Category Archives: Ask the CHO

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?

“Office Lady” from Hong Kong is back – and still not happy at work

Ask the CHOA while back I got a comment from Office Lady in Hong Kong who wrote that:

I’ve been miserable at work and, although it took me almost a year, I eventually built up the courage, and I’ve finally quit my job!!

I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

And most of all, I’ve found a new job too! No one knows how it’ll go, but a change is definitely due and I’m looking forward to a fresh start.

Your site has definitely pushed me on.

:) One happy Office Lady in Hong Kong

So how did it go? Well, Office Lady is not yet happy at work, and she is asking for our advice:

I’m now at another job and I’m again thinking about leaving (hence I’m here again). Yes, it pays better than my last job, my boss is awesome (I don’t think how anyone can have a better boss), I have benefits and so on.

But the work doesn’t inspire me. It’s boring. And I believe I have more potential and more to offer. My job is like acting as a middle-person, passing on requests and documents between our headquarters in the US and our regional offices all over Asia. I don’t “make” anything. I don’t make the documents. People give me documents, I give them to someone else. People give me documents, I compile them in the right order, and give them to someone else.

In my previous job, what drove me to quit was that eventually, I actually DREADED going to work. I’d actually panic in bed on Sunday night. Here, I don’t dread it, but I just plainly find no point in going to work. I drag my work out throughout the day, just so I have enough to keep my occupied.

Question is, should I leave just after 5 or 6 months here? And go find something that would engage me? Risk losing my income, benefits and not finding a boss as great again?

What a great question – and one that many people face. What do you do when work isn’t all that bad, but not all that good either? Is “OK” good enough?

What would you advice Office Lady to do?

Can you be happy in an evil business?


My Dutch Pal Erno Mijland asks a very interesting question:

Last week I watched the film Our Daily Bread which is a documentary on how food is produced in Europe. It shows an industry in which there’s not a lot of respect for plants and animals: lots of poison, young chickens being thrown around, pigs transported in small boxes etc. etc.

Because I was a bit prepared these images didn’t shock me very much. What did shock me, were the scenes in which the workers in this industry where shown. People showing no emotion whatsoever in what they where doing, big automated halls where a worker works (and lunches) alone, people doing mind torturing repetitive work all day long.

It made me wonder: who could possibly be happy at work in these kind of conditions?

What a great question. The easy answer would be “No one. No one can be happy under these conditions.” But the truth is a little more complicated.

If you haven’t seen Our Daily Bread and you’re not squeamish, you can see a short clip from the movie here:

Interestingly, I’m currently reading a book called Gig, which simply consists of interviews with working Americans. I just read about the HR manager in a slaughterhouse, who talks about the same issue:

Last month, I hired eighty-five people and ninety-two left. That’s not uncommon. We’re bleeding people. I hire them and they leave… Some people will quit fifteen minutes after they get on the floor because it is so ugly to them.

The interview also has some graphic descriptions of employees walking around in a couple of inches of cow blood… No wonder so many people quit!

But this is not just about killing cows. Could you be happy working for a company that makes land mines? Or a company that pollutes the environment? Or a tobacco company? Or working for Microsoft? Just kidding!

The larger question is this: Can you be happy at work if you deeply believe that your workplace ultimately makes the world a worse place?

Here are some factors to take into account:

1: Mismatch between personal and company values is a huge stress factor
When your job goes against your personal values, you’re in a very difficult situation. This means, that on a daily basis you are doing things that you can’t defend to yourself.

This causes what we might call values stress – a feeling of stress that comes from a conflict of values. This can be every bit as serious and damaging as the old garden-variety stress that comes from being busy.

Even if you’re not actually making the land mines – let’s say you’re just the receptionist – this may weigh heavily on you. Every single day.

2: You can temporarily ignore this mismatch
However, you can keep yourself from dealing with this stress factor simply by ignoring it. The human mind has a fantastic ability to shut things out and adapt. If you so choose, you can simply keep yourself from realizing that this is bad.

You can focus on the good aspects on your job, have fun with nice co-workers, and even still take pleasure from doing your job well.

A lot of people certainly do this for a while, particularly when they really need the salary. But while it can enable you to be happy at work for a time, it is not a good long term strategy.

