I am extremely valuable to my employer, working 55-60 hours a week and too close to burn-out for comfort. I’m curious what else is out there, but don’t have time to do the networking that’s necessary.

I really don’t want to leave, but am fearful that as more gets added to my plate, I’ll fail to meet my employer’s expectations and I will burn out trying – a very bad combination. I have 12 years experience in finance and project management and I have been with my company for three years, working up from accountant to finance director. It’s a tough business – contract services, national scale. I revolutionized our budgeting process, saving thousands of man-hours while generating budgets that were fair, challenging, and achievable, resulting in excellent annual growth in earnings. How can I find out how marketable I am without taking time away from my job?

Nick’s Reply

I commend you for recognizing you’re over-worked, but there’s no excuse for not taking time to learn what other opportunities are out there. When it comes to career development, complacency (no matter what the reason) is professional suicide. It may feel like prison, but only if you allow it.

over-workedMake time!

Over-worked and crashing

Diversify your career investment. Start turning down some projects. Delegate more tasks to others to create time for yourself. Take a little away from your job and put it into your future. You can meet all sorts of people in your industry through your work. Go to conferences, seminars and professional gatherings including continuing education — whether via Zoom or in person. (Do yourself a favor: in person is better than Zoom. Do it.)

I’ve met many people who share the “fly high/crash and burn” syndrome. They let themselves be over-worked and they all crash.

Burnout is not a career

Here’s how it goes: You use all your skills and talents to benefit your employer and gain recognition. When you hit the wall, you compensate by working harder and longer. Impressed (or just taking advantage), your employer “gives” you more responsibility. You feel blessed. To prove yourself worthy, you accept it. To handle it, you work even harder. Finally, you burn out, or you start making mistakes because there’s too much on your plate and you don’t know how to say No!

Meanwhile, you’ve trained your employer to expect more. Suddenly, you are not meeting expectations (ridiculous though they have become). You either quit in frustration and anger, or you get fired. You might brag to your friends that four people were hired to replace you, but that doesn’t change your situation. There goes your career — and possibly your health.

Take control

Stop aiming for quantity and quality at the same time. Start managing your employer. When you’re given more work, sit your boss down. Enumerate the work you’ve done successfully so it’s evident. Outline your next projects and tasks in detail. Then map out your work schedule and show where time runs out. Calmly explain the company needs to allocate help, or something has to give. Let your boss decide what. “Which projects or tasks would you like me to omit from this month’s schedule?”

If your boss says nothing can be cut and indicates you have to work even more hours, you must decline. “We need to hire help, or the work won’t get done. Here’s what we need…” Be ready with a clear, cogent plan for the work, and be ready to quit or get fired.

(You could try “quietly quitting,” or slowing down and letting things take their course, but I’m not a fan of this passive-aggrssive approach.)

You take a risk when you push back. You must decide what’s important to you and stand up for it.

Invest some time in your future. Yours is the classic cry for help. Please listen. Your well-being depends on it.

Have you ever been so over-worked that you were afraid to push back? Did your job ever make you sick? How did you handle it? What was the outcome?

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  1. “I revolutionized our budgeting process, saving thousands of man-hours while generating budgets that were fair, challenging, and achievable, resulting in excellent annual growth in earnings.”

    From the story, it sounds to me like you saved those thousands of hours by being brilliant and doing all the budgeting work yourself. (And working 60-hour weeks means you are giving the company an extra 1000 man-hours for free. Multiply that by your brilliance factor, and it takes up more of the savings.)

    What can you revolutionize now to save some of your own hours? As a director, what can you delegate to subordinates? How can you begin to clone yourself within the company? And more importantly, how do you get the company to accept getting results with you working less than 55-60 hours?

    I don’t mean those as snarky questions, but as real challenges. It seems to me that any successful business wants to grow, to scale up. But a single human being has limits. How do you get your budgeting process to scale past yourself?

    I’m sorry to only be asking silly thought questions. But you have Nick’s advice. (He is being real – something has to give. And if Don Harkness replies, you’ll have a second dose of good sense.)

    • And I should answer Nick’s question in the article. Yes, I have been there.

      The culture of the company was such that I felt I could do nothing. (But it’s also possible that my unhappiness blinded me to possibilities – so do try what Nick said.)

      As to health, when I had bloodwork done, I could see the numbers rising over time in a way that would have made a good stock portfolio. I was unhappy enough that for the last six months, I always carried a letter of resignation with me – I updated the dates every Sunday. I scheduled private counseling through our medical plan.

