If you are great at your job – and I mean really great – then I know a few things about you:
- Much more is expected of you than your coworkers.
- You are expected to produce under tighter deadlines.
- Your pay isn’t fair – people who produce less make the same or more as you.
- No boss has ever truly appreciated how hard you work.
- It’s happened at every job you’ve ever held.
And most significantly:
- It’s slowly killing you.
Unless you work in a position where your efforts are directly connected to results (e.g. sales), then being good at your job can be a life sentence of hard labor.
It’s not easy to change your approach to work to take back control and save your health and sanity. It is possible, however, if you are willing to undergo some serious self-analysis. Because the problem isn’t everyone else.
But, let’s start by talking about everyone else! It’s more fun. We’ll get to the hard parts in a bit. So, what’s going on with this system that can pile so much work on your plate? I call it The Three-Legged Stool of Discontent:
- conflict avoidance
- naive hope
Leg 1: 90% of jobs have a heavy dose of Socialism
This is the fundamental, underlying reason why you are overworked. I’m serious. You see, here in America, land of Capitalism, we don’t like to admit that we have anything at all to do with Socialism… isn’t that for Communists or something? Not for us here in the good old USA.
Ha. Read this quote from Karl Marx and see if you don’t practice it every single day:
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
It’s the entire reason you are taking care of your children or your elderly parents: you have the ability, someone else has the need. Your kids aren’t paying you to change their diapers and haul them to band practice. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’re paying for the privilege, even if you aren’t enjoying yourself. It’s why we volunteer. And acts of charity are part of every mainstream religion.
“OK. Fine. We are Socialists in our personal lives. But not at work. That’s where people have to earn their way.”
Well…sort of. Yes, you must show up to work and produce some minimal amount of effort, and in exchange, you get a paycheck. So far so good. But tying compensation to production is tough in many lines of work. And therein lies the problem…and the reason you are working your guts out and Kevin in the next cubicle is playing fantasy football all day and getting the same salary.Karl Marx wrote the perfect description of my work environment. Click To Tweet
One of you has the abilities that your boss needs. One of you has proven that he doesn’t have any discernable abilities beyond excellent draft picks.
For the same pay (or more), one of you has a cake job. And one of you is regularly working beyond maximum capacity.
So how does Kevin get away with it?
Leg 2: 90% of bosses don’t like conflict
Kevin gets away with it because 90% of humans don’t like conflict, and labeling them “manager” doesn’t magically change that. Thus, it’s much easier for your boss to ask you to throw together a last-minute PowerPoint for the meeting tomorrow (“You know, when you get the time, but I need to see it before I go home tonight”) than it is to ask Kevin. Because:
A. She’s busy. She just wants it freakin’ done, and done right the first time.
B. Assigning something to Kevin will only make her life harder since he’ll whine and complain and still not get it done on time and to her standards.
C. You always come through, no matter what.
And, as a bonus, you are apparently satisfied with a hearty “job well done” rather than extra money. The work is its own reward! No matter how much she piles on, you never quit, so deep down you must love it.
The steps above are way easier than holding Kevin accountable. Sure, Kevin won’t score quite as high as you on his year-end performance rating, but he won’t be marked down much either. Why? because he’s never given work at which he might fail. So he’ll be running his fantasy league draft next season, too.
Your boss may get slight pangs of guilt about piling the heaviest load on the best horse, but she’ll find ways to justify it to herself.
And the final leg of this three-legged stool of discontent…
Leg 3: 90% of workers think they’ll be “taken care of” if they just work hard enough
Now we are starting to talk about you, your job and your naïve hope. This is the hard part.
“If I just work hard enough for long enough, someone will take care of me and give me the money/promotion/acclaim that I deserve.”
Maybe. But consider: Do you care about the best interests of others, all the time? Do you go out of the way to ensure that someone else who is working hard gets their just due? No? Or only sometimes? Well, neither does your boss.
No magical transformation occurs when a worker gets promoted to management. He isn’t transformed into a Mother Theresa, an utterly selfless individual who exists to serve the best interests of his employees. We have human bosses, not programmable robots. And humans are, by and large, concerned first and foremost with themselves, even if we manage to conceal that fact most of the time.
So that’s how this situation develops. It’s a mismatch of ability and dedication (yours) with an organization that is not set up to reward individual hard workers.
Is there any hope that things will change?
Why nothing in your job is going to change
First, understand this: you will suffer the worst if the overall quality of your organization is mediocre.