Even CEOs are not immune to this temporary blindness. Here, Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface the world’s largest manufacturer of carpets, explains how he suddenly realized that his company was bad for the environment:

…it dawned on me that they way I’d been running Interface is the way of the plunderer. Plundering something that is not mine, something that belongs to every creature on earth.

And I said to myself “My goodness, a day must come where this is illegal, where plundering is not allowed. I mean, it must come.”

So I said to myself “My goodness, some day people like me will end up in jail.”

The good news is that he made this realization and that he was in a position to act on it and make Interface environmentally responsible. If you’re an employee of an evil workplace, your main option is probably to get out of Dodge and find another job you can be proud of.

3: The higher your investment in the company, the easier it is to blind yourself
And I’m not just talking stocks. You can invest money, but also time and identity in your work.

The more you have invested already, the harder it will be for you to realize that things are just plain wrong. This specifically means that the longer you stay, the harder it gets to leave.

4: Being part of a bad system changes your perception
And more than anything, the system you exist in can shape your perception. If everyone around you acts like “hey, spending your day knee-deep in cow guts is perfectly normal” or “sure it’s OK to cheat about the company finances – everybody does it” then you’re more likely to think so too.

The Milgram experiment may be the most chilling reminder of this effect. In it, subjects were lead to believe that they were part of a study in learning that required them to give another test subject electrical shocks. In reality the other person was an actor and no shocks were given.

The study showed that 65% of the subjects continued administering ever more powerful electrical shocks – even though the actor was screaming in pain and later on pretended to pass out. The subjects were never pressured – if they protested they were simply told in a calm voice that “The experiment requires that you continue” or “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

Here’s part of Milgram’s chilling conclusion:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

So when people in authority tell us to do something that we know is wrong, when the entire system just acts as if unethical, damaging behavior is just business as usual, many of us are powerless to resist. You may think that YOU are exempt from this, but in reality we’re all subject to this effect.

This is part of the reason that the Enron scandal could go on for as long as it did, even though many people inside the company ought to have known that something was rotten: everyone acted like everything was fine. As in “The company requires that you continue.”

Ultimately, it may even explain something like Abu Ghraib.

What’s your take?
Have you ever held a job in a horrible business? What did it do to you and your happiness at work?

Related posts:

Ask the CHO: Who has a right to complain

Ask the Chief Happiness OfficerJill read my post about why constant complaining is so toxic in the workplace and then experienced a moment of synchronicity:

I broadly agree with your post, except that, well, right after reading it, my feed reader served up a post from another blogger I enjoy reading called “The Right to Complain“. She and I are both academics, and there’s certainly a culture among many academics to complain about the system we’re in. I’ve found your blog, among others, helpful in trying to figure out what it is that I’m not happy about in my job, and what I am happy about, and which things, if any, I want to change.

Anyway, coming just after each other like that, two posts on complaining that argue very differently. Dr. Crazy argues that academic jobs are extremely difficult, because of the large investment in time and money you’ve put into getting there (thank you Norway for better funding), the large amount of “invisible” work that goes into research, publishing, administration etc, and your lack of choice in where you live, among other things (I’m lucky, I work where I want to live). Yet people tend to think it’s a cushy job, “you only work 12 hours a week”! (that’s the classroom hours).

If you have time, I’d love to hear your opinion after reading her post. Could there be a kind of complaining that’s not directed to someone like the boss, but – well, with an idea that perhaps one should complain to the people who can change things, and those people are sometimes yourself and your colleagues?

Thanks for the link, Jill. That is indeed two very different views on complaining – at least at first glance.

I agree with Dr. Crazy that we all have the right to complain. It’s not like I can tell anyone else that their problems are not worthy of complaining about because what seems a molehill to me might well be a mountain to them – and vice versa.

In fact, if you want to increase workplace complaining, all you need to do is to tell people not to complain because their problems are so trivial they have no right to complain. That‘ll get them complaining for sure :o)

So it’s not really about whether or not we have a right to complain (if somethings’s wrong, you have the right) it’s about how we choose to complain. As I wrote in my post, I believe that there are two fundamentally ways to go about expressing your dissatisfaction: Constructive and destructive.

Broadly speaking, constructive complaining leads to change and destructive complaining leads to more complaining (more here).