      The final result was that I resigned. My finances were in a state that I could and did take a year off to decompress. When I started my next job, I think I was making $10k less (until I proved myself), but I also reduced my commute by 2/3rds – which in Los Angeles is a big win.

  2. It was the beginning of December, and several people in my group had already had various illnesses that year (stroke, miscarriage, heart attacks). The CEO harkened back to our stated goal and now we were 40 mill short and there was only 25 mill in the pipeline. We were all going to have to work very hard, harder than before, to meet the deadline.

    I took one look at that slide and counted the number of hours I would have to work for the next 3 weeks.

    I quit.

  3. I love this recommendation only for the futility of the execution that will occur. I have worked for many very large international companies whose mantra was “there’s a wage freeze on, there’s a hiring freeze on, and no we cannot use more contractors. Here is the increased workload that we expect you to take on, and by the way, it is now your #1 performance review KPI that we will be evaluating.

    Only one time, when a director in another product line was given an additional project, but he was told, “Sorry, you get no additional resources, but it has to get done” he went into the resource software (whose location and managers were in a Germany, the home office) and basically put his lowest priority project on hold and reassigned the resources to the new project. They went NUTS – essentially giving him the “You can’t do that!” routine but he had facts and numbers on his side, essentially tied to FTE (full time employee) numbers and dared them to put in writing that tasks in the system tied to a full FTE could be performed by someone already listed in the system as an FTE for a differing task.

    They were hoisted by their own petard in that they couldn’t fight their own software that clearly stated that you can’t make someone do two jobs.

    It was priceless.

    • @Hank: I closed my advice bluntly, but I know it’s unlikely an employer is going to accept “I just cannot do any more.” I expect a person could get fired or otherwise “marked.” But no matter how we try to spin it, sometimes life comes down to the meaning of this quote from Henri Frederic Amiel:

      “A [person] must be able to cut a knot, for everything cannot be untied.”

      If you must comply and suffer through abuse because you need to put food on the table, I’m the last person to criticize you. But even in that case, I think it’s important to face the truth of the situation, even as you suffer through it.

      I love your story!

  4. Consistently working 55-60 hours will wear out the most energetic person over time. And, you showed them you were willing to work those hours regularly. You accomplished much—now they want more and even more after that.

    I think Nick’s plan is a good one to break down the work with hours assigned to tasks and all the projects that they say are important, and let them decide what will and will not get done. They may squawk about how important every project is but that is not usually the case. It’s more based on want than need. Not everything is a priority—someone has to lead and decide what adds value to the company and its customers. What adds value is what gets the time, money and effort.

    At some point, you need to make a decision about this company and if you want to continue working there or not. You will crash and burn if you continue this trajectory.

  5. Another option is to decide to work 40 hours a week. And skip the confrontation with the manager.

    In my [personal, limited] experience, companies will use the heck out of their best people. But they hesitate to fire them.

    Of course this is a “Say a prayer. And keep the powder dry.” situation. It needs to be part of an exit plan.

    My father worked at a company where people were terrified of layoffs. They would twenty hours or more a week in unpaid overtime. He worked hard every day. But when he hit his eight hours, he left. The people who hated him the most for doing this were his teammates (misery loves company).

    When retirement buy-outs came along, he figured he would get that. Nope. When layoffs came along, he figured he would get that. Nope. They laid off half his team (60+ hour a week workers). He still worked his forty. He finally decided to retire and quit.

    My point being there is often an unspoken zone for good workers who refuse to let work dominate their lives (pejoratively referred to as “quiet quitting).

    Use the extra time to renew professional relationships and acquaintances. And start seeking the next role.

  6. Sounds like my story. I was already putting in 60+ hour weeks and then we were bought by another VC. The new CEO pulled us away from our work into a meeting to tell us that he expected us to “put in a lot of extra effort” from now on. After working 60+ hours a week with no vacation for a couple of years, I had no extra effort to give. I struggled for a few months with my boss continually giving me more and more work that the other people he had hired weren’t qualified to or capable of doing. Then he tried get me to agree to manage these people I had recommended he not hire. I finally quit and they replaced me with 3 temps while trying to find my replacement, but they begged me to work part-time on some projects that couldn’t be given to temps. I relented but after 4 months the CEO had me laid off because he didn’t like having part-time people.

    Not to sound vindictive, but it did feel good to stick the company with unemployment since now I had been laid off instead of quitting. And, after I left my boss was pushed out of his cushy office and into a cubicle before finally being pushed out the door.