The greater the difference between your abilities and the abilities of those with whom you work, the less management will be capable of recognizing high performers. Remember, all those managers used to be mediocre employees. They will imagine that they used to work just as hard as you even if it’s not true. Their inclination will be to discount any complaints they hear.
Second, if your abilities make others feel inadequate, your accomplishments will be minimized. It’s called “Crayfish Syndrome” and we’ve all experienced it.
Supposedly, if you have a bucket of crayfish 1 and one tries to crawl out, the others will reach up and pull it back.
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
Nobody likes to see evidence that their “I’m a hard-working, important person” persona is wrong. And there you are every single day doing more and getting it done faster. That cannot be acknowledged or it might crack the fragile self-image they work so hard to maintain.
Pulling you down is much easier than exterting themselves to climb up to your level.I work in a bucket of crayfish. No matter how hard I try to climb up, they pull me back. Click To Tweet
Location, location, location
And the final reason why nothing in your job is going to change? Because your work neighborhood is dragging down your value. The price of the best house gets dragged down by the neighborhood average. Your work raises the average output of your team, but they gain more from this effort than you do.
So what can you do? It’s a multi-step process, and some of the steps are difficult. By the time you finish, you’ll know what you’re up against and whether you want to start down the path of changing your work situation.
Let’s get started.
Avoiding Death from Overwork
Assessing your work identity
Any genuine effort at change must start with serious personal examination. I’ll warn you that it can be uncomfortable.
Are you fooling yourself about how hard you work?
I know you aren’t digging ditches or mining coal; it’s not the total amount of work you do. Our only concern is how hard you are working in relation to your coworkers. But, still…be brutally honest: are you really working that much harder than everyone else? Day after day?
OK. I believe you. Let’s move on.
How much of your identity is tied to your type of work?
Some people go to work then go home and don’t think about work until the next morning. Some people think about work all day and all night. Some people love to say, “I’m a history teacher” or “I work in accounts receivable” when a new acquaintance asks what they do. Are you one of those people?
It’s not right or wrong to have employment be an integral part of your identity. But you should acknowledge it before you make any alterations to your work life.
How much of your identity is tied to where you work?
Do you like being able to say “I work at Microsoft?” Are you going to feel less important if you get another job and have to say, “I work at Acme Computer Programming” even if it pays the same or more?
It’s something you should think about before you decide to quit.
How much of your identity is based on how hard you work?
Do you make a point of telling other people how many hours you are putting in or how much work you bring home over the weekend? Is it important to your self-image that others perceive you to be an incredibly hard worker? Do you like being the go-to person, in spite of how much work it involves?
In other words, would you consider it a badge of honor to say, “They had to hire two people to replace me when I quit?”
It’s best to be aware of this before you try to cut down on your hours, unless you are OK with fibbing a bit about how busy you are.
Side note: Why do we think that others want to hear our tales of work woe when we don’t want to hear theirs? I dare you to share this:I love listening to how hard other people work. Please respond with details. Click To Tweet
Who is suffering from you spending too much time – both physically and mentally – at work?
No one but you? Don’t discount that. You may have lost friendships that have withered from lack of attention, or let family relationships grow tenuous.
It’s quite likely that others have been affected by your physical or mental absence. Who are they? And how have they been harmed?
Assessing how you approach personal relationships
… at your job and in your personal life.
Are you constantly looking for approval from others, such as your family?
This is difficult to admit. We all look for approval to a certain extent. Only you can judge whether it’s an “am I fitting in thing” or an “I hope everyone notices me because if they don’t I’ll feel like a failure” thing.
Do you feel that you have to work harder to earn love?
Is your automatic response to disapproval (or imagined disapproval) to dig in and work harder? To “show them” that you are worthy of approval?
Do you consider dedication and loyalty to be among your primary characteristics?
Both dedication and loyalty are awesome and admirable traits. Nothing to be ashamed of. Just something to be aware of that can be used against you by people with an agenda.
Do you hate to disappoint others?
As in, you will do nearly anything to avoid it, especially if they may express disappointment to your face? A lot of this comes from our formative years as children, not that it matters. It’s still an extremely hard emotion to deal with.
How hard is it for you to say “no” when asked to do something?
I mean a hard “no,” as in, “No, I won’t be able to do that.” Not a soft, please-read-between-the-lines, never-actually-use-the-word-no “no,” which sounds something like, “I’m already taking on that other project and I was going to leave on time to see my kids’ recital tonight…”
That’s not “no.” And you know it.
(By the way, I have a two-article series that is all about how to say “no” that you might find helpful.)
How often do you do things that you wish you had refused?
