First-Class Coach: Overworked

I'm putting in extra hours at home. How can I stop?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 30 Nov 2015

I'm putting in eight hours at the office every day and then a further two at home, just to keep on top of what my boss and my team require of me. I know I'm overworking and it's interfering with my home life, but what choice do I have?

A: As organisations try to make do with fewer staff doing just as much (or more) work than before they downsized, the issue you raise is becoming increasingly common. And because we fear losing our jobs if we complain, there's a tendency to just grin and bear it, even though we're aware that in doing so we may be damaging the things most dear to us.

However, it must be acknowledged that managing workload - so as to have the right balance between the demands of our personal and professional lives - has been a perennial challenge for leaders and managers. It is certainly a preoccupation for many of my clients and, over the years, we've discovered a variety of ways of tackling this problem, which help ameliorate the situation, if not eradicate it.

What's required is a combination of strategy and tactics: a strategy to put your work into the big picture of what you want in life, and some tactics that will turn your strategy into a practical reality. Creating the right strategy involves stepping back from the hurly-burly of your working week to decide what your priorities are as an individual. One way of getting a handle on this is to think ahead to five years' time and work out what you would like to be true for you then in every area of life: your work, your love life, your health, your family, your social life. Then work out what implications these intentions have for the way you live now. This clear sense of direction is your strategy. Ideally you'll turn it into a succinct sentence or two that you can use to remind yourself of this bigger picture when you're beset by immediate problems.

Developing your tactics requires an examination of your work context and your personal working style to see where the areas of opportunity lie. To begin your own self-diagnosis, there are two areas to focus on: am I doing the right work and am I working right? For the first, ask yourself: are all the tasks I take on the ones that someone in my role, with my responsibilities, should be doing? If not, and they genuinely need doing, is there someone else I could delegate them to above or below me in the organisation?Am I doing the things that I uniquely can do with excellence or have I hung on to tasks that in reality I should have surrendered to someone else? Can I confidently and politely say 'No' when asked to shoulder a further responsibility that shouldn't strictly be mine?

The second set of questions relates to using your time effectively. Have you identified the times of day when your brain is fresh and you do your best work and ring-fenced these periods, leaving more routine tasks to when your energy is at a lower ebb? Do you change your location to suit the type of work you are doing? Do you involve colleagues in helping you to solve a knotty problem or do you struggle on by yourself? Are the meetings you lead or attend effective? Could you change their frequency, length, content or style to increase their productiveness? Do you see colleagues at a similar level who seem less frantically busy and, if so, are there any tactics you could borrow from them?

It's also worth considering the 'work' you do at home. Are there jobs (such as cleaning and diy) you do largely from a sense of guilt that you could pay someone else to do, thus giving you more time to spend with loved ones and to do things that energise you?

Having achieved some clarity, you can start working on your tactics. What will you need to stop doing, continue doing and start doing now to make your intentions a reality? What additional resources will you need? Who at work or at home will need to support you in these changes?

Some of your tactics will be very practical, such as shifting the time when you read non-essential, cc'ed emails to spells of lower energy. Some will be mental tactics, such as reminding yourself that the reason you are making these changes is to ensure that you are in top form in all areas of your life. If you don't take action, you risk becoming tired, demoralised and less effective at work. Worse still, overwork could lead to burn-out, something you, your family and your employer would wish to avoid.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email:

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