03 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had this problem at my old job to some degree. I think at the time I thought I loved my job, and maybe I did, but it was really unhealthy and I was really unhealthy. I was striving for almost nothing in that job --- I was salaried so working more didn't mean more money and there wasn't room for promotion in a very political environment. I thought I was doing alot for the sake of work, and I probably was, and I felt really burned out by it. I work on salary at a place that has a culture that feels very strongly about not staying late and I am pretty grateful that the culture pushes me out and treats work like work, but encourages me to consider my life outside of work.

The future of your company is not your responsibility. It's your manager's responsibility and your shared responsibility with your coworkers. Do what they do. If something goes wrong, it doesn't matter --- your title at work is not superhero. You have to emotionally divest from work.

And remember and remind yourself, these people you work with are getting paid more than you and they do less. Follow their lead. You will do better at work politically if you follow their lead. The paycheck thing will slap you back into reality if you let it. Let it help you let go.
posted by anniecat at 6:06 PM on March 16, 2010

As someone with very similar tendencies, I found it helpful to set a hard limit on when I had to leave the office. This required an external stimulus -- a class, friend dates, a second job. As I consistently scheduled myself, my subconscious started to realize that I was going to leave the office at 5:05 every day, I was forced to begin making hard decisions about what I could and could not agree to do, to have discussions with my boss about what my priorities should be, and to delegate to others work that was perhaps rightfully theirs. I made that limit important to me and tried to redirect my perfectionism and professional pride toward my ability to prioritize and accurately judge what on my to do list would fit within an 8 hour day. I would occasionally give myself an "outlet" day when I could work until 10 pm or whatever to catch up, but I tried to do that more and more rarely.
posted by salvia at 6:58 PM on March 16, 2010

2 cents here
How about at the beginning of every day take 20 minutes to assess the work for the day. Maybe write down how long everything is estimated to take and compare it to actual time taken and note that at the end of every activity and note the end of day time of closing out the office.
Compare those times of the end of day closing over the week and see which days you didn't like or did like or which days you felt burnout.
Get a feel for yourself and see which activities are helpful and not and schedule them accordingly to your downtime etc.

Since all you have in control in your life is time and health (big thanks to another mefite for saying that) , it may help instill a better sense of understanding where you want to take your life, i.e. where you want to spend a good chunk of it and feel great.

Too much of a good thing such as work may not help in the long run, been there, done that. Preventine maintenance helps tremendously.

Quick bit to add here: At work we are supposed to silence fires before they light up, approach the same attitude towards your life. You've caught the problem by recognizing it, now it's time to act before it blows over :-)
posted by iNfo.Pump at 11:35 AM on March 17, 2010

Anniecat: You have to emotionally divest from work.

This is the best piece of advice in the long run. You are not being paid to make a company succeed, that's the manager's job. You are being paid to spend X time on X project, period.

Certain assays just take ten hours to complete and cannot fit into an 8 hour day.

Speaking as a lab-bound physicist, I can identify well with that issue. Personally I deal with it by either breaking my day up at lunchtime with a longer break (when presumably the assay/experiment is running and requires no action?), or working 2 hours less on another day in the same week. If flex time is difficult for you, consider asking a co-worker to start or stop the assay/experiment for you?

If you are being paid for an 8-hour day and your tasks require 10+ hours presence in the lab each day, something is irreconcilably wrong and should be brought up with your boss?

One option could be that your company hire an intern (university/college student) to help you with some of the workload. They're cheap for companies and good for the student's work experience and good for the economy overall...
posted by spherical_perceptions at 12:30 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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