This includes both work and non-work things. Many families are really good at guilting you into obligations, just like manipulative bosses. Worse than bosses, actually.
How comfortable are you with confrontation?
Does the word “confrontation” make your stomach tighten up just thinking about it? Or do you love it? If you love it, you are a unique individual. Not judging, just an observation.
These answers are essential.
Why? Because they underlie the reasons why you keep getting taken advantage of, no matter where you work.
That’s enough introspection. After double checking your responses for honesty, it’s time to consider the big question:
Are you capable of changing your own approach to work?
It’s nearly impossible to change other people. You’ll see this when you consider the steps below. So it’s imperative that you know, deep down inside, if you are able to change aspects of your personality that allow others to take advantage of you.
- if you dislike confrontation
- hate disappointing others
- can’t bring yourself to say a hard “no” when you mean “no”
- and you can’t see yourself ever changing that
…then the only way your situation is going to improve is if you find a job where you these traits are not used against you.
Now that you understand yourself better, it’s time to understand your job better.
Assessing your current job
These are easier questions than those above. You’re an expert on how awful your job is! No introspection required.
Are you an insider or an outsider?
If you work for a family-owned business and you aren’t family…well, that could be an issue. But you can also be an outsider because you don’t have the same credentials as others. For example, you didn’t go to the right school or don’t have the degree or certification that everyone else has.
What is the level of politics involved?
Who gets ahead, or gets special consideration? Is it mainly brown-nosers?
Do you have goals that allow you to easily tie results directly to your – and only your – efforts?
Remember the discussion of sales jobs above. Most jobs aren’t like that, but some have similar elements of individual accountability.
How are people paid?
If there is a salary schedule based on position and time in service? Are there annual caps on raises?
Are raises given on a schedule?
When raises are given only annually, it usually means that your boss and her boss have limited ability to pay you more.
Bottom line: does your organization’s structure even allow for you to get paid more? Or does it take an act of Congress to get a raise?
Video: My lightbulb moment
3 minutes, 54 seconds | subtitles available
The central question about your current job is this:
- Is it set up to allow recognition of outstanding performers?
Some companies are just not built to allow individual performers to stand out. Yes, high performance can pay off over time, but a plodding path must be followed to any reward. And there is no way to circumvent this route unless you are well-connected.
(By the way, if you were well-connected, you wouldn’t be reading this.)
Assessing your current boss
Actually, your boss’s boss, too, if that applies. I’m talking about the management group that controls your daily efforts.
Do you get along with your boss?
I mean, when you aren’t steaming about being taken advantage of.
How effective is your boss at holding people accountable?
This can be gauged by how many people get away with less than full effort.
Does your boss minimize the amount of work involved in the tasks she assigns?
Even when she assigns more to you, or assigns things that only you can do?
Bottom line: Can you alter your relationship with your boss to discourage overwork? Are you willing to do this?
This means acting a little like people who get fewer tasks than you…acting a bit more like Kevin. If the thought of doing this turns your stomach, the answer is “no.”
Never expect that other people will change because you want them to. You can only change the way that you interact with them. Sometimes acting differently will cause them to alter the way they treat you. Sometimes – or most times – not.
So, considering everything above…
Do you want to change anything at all?
You may not be up for the effort and consequences involved. Your personal life may not be in a position to be disrupted with drama. There could be any number of reasons to let the proverbial sleeping dog lie. But if you aren’t going to (or willing to) do anything about it, then maybe it’s time to stop complaining. But that’s up to you.
If you do want to change, you have two obvious options.
Quitting and starting over in a new job
Your thoughtful analysis may lead you to the conclusion that you have to leave to improve your work life. But be warned: the cycle will repeat unless you change.
If you are saying to yourself:
“I’ll find a job where they appreciate me and how hard I work.”
…then you are already doomed. I’ll illustrate that to ensure you get my point:
You’re doomed unless you’re willing to pursue a line of work where you are held explicitly accountable for your individual efforts, such as sales. Which is a whole other level of stress.
Or you can join an organization that has extremely high expectations for all of its employees. High-pressure professional organizations often pay a lot more, but they really know how to squeeze the last drop of work out of you. When everyone is working 60 to 80 hours a week, then you can complain freely along with the rest, but don’t expect anyone to take you seriously.
But let’s assume that you just want a different-but-sort-of-the-same job. This is your big chance to change schools, so to speak. You know, like a teenager changing schools during summer break and taking the opportunity to create a new persona. Leaving behind the nerd caterpillar and emerging as the cool butterfly. That’s you.