I also disagree with her assertion that “if nobody complained, then nothing would ever change, then none of those sucky things would ever be eradicated. ”

Dissatisfaction and complaining is one way to go about changing things – a deep appreciation of what is and a positive desire for the future is another, and in my experience, more effective way of bringing about change. I often refer to this quote by Patch Adams which points to this dilemma:

Change that is deeply effective and positive presents a paradoxical challenge.

On the one hand, there needs to be an appreciation and acceptance of how things are in the here and now. On the other hand, there needs to be an active intention to make things better.

Nothing needs to change, and everything can improve. This is the way to avoid the two extremist traps of activist’s frustration or pessimistic complacency.

– Patch Adams

However I agree totally with Dr. Crazy’s final statement that “if one can’t bitch on a blog, where exactly can one bitch?” :o) It’s like blogs were made for it.

Ask the CHO: What if you suddenly stopped being happy?

Ask the Chief Happiness OfficerRussell Quinn asks a very interesting question in a comment:

I’ve been reading your blog for a while and your career in “being happy” got me thinking.

Can an occupation in promoting an emotion like your own happiness be compared to something like an athlete? and what happens when it’s over?

For example, you can train yourself to be happier and work at improving your own happiness, in the same way as you can train your muscles to be a better runner. You can eventually become known as a “happiness officer” or an “athlete”.

But, in the same way that something unforeseen and out of your control, like a broken leg, can happen end your athletic career, a major trauma could send you into a spiral of depression and end your career in happiness.

I guess my point of this.. is that i was considering these two statements and how the public would react to them:

“I used to be an athlete, but a broken leg meant I had to give it up 5 years ago”, and

“I used to promote happiness, but a period of depression meant i gave it up”

They are both really the same thing after all.

Sorry for going off at a tangent ;)

That’s a great tangent! And I really like the mental image of the Chief Happiness Officer who’s sprained his happy muscle and is now depressed :o)

To me, happiness is not a fixed state – it’s a constantly fluctuating emotion. It’s not like I can make myself happy, and then be happy every moment of every day for the rest of my life.

No matter how happy a person is right this second, something could happen to make that person desperately unhappy. Depression is a great example – as it is a chemical imbalance in the brain resulting in a severely bad mood that may not have been triggered by any external events in your life.

But here’s the crucial point: As Russell writes, you can train happiness. This won’t mean that you’ll always be happy – but that you’ll be as happy as you can be, given your circumstances. And when something bad happens you will be unhappy, but you will be less unhappy and be so for a shorter time.

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology admits that he is not a particularly happy person and that his efforts have taken him from depressive to moderately happy. Which kinda explains why the planet’s foremost proponent of happiness always looks so grumpy :o)

So it could absolutely happen: I could lose my happiness because something bad happened to me – or for no reason at all. And I probably would be forced to quit as the Chief Happiness Officer if that happened because there’s no way you can make other people happy if you’re unhappy yourself.

A large part of what I present in my presentations and workshops is me being happy and full of energy and customers constantly remark on this. They like what I say – and they like the way I say it just as much.

Another important point is that happiness is no less nice, desirable or beautiful for being fragile. Yes, you can build up amazing levels of happiness and lose it all in a moment when some terrifying, unstoppable event takes it all away. But that’s no reason not to be as happy as you can.

Does that make sense at all?

Ask the CHO: How do you hire a happy manager?

Ask the CHONixon McInnes is a happy workplace. This web design agency based in Brighton in the UK have some great policies including:

  • No dress code
  • Employees set their own working hours
  • open salaries (ie. everyone knows what everyone else is paid)

They’re also doing very well and will be needing another manager soon, so director Tom Nixon wrote me an email asking how a happy company should hire its managers:

This year I’m going to be recruiting a manager to oversee the website design and development side of our business and lead the team. It’s important to me that we hire someone who will make the team (and clients) HAPPY.

I’ve been borrowing ideas from Semler about inviting the employees who will report to this manager to submit criteria against which we should judge candidates and involving them in the interview process.

But do you have any more ideas/tips for company directors or CEOs who want to hire managers that will make their employees happy?

That’s a great question. Traditional ways to hire a manager fall short because they focus too much on finding a person with the right professional skills and an impressive CV and not enough on happiness at work.

When you hire a new manager the most important thing is to find one who will make the employees happy at work. This makes great bottom-line sense because happy employees are much more productive.

