Ask the CHO: Overwork

Here’s a question that came in an email on Sunday(!)Clock:

Hi Alex,
I’ve just being surfing your website after typing in ‘overwork’ in Google and found it most interesting.

I’m an environmental consultant working in a medium size risk management consultancy. I’ve just been working on a report for a client on Sunday while my two kids and husband wait for me to finish.

I am contracted to work 4 days per week but usually end up working 5-6 days. My company has an unstated policy of never ever saying no to work, no matter how small the job. We have won several large tenders lately which has resulted in massive increases in workload for everyone (I am currently on 216% of my target for the month).

We deal with the clients ourselves (which is usually empowering) but if work isn’t completed on time or of the quality they require then we get the nasty phone calls or emails. I am usually known in the company as having good client relationships and lots of repeat business but I don’t answer the phone anymore.

Sorry for the sob story but could you offer any suggestions?



This is an interesting follow-up to my previous posts on working at home, flexibility at work, The Cult of Overwork and this question from another reader.

I asked Kirsten if I could post her question here and ask for your input and she agreed and is looking forward to reading any input we can give her.

So what do you think can be done in this situation? Is this typical? What if the problem is more systemic to the way the the whole business is set up?

12 thoughts on “Ask the CHO: Overwork”

  1. Well, I have been in similar situations before and it sounds like you need a layer of customer service wedged nicely between yourself and the bad client calls. A single FTE who can field the calls will ensure your customers remain well taken care of (as opposed to leaving voicemails and not hearing back, which is BAD). This person will also dilute the angriness of their calls when they give the message to you. You can then wait the standard hour for the client to settle down, and return the call.

    While your work may not want to (or be able to) hire someone for this, it worked for me in the past. If you lose one big client, you could have probably paid for 5 FTEs, so the cost-benefit is substantial.

  2. It seems to me that somebody needs to state what has been unstated: “it looks like we’re taking on more work than we have the resources to do well. why?”

    Putting it in terms of damaging the long-term prospects of the business (rather than personal life/work balance) might help all the employees:

    “I am usually known in the company as having good client relationships and lots of repeat business but I don

  3. Scott m: That is a GREAT idea. It would also let the consultants do what they like to do and make them a little happier at work.

    Elaine: It does sound like this company has been dodging that particular conversation for a while now, doesn’t it :o)

    It is a classic example of how short-term thinking makes employees unhappy at work. And I can almost guarantee you that this will come back and bite them before long.

  4. What if we decided that being less available made us more desirable? If we said, “I’m booked till [date X], but then I’ll be right on your project,” we would sound busy and productive, which is the truth. Wouldn’t that make our clients feel lucky to have us, rather than having them think we have lots of free time and gladly take on projects but then don’t meet their expectations?

  5. I agree with what Rebecca said. Maybe pull your team into a meeting and project what you can realistically do in any given time period. It may also make since to set up some sort of system that allows you to see how much time each job is going to take you vs. how much time you have to spend overall. That way once you’ve filled up the sheet you know that you can’t take more work. You can also use it to forecast what type of work you can expect during certain periods. It will be a fun way to get your team involved and “keep score” so you can tell how well you are doing overall.

    Not saying no to work is a noble goal, but it is unrealistic in most situations and causes people to burn out quickly.

  6. other suggestions:
    * consider job-sharing so that you are not pulled into work on your “day off”
    * make sure you set your own boundaries and priorities (I say that as a working mother myself) so that you don’t over-compensate for your limited hours if you are efficient anyway. I think working moms tend to do that.
    * make sure your manager is aware of your needs and frustrations. Your manager needs to level-set expectations.
    * ask other people to pay for your childcare penalties if you are asked to work late/extra hours (ok, it is a bit of a sting but it will make the point if people start getting nasty)
    * make sure people understand you DO work part time and that you do NOT work on x day. It sounds like you are pretty efficient. If clients have a problem with you working part-time, they can take it to management. However my experience is that clients are very understanding and accommodating if they know you work part time, especially when you have a good relationship with them to start with.
    * what they said (above) :)

  7. Rebecca: That is a wonderful bit of mental judo. I love it!

    In fact, I remember one client who told us, that he especially liked to work with us because we were not afraid to say no. All the other consulting companies always said “yes” to all changes, ideas and deadlines – and then couldn’t deliver half the time.