To avoid repeating the same story, you are going to have to underperform in a way that won’t feel natural. Your instinct will be to throw yourself into your new job to prove how awesome you are, in the process revealing all your exceptional talents. Within six months, you’ll be right back where you are now.
Instead, you’ll need to use your skills without advertising them. You want to perform like this:
Still giving your employer more than they expect, but not your full knock-it-out-of-the-park, hooked-on-overwork performance. The key is that you can deliver +10% performance without working extra hours.
Remember: once you show superhuman powers, you can never scale back without being labeled a slacker – someone who is not living up to their full potential.
Now you just have to find something besides work to fill your life with meaning.
Changing Your Current Job
I saved this for last because it’s the hardest thing to do. Yes, even harder than starting a new job.
It’s as hard as changing the label that your family has placed on you. You know, the one they keep reapplying at every family gathering, no matter what you do or how much you’ve grown and changed since childhood. Humans like to label because it makes it easier to deal with others if you can lump them all into categories. 4
And once labeled as “bad,” there was hardly ever a need to reassess, so might as well make the label permanent. As you have experienced, we are not well-served by this labeling instinct in the modern world.
And your work “family” will resist changing their assessment of you every step of the way. They will be just as disappointed that you are not living up to their expectations as your mother.
Here’s the change-your-current-job process.
You can try talking it through with your boss
Yes, it will feel confrontational and you’ll be tempted to talk around the issue. But somewhere in the volume of words that you spew, you have to communicate this:
“I’m getting more done than anyone else, yet more is asked of me and I get no extra pay. I don’t think this is fair. What can be done?”
Note: You have not directly implicated your boss in overworking you. Don’t set off a defensive reaction by being too explicit.
You’ll know from the response if there’s any hope. If it helps get the message across, this is also the time to reveal a socially acceptable reason for not working as hard. Such as:
“I need to focus on my:
- other pressing and universally understood reason.”
(Maybe don’t say “pets.”)
People like reasons that give them an out. So your boss can say to himself:
“Robin is backing off on work because of a personal situation, not because I’ve been an overbearing taskmaster.”
You don’t need to make a point of crushing others into conforming to your needs. Who cares if they need to justify it in some way? You just want the result, which is lessening your own workload.
Whether you have a discussion or not, you will have to move on to the next phase. Which is where it gets even harder.
Start disappointing people
This is super hard. But all I’m saying is start doing the same amount of work as everyone else, or at most +10% to still stand out a bit. Which is way less than people are used to getting from you. Which means they’ll be disappointed. You are the best judge of how to avoid overwork in your particular situation, but consider the following.
Stop volunteering for extra stuff
If someone wants something done, they need to ask. Every time you volunteer for more work, you set a new floor for what is expected of you. If you get extra work done every single time, you’ll always get extra work.
Stop meeting arbitrary deadlines that no one else is meeting
This means not scoring imaginary points for being the only person to meet the deadline. Which in reality no one cares about. Which is why everyone but you blows it off.
Start using the same excuses as other people
“I can’t add that to my plate right now,” etc. You’ve heard them all for years. Choose a couple as your quick-response phrases.
Get ready for the fallout
Beyond changing perceptions about you, there’s another issue: someone has to do the work. Bosses don’t stop coming up with extra work just because you are no longer available to do it.
It will take every bit of strength you have to not allow coworkers to suck you in, even if you could do the task faster (and they know it). It’s called tough love. They need to learn and grow and rise to challenges, just like you had to.
This process of realigning your relationship with bosses and coworkers could take a year or more. It may require some management turnover to really stick.
Be prepared to fill your time
So here you are, exactly where you’ve always said you wanted to be: doing an appropriate amount of work. No more long hours, no more weekend texts and calls.
Now what are you going to do? Where will your validation come from?
Think about it.
Avoiding a life sentence of hard labor
The world desperately needs people who are good at their jobs – there is a lot of important work that needs doing. Your world, however, desperately needs you.
I’m talking about everything that makes up your world: family, personal passions…even pets, if that’s important to you. When we allow our jobs to drain the best of ourselves every day, when we can’t ever completely refill our motivation for work and life, then something has to change.
No one – no one – will ever fill this deepening hole in your life with magical appreciation or some equivalent amount of money that makes your grueling work schedule worthwhile.
But you can chart your own course from this point forward. Serious self-examination is the first step, followed by letting go and realigning priorities. It’s really hard to change our relationship with work. I’ve done it, so I know it’s possible.
I know that you can do it, too. Let’s get started.
Until next time… remember: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.