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Ask The Expert : Work has gradually taken over my life


This article’s expert on stress management was Fiona McLaren

The Scenario

My job is quite technical and I work very long hours. By the time you factor in my commute, it leaves me with next to no time to unwind. Over the past year, my work has become my main focus and there have been occasions where, due to a tight deadline, I have had to cancel personal arrangements at the last minute. I feel like my mates have stopped getting in touch and my social life is at a standstill. I’m now finding that the weekends feel like big, unstructured empty spaces which I struggle to fill and am starting to feel a bit isolated. In fact, I’ve recently found myself wondering what life is all about and I struggle to do anything outside of work except the very basics.

As I am single and there are others with families at work, it seems like my reasons to say ‘no’ are feeble compared to someone who has to pick a child up from nursery or go to a parent’s evening. My manager is very good at giving me the impression that, because of my technical ability, I am the only one that can get certain jobs finished. When I am assertive and leave at a reasonable time regardless, I feel like I get the “cold shoulder” the following day.

Fiona McLaren’s Answer

The first question may be ‘how did things get like this?’  Sadly, this happens to too many people at work: a Faustian pact where work wins out over wellbeing!  Work doesn’t happen by itself, and neither does wellbeing.  Think of wellbeing like a battery that needs to be run and topped up to stay in good working order.

Work encroaching on wellbeing can be so gradual that we don’t notice until we find – as you have done – that work is all we’ve got! And the things that buffer us against stress and ill-health, like exercise, social life, interests, get shunted to one side and wither away.

It doesn’t have to be like that!  But you need to take positive steps to redress the balance, and that might be uncomfortable for you to start with – and possibly surprising for your boss and colleagues who have become used to such total dedication.

Your company – and your boss – do have a legal duty to provide a safe working environment, and that’s psychological, as well as physical.  If you find it difficult to speak to your boss about how you see things and how they are affecting you, could you speak in the first instance to someone in HR who understands this obligation and how it might work for you?

It’s obviously better if you can speak to your boss, and without being critical in any way, explain that your working day has expanded to the extent of taking over your life and you’d like to explore ways of ensuring that you fulfill your job requirements – targets, Standards of Performance, Key Performance Indicators, etc – whilst not running yourself into the ground.

Giving him/her some ideas would be useful and make the conversation more ‘business-like’, for example:
How about cross-training so that you are not the only person who is able to do something technical?
Could you have more say in setting objectives in your performance review?
Could you do more to negotiate your deadlines or put in place a plan for contingencies?
When you have an engagement coming up, could you gently mention that some deadline needs to be considered, because you will be leaving on time on that occasion…?

On the social side, why not gradually start ringing up friends to get together.  They will probably be very pleased to hear from you.  This change in behaviour needs to be done gradually, otherwise it might all collapse at the first hurdle!  Try one event a week – or even in a fortnight – so that you can offer other times to an extra work commitment.  If something – a deadline or crisis – threatens that first social revival, could you have a straightforward assertive conversation with your boss, along these lines:

State your position: I’d like to stay and help out, but I have made an appointment I can’t get out of.
Offer an alternative: How about X doing some of the preparatory work, and I’ll come in a bit earlier tomorrow and finish it off? OR…he could email what he’s done, and I’ll look at it on the train on the way in tomorrow?
This is softer than an outright ‘no’, but it needs to be delivered calmly and with an even tone of voice!

If you feel you’re being relied on because you’re the ‘single’ member of the team, this is not an even-handed way of managing people.  Whilst organisations have to recognise certain ‘family’ employment rights, that should not extend to single people shouldering an extra burden.  If such a situation arises, how about talking to your boss, using a helpful acronym DESC, for example:

  • Describe When there’s a bit of a rush on, I end up picking up the load while the others go home…
  • Explain This makes me feel put-upon etc
  • Specify Could we find a way of sharing projects more evenly – say, when we have a team meeting – so that we all take our fair share…?
  • Consequences … in that way, we will all feel our commitment to the team … and see the positive results of our joint efforts …

We’ve talked about the interaction between you and your boss/team, but the organisation as a whole needs to recognise its duty of care for all its staff and the costs of not doing so.  Signs that might alert management that things are not right might be changes in attendance, increased sickness absence but more noticeably in these uncertain economic times, presenteeism: when employees struggle on at work, afraid to take time off.  Presenteeism is now being recognised as at least twice as expensive as sickness absence, and companies are very aware of overheads in the profit and loss statements.

Of course, some jobs are intrinsically pressurized and some sectors are acknowledged as ‘high stress’ environments, for example, the financial and legal sectors. Organisations like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank are looking at mindfulness training as a way of helping staff to cope more healthily with work demands.  Managers, too, might benefit from some training in their responsibilities for staff wellbeing and particularly understand how to work smarter, not harder, and that means thinking along the Japanese philosophy of kaizen or continuous improvement: not getting stuck in the ‘we’ve always done it that way’, but constantly looking for ideas to make things better and more effective.  As an individual, you can do this too, so that you present as someone who’s not complaining about work, but actively seeking better results for the team.

Good luck!

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