As leaders or as employees, how often are we advised to slow down and stop working so hard? Isn’t it always the opposite? We live in a work culture that encourages long hours, a fast pace and extreme productivity. This is especially driven by society’s insistence on speed and immediacy.
I recently ordered breakfast at the McDonald’s drive-through. This admission is an ironic tie to the point of this article.
As I paid for my order, I saw a sign that promised a free meal if my order wasn’t delivered in 60 seconds from the time of payment. I was then handed a minute glass and proceeded to the next window where I was handed my latte and breakfast sandwich. I always order my latte with nonfat milk to make me feel better about the sausage and egg sandwich.
I thought about the potential negative effects of this marketing tactic. For instance, I worried about the quality of my food with so much emphasis on speed. I wondered about the pressure on the employees to deliver such speed throughout their shift. And I didn’t necessarily like handling the minute glass that was being recycled from customer to employee to customer throughout the morning, especially right before handling my delicious sandwich.
But we live in this society that is obsessed with speed and the hard work it takes to deliver fast, convenient results in whatever we do.
I recently read an article written by a consultant and executive coach named, Rebecca Zucker, published in the Harvard Business Review and titled, “Are you Pushing Yourself Too Hard at Work?”
Her premise was that for the 10% of Americans who consider themselves workaholics, there are certain danger signs that they may be pushing themselves too hard. Here are the warning signs:
First, you may not be taking time off. Some surveys show that only 23% of Americans take their full vacation time allotted. And many workers regularly work on weekends and during evening time. She points out that taking time on weekends and evenings and even short vacations is important for high performers to restore energy and counter the drain of being “always on.”
After 32 years as a fast-paced executive, I can say that I shamelessly find time to use my vacation time. This hasn’t always been the case but I’ve learned how important it is to decompress and recharge. I’ve never wanted to get to the end of my career only to face broken relationships and poor health. Consistently unused vacation time should not be a badge of honor. We should drive this home with our employees. For this reason, we recently changed our company policy to no longer allow the rollover or banking of unused vacation time.
A second warning sign is when you deprioritize personal relationships. During 2018, 76% of US workers said that workplace stress affected personal relationships, with workaholics being twice as likely to get divorced. And it’s bad for your health too. Research shows that strong social relationships correlate positively to longer lifespans. As she points out, if you’re not taking time outside of work to connect socially, you may be too focused on work.
I’m not proud of the fact that I have been divorced twice and am now happily married for a “third time’s the charm” run with my wonderful wife Evelyn. I won’t try to blame past failed relationships on poor time management, but in both cases I can say that it was a contributing factor. But failures of any kind can be life lessons. I hope I’m more sensitive to putting my wife, children and grandchildren ahead of work priorities. But it takes awareness and effort to do that well.
A third related symptom is that you’re unable to be fully present outside of work. Research shows that two-thirds of Americans work while on vacation. If work intensity slowly erodes our most important relationships, we do a big disservice to ourselves and to our loved ones.
Once again, I’m “guilty as charged” on this one. And who doesn’t try to keep up with work emails while traveling or even while resting at home? Today’s “always-on” technology makes it impossible to completely disconnect from work. But again, balance is the key. Being present in personal relationships pays greater long-term dividends than any work accomplishment and failing to do so should be a warning sign that we’re pushing work too hard.
A fourth sign of our work being destructive is when we are neglecting personal care. Whether poor dieting, a lack of regular exercise or sacrificing sleep and relaxation, all of this can signal that we’ve lost the work/life balance.
My McDonald’s story is a sign that I don’t always plan for a healthy breakfast. And I know I’m not alone. It takes effort. And so does common sense exercise. There should be no excuse for failing to have an exercise plan. At 62, I see myself running less and missing my fitness goals. But my philosophy is that something is always better than nothing. Committing to a schedule that allows for a good diet and exercise makes us better at our work and yet, failing to find time for both is often a symptom of working too hard.
Finally, if you see your value as a person completely defined by your work, it’s time to do a serious self-assessment and make corrections. We all know someone who arrives at retirement age in a seemingly sad and sorry state. And when we love our work as much as most credit union people do, it’s easy to be overtaken with our jobs.
I once asked former House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp how he managed to hold such a high office and yet be so personable and approachable. His advice was simple. He said, “I just have learned to not take myself too seriously.” And so it applies to our work and careers. We can be successful and make a significant impact in our work without letting ourselves be completely defined by our work.
These counter-intuitive principles should be driven by leaders through all levels of their organization. This is why the most progressive companies allow for remote work, flextime, and decency in the way employees are evaluated and treated by supervisors. Productivity and service excellence is far more likely achieved when we live and encourage the proper work/life balance for leaders and for all employees.
Ms. Zucker summed it up well in her article saying, “While we all need to shift into high gear from time to time, keeping work in perspective with the rest of our lives, and taking care of ourselves and our relationships are key to achieving long-term success, both personally and professionally.”