    Robert: Great suggestions. I especially like your idea of tracking promised vs. actual time.

    wonderwebby: Those are some great and, best of all, very practical suggestions. Thanks!

  8. Kirsten’s note suggests her role is at an operational vs. strategic level in a medium size firm. The extent to which she can really effect any process or cultural change, in a way that will significantly impact her work life balance, is likely to be small. Sounds to me like the questions she should be asking herself are more along the lines of:

    “Does this company’s value set align with mine?”
    “What do I enjoy about work?”
    “What kind of work could I do that would give me this sense of satisfaction AND allow me to enjoy a guilt free family life….?”

  9. The real problem is that most employers will not be very inclined to hire someone extra. So it all comes down to oneself (Kirsten), as it always does. Kirsten has to set her boundaries straight and talk it over with her employer. And because we’re talking business she has to talk figures. Something like, I’m getting 125% work and I’ll only want to do 110% (to show you’re willing to do the extra mile). Then explain what this will mean for business e.g. in terms of personal client attention (wich will go down). In the last part of her talk Kirsten has to give the solution and this is when Scott’s plan comes in. Most probably the employer will persuade Kirsten to do the 125% anyway. Giving excuses like it’s only temporary etc. In this stage Kirsten will have to hold her ground. If the employer does not listen anyway this is a sign that the company is not giving Kirsten the respect she is entitled to. At that time one must realise that the employer sees the employee only as a ‘productivity tool’. Time to broaden your horizon, but let’s talk first. Shwoing how you feel is scary but helps most of the time.

  10. I will make the assumption that Kirsten does not have the ability to change the company. While a great suggestion to add customer service staff, let’s further assume that isn’t going to happen. Under the “control what you can control” banner, Kirsten should work very hard to create positive messages that indicate that she is in demand and will respond at such and such a time. These messages would be LIKE the “out of office” Outlook reply. They would state something like, “thank you for your e-mail. I am currently finishing projects for 3 current clients that are going to be delighted with the results. It is taking some extra time to exceed their expectations. Thank you for your patience. I should be able to respond to you………” DO NOT use the actual “out of office” command because, when people see that, they don’t usually read what you are saying. They just see the auto-reply and figure you are goofing off. Write several messages like this and save them as “auto-signatures” or keep them on a Word document that you can cut-and-paste from. You write several so you can mix it up. After you send one, forward the sent item to your superiors with the message, “Dear boss, I would really like to help these people. You see my workload right now. I think I am pushing as hard as I can. I feel that I either have to put people off or let quality slip. What do you suggest?” I am assuming you work for some people that care. I would have a similar vc mail message….changed frequently so people don’t come to think that this is your way to just “blow them off.” If management likes your work and is seeing the difficulties that it’s workers are having rather than just complaints, change may occur.

    I am having to make a lot of assumptions here which is not the way that I like to consult but it’s the best I can do with the info given.

  11. Great suggestions all,
    Nutster, your advice re email replies and voice mail messages struck a chord-I will definitley implement that.
    Virgil-Setting boundaries is also something I struggle with but must develop. I have made some inroads with regards getting help on projects.
    Robert-we already have spreadsheets & timesheets that tell our managers how much work we’ve got on. Unfortunately no one has the time to look at them!
    Rebecca-I know what you are saying, I have one supplier who says no occasionally because they are so busy but they are always my first port of call because they are the best, which is why they have to say no every now and then. This comes back to boundaries again. I’m afraid that I will be in trouble with management for saying no though. Which ties in neatly with the questions that Jeremy posed; Do I want to work for an organisation who sees the $$$ before their staff?
    I don’t but our industry is small and workaholism is rife throughout the industry and I’m afraid that workig somewhere else might be worse

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