Here are my thoughts on some alternative ways to hire a happy manager that will help you find a manager who will:

  • Fit well into the company’s culture
  • Enjoy working in the company
  • Make employees happy at work
  • Make the customers happy

1: Let the employees do it
Few companies have taken this further than Semco, so emulating them is definitely a good place to start. Tom and I are both member of the unofficial Ricardo Semler Fanclub, but for those who haven’t heard of his fantastic management style, one of the things his company does is let employees hire their own managers.

Employees define what qualifications the new boss should have and they conduct the job interview. They’re done as group interviews where multiple candidates are interviewed at the same time by the employees.

This seems radical but it has worked extremely well for Semco where people are so happy at work the employee turnover is typically around 1%.

You can read all about Semco in Ricardo Semler’s fantastic book The Seven-Day Weekend. It is without a doubt the single best business book I have ever read.

2: Let the employees formulate some tricky scenarios
If you don’t want to take it quite as far, how about letting the employees formulate some scenarios that applicants can then respond to in the job interviews.

As in “A customer does this, employees react like that, the whole situation is now in deadlock, what do you do?”

These scenarios should preferably be based on specific tricky situations from the company’s past, so you know they’re relevant. Let the employees specify both the scenarios and their preferred solutions.

The cool thing about this is also that it would get employees talking about their expectations for the new manager and let them have a chance to think about the manager’s responsibilities.

3: Ask your customers
How about asking some of your preferred, long-term customers what kind of manager they would like to work with..? Would that be totally weird or..?

It sounds like this manager will be working closely with the customers, so getting their input might be very valuable. It may also make the customers feel valued because you show that you care about their opinion.

4: Look for the right personal strengths
I previously wrote about the VIA strength questionnaire, a test which will reveal your most 5 important personal strengths out of a total of 24.

I suggest having a conversation inside the company about which top 5 strengths your ideal manager should have. Should she possess curiosity or is forgiveness more important? Is humor central or does capacity to be loved matter more?

This conversation is interesting to have in itself and it can give you a much clearer picture of what your new manager should be like.

5: Base it on people’s “Best boss ever”
Start a conversation in the company around these question: “Who has been your best boss ever? What did he/she do? What did you like about that person? How did that person affect you and your work? How did this make you happy at work?”

This will uncover people’s previous experiences with good leadership and give you a profile of the ideal boss.

6: Hire no jerks. Ever!
Hire no jerks, no matter how good they look on paper. Jerks make everyone unhappy at work.

Your ideas?
What about you? Do you know of some cool ways to hire the right manager – one who will make employees and customers happy?

Oh, and if you’re in the web business, Nixon McInnes are currently looking for more talent. Check’em out, they are a great place to work :o)

Ask the CHO: Happy companies and happy cultures

Ask the Chief Happiness OfficerI got this question from a reader who would like to be anonymous:

As you travel around on your speaking engagements, and you work with and meet a variety of people, are you able to get a sense of what companies are really committed to the concepts you espouse? If yes, have you thought about, or do you have a listing or directory of these companies? If no, is there interest in drumming up such a directory, sort of a Who’s Who of Happiness?????

I for one am interested; and, I have passed your information along to all my colleagues — hence the reason I would like to remain anonymous. Yes, I am looking to leave my very unhappy situation. In fact, I recently used your interview questions on more than one occasion to suss out whether or not a prospective company was the right fit for me.

I would also like to know if geographics and culture play a part in whether or not a company or corporation — and its leadership — are more apt to implement, maintain and sustain a Happiness Workplace. For example, in the US we are seeing less and less of a work/life balance. A culture that puts work before family and personal life seems like it might not value happiness, so I am curious to learn if there are factors popping up that indicate culture and work ethics play a part.

Thank you, CHO, for your time and great work!

First of all, thanks for the kind words :o)

I work with a LOT of companies, and I do get a very good sense of which ones are truly committed to happiness at work and which ones just say they are.

Because almost every company these days will tell you that they want motivated, happy, empowered employees, but not all companies live up to it in practice.

Working with managers and people, I quickly get an idea of where a company really stands – and that could definitely be put into a listing of sorts. Or maybe something like a certification? As in “this company is certifiably happy” :o) Not a bad idea!

As for your second question: Yes, geography and national culture certainly makes a difference. For instance, because taxes in Denmark are the highest in the world, fewer people bother with overwork and consequently Danish workers achieve the best work/life balance in the world.

