Overworked? Share the Pain

I was at an event the other night and struck up a conversation with “Michelle” who was looking stressed and a little exhausted. She told me she’s been regularly working 65+ hours per week—she was not happy about it.

When I asked her why she was working so many hours, she said they just keep giving her more work. I could tell right away that Michelle was the glue person at work. The one who stays late, gets things done, doesn’t complain too loudly and generally holds everything together. The problem with the glue person is that they tend to fall apart (pun intended).  

I have this theory. Humans won’t substantially change their behavior unless they feel some degree of pain. I explained to her that while she’s in “pain” in terms of how many hours she’s working, no one else at her work is feeling that pain. Even though she is telling her superiors she’s too busy, they are not directly feeling the pain of her workload. Hence, they aren’t highly motivated to act. This doesn’t make Michelle’s superiors evil, they simply aren’t uncomfortable enough to make alleviating Michelle’s workload a priority. Simple human nature.

Instead of continuing to absorb an unsustainable workload (or burn out, or quit) Michelle’s new mission is to share the pain. Once her bosses feel some of the pain—which could come in the form of missed deadlines, customer complaints, or simply having to spend more time helping her prioritize—they will become more motivated to make a change. Her pain will now be their pain. My favorite tool for doing this is called—well, I don’t have a fancy name for it, but here’s how it works. The next time Michelle’s bosses assign her a new project, she says:

“Sure, I’m happy to work on that. I have these 6 other projects I’m working on, so if I take this one, two others will need to move out of my queue. Which ones would you like to move?”

This strategy is brilliant on so many levels:

  • Michelle still appears to be a team player by demonstrating willingness to take on new projects.
  • She now can decide how many projects she can do within reasonable working hours.
  • Her bosses get to choose what they want her to be working on making it hard for them to argue with the line she’s drawn.
  • Michelle’s bosses now clearly understand what will not get done (feeling her pain!) and are placed in the position to have to deal it.
  • By the same token, if something slips through the cracks, Michelle is not to blame because everyone has agreed upon the priorities.
  • Michelle is no longer resentful because she’s now actively managing her workload (and her superiors).

The key to making this work is to stop working so much. If you try this, you might have thoughts come up like I should be handling all this or I’m letting people down. Question the truth of these thoughts—who are you really letting down if you keep working like this? How much longer will you last? How is the quality of your work? How’s the rest of your life going? Exactly. Work through those thoughts and hold the line. Then enjoy your newfound free time and plucky attitude.