What's your problem?

I was promoted six months ago to manage a big project for the company. At first, I didn't mind the long hours as I'm familiar with deadline-driven work and enjoy it. But this has coincided with me moving in with my girlfriend and discovering that we're going to be parents (much earlier than expected).

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I had to cancel our holiday and she's not happy. I thought that as long as I could make it to the project deadline, I could sort everything out. Now I've just learnt that the client is pleased with what we've done and has extended the project, which means another three months of extra work. I'm not sure my relationship can handle it, but as project leader, I can't back out of this. What's your advice?

A: I've long believed that there's some mischievous spirit who governs job satisfaction. These are just two of his governing principles.

First: the more satisfying, challenging and rewarding one's job, the more painful the pressure it's going to impose on one's personal life.

Or to put it another way, the only kind of work that will never threaten your work/life balance is uninteresting work.

Second: the more successful individuals are, the more will be expected of them. Or to put it another way, the only people never to feel that they're being over-extended are people of no more than average ability.

It's clear that you're at the mercy of both these principles. And the chances are that if you go on finding what you do of interest, and you go on being good at it, these problems will be a permanent fixture in your life. So if they won't go away, you'll have to learn to contain them.

It's no good trying to get some sort of contract agreed with your company: this kind of pressure has to be fought case by case. Come clean about this with your girlfriend; don't let it dawn on her over time. Don't keep promising to get home early - and then day after day keep failing to do so. Use this new, extended project of yours as a test case.

If you feel you've got to take it on - and you really want to take it on - tell her gently that there's going to be another three months when she'll hardly see you. Don't fudge it for the sake of a slightly easier conversation. Then commit yourself - at the end of that time - to two weeks' holiday and a return to conventional working hours until well after your baby is born. And agree all this, in writing, with your boss.

Whatever the pressure they may put you under later, this commitment must be scrupulously, willingly honoured. Renege on it - even very slightly - and you will deserve to lose her trust for ever.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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