Also, according to the work of Geert Hofstede, there are differences between corporate cultures in various nations, which he categorizes using five parameters:

  • Low vs. High Power Distance
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Masculinity vs. femininity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Long vs. short term orientation

Read more about these here.

In my opinion, happiness at work is more likely to be found in an organizational culture that has:

  • Low power distance – so you can have good easy-going relations between managers and employees
  • A reasonable balance between individualism and collectivism- so it’s not all about me, but not all about us either
  • A more feminine work culture – so people care about each other
  • A low uncertainty avoidance – so people are willing to take risks and make mistakes
  • A long term orientation – so it’s not all about this quarter’s results

I have no proof for this and have seen no studies on it, so this is purely my gut feeling. However, this is pretty much what characterizes Scandinavian business culture, and Scandinavian workers are the happiest in the world, so there may be something there…

One thing that also varies between nations is people’s expectations for happiness at work. In Scandinavia we have a long tradition of focusing in employees’ welfare, so most people expect to get a job they will at least like, of not love.

In other countries, most people are still new to the idea that it’s even possible like your job – they expect work to be hard and unpleasant. Fortunately this is changing all over the world, and more and more people are choosing happiness at work.


Update on saying no to customers


About a week ago, Pixel Peony (no, that’s not her real name) asked me what to do about really difficult customers. My advice was to dare to say “No!” to those customers that just don’t make you happy at work.

That advice was repeated and fleshed out in all the great comments on that post. Thanks people!

Well, Pixel Peony not only read that advice, she dared to take it, and here’s how things went:

Here’s an update on my work situation. I was honest, but not rude, with my “difficult” client. Ultimately, she wrote back a very angry, vitriolic email and I decided it was for the best not to continue working with her. We haven’t been in touch since her email, but the work relationship is definitely over.

At first I was worried about it, but now I am elated! It’s a big relief to not have to deal with her anger and the general difficulties of working with someone who doesn’t listen, or appreciate my feedback. By contrast, my other main client, at the moment, is open, we communicate well, they are knowledgeable and basically terrific. I am eager to hear their ideas, because we are actually having a two-way discussion. I want to make this client happy and I am happy as a result.

Yes! I love it!

If something at work makes you unhappy, do something about it. And, yes, this includes customers. No one should continue to work with a customer who will not treat them fairly and politely.

Ask the CHO: Should you work for a year in a job that sucks

Bad job

In a previous post I argued against some commonly used phrases at work, including the idea that you can take a bad job “just for a year” to make some money.

Dirceu asked this question in a comment on the post:

About the “It’s not my dream job, but it’s only for a year…??? phrase: a person can work on a not-so-good job for one year just to save enough money to do what he/she want, just for security.

Me, for example: I’m renting an apartment and paying a graduation course on a local university. If I want to change my focus from computers to, say, museums I really need to have money for security reasons.

I know about the advantages of low-rent living, but with zero money, no living. :-(

Please, talk more about this. And go on with the blog: it’s being, as always, very helpful.

Great question Dirceu!

Many, many people seem to think that sometimes you’ve just got to knuckle down and take that sucky job because you need the money. You can be a student paying your tuition, a new graduate paying off your student loans, a new home owner struggling to make the mortgage or any number of other situations that mean you depend on a steady income.

But does that really mean that you must accept being unhappy at work? There is one question you must ask yourself:

Leaving a bad job may cost you some money. Sure.
But what will keeping that job cost you?

Being unhappy at work steadily saps your energy, will power, self esteem and motivation. The longer you stay in that situation, the harder it gets to see any positive alternatives and to take action and move on.

And it doesn’t just affect you at work, it also affects you outside of work. When work is something that gives you no pleasure, has no meaning for you, gives you no victories or appreciation and is simply no fun, your life outside of work is likely to suffer too.

The worst thing about this is that it sneaks up on you gradually. Your energy dissipates slowly. You’ll hardly notice it from one day to the next but before you know it, the life has gone out of you. You become cynical, tired, uncreative, negative – maybe even depressed, stressed and sick.

The thing is, the cost of leaving a bad job is very clear to us because the effect is immediate. The cost of keeping a bad job can be much higher, but it sneaks up on us slowly, and therefore we often forget to take that into account.

What is your experience? Have you tried staying in a bad job for the money and the security? How was it? Write a comment, I’d really like to know!