  7. Yes I’ve been there with the 55-60 hour+ weeks. More than once.

    One project stands out. An inhouse start-up. Mgmt diddled around delaying pulling the trigger to start up, but didn’t alter the targeted completion data. Like an outside start up, we managers including the boss, had multiple roles, starting with no help to recruiting whilst doing what needed to be done …yesterday.

    I was 2nd aboard, helping the boss, just the two of us. One of my key roles was handling the budget, pulling #’s out of my butt to put a price on the wonderful things we dreamed up in the great blue sky. Normally I was the QA guy, but I could # weasel with the best of them. Unlike an outside start up, there was funding (but competing for j$ with the sneering mainline product developers) and we were blessed with a trusty Finance staff whose job seemed to be to ride my ass, with constant demands for more info, in changing formats. Long story short this one thing by itself grew into a time sump that was sucking the life out of me.

    I’ve been in overload before..seems like always and the 1st thing to aim for if you can pull it off…is hire yourself out of that hole. Especially as in this case where the writer likes the company, & has parleyed himself into a gratifying role

    Yes indeed, the writer needs to set the boss down…but before you burn up a lot of your/boss’ time going over project details and possible tradeoffs, selfishly focus on your need. To bring in someone you KNOW is qualified to help. In my case, delegation wasn’t an option. There was no one to delegate to…yet. Everyone else was up to their ass in alligators, not to mention just about everyone hates budgets. Likely the writer has the same issues, plus handing off to the unwilling, unqualified, unenthusiastic is usually counterproductive. You lose time & risk error and related rework..

    To state what Nick & others have offered, the writer will have to wrestle himself to the ground & accept you MUST take the time to find the time to deal with the overload. I don’t know how long I procrastinated after I knew I needed help to get a new hire for on the table, and when I got the OK, to do the recruiting ..(insanely busy people/managers don’t like to recruit either). You can bet the writer realized long ago something had to be done…but…no time, no time.

    The writer didn’t provide details, but I can guess.
    1. Business has not been bad in his company. In 3 years it sustained his personal growth from accountant the Mr or Ms Finance.
    2. Mr Finance, developed the Finance system…most likely single handedly & in so doing wallowed in details, detailed # crunching. Most likely developed some really cool spreadsheets mere mortals won’t appreciate or understand. Possibly acquired accounting software, and in so doing became the local SME. And is likely still messing with the details.
    3. This system is his baby. Perfect. and it gets his full TLC attention. The idea of turning it over to those mere mortals is delegation is possibly likely, but not attractive.
    4. in his eyes his system turns out numerical perfection. Nothing less is unacceptable.
    5. The writer likely is constantly updating it as the company quickly grows, reorgs, comes up with new money making ideas, which requires this system to be changed.
    6 then there’s dealing with those other people/managers who are governed by the budget. Usually that does not mean praising you for your largesse, back slaps, free drinks, giving you quality estimates etc.
    7. Back to his problem. As such an important next step is to sit down and without BSing himself, estimate where he spends his time & of that, what could be done by someone else, with half a brain. I’ll bet a lot of it is detailed # crunching, data entry, spreadsheet TLC and if the company uses an accounting app,the writer messes with it too. This will produce the grist of what we call a job description(s).
    8. Next figure out the better use of his redirected grunt work time. Which should be finding & managing another hire, and training said person.
    9. Next as Nick & others noted, see if you can simplify the more important work you are doing. I’m willing to bet that a person who developed a Financial system/process has perfectionist in their DNA. There’s a line that separates “good enough” from perfect. & I’ll bet the writer often or always crosses that line. Better is the enemy of done. The writer needs to make sure that the person he’s trying to please with a perfect delivery isn’t himself, when everyone else is fine with good enough. 55-60 hour weeks doesn’t have room for constant perfection. This analysis will find you some time.
    9 The writer MUST spend the time to get this info. It simplifies the boss discussion. The same steps you must go through to make your case with the boss, will provide you some time to look around in case the boss tells you there’s no money in the cookie jar to provide you help.
    10 The writer has 1 big advantage..being the money person. Who knows where the dollars are buried & likely better than the boss. In a $ discussion, the boss will be trying to snow the snowman.
    11. And the writer should give some consideration to delegating some aspects of looking for other opportunities to trusted family and friends. A lot of searching entails a lot of research & research time. And people like to help and some love to do research. The writer just needs to clearly describe what he wants to be when he grows up to give your advocates a target.

  8. This is incredible advice for employers and business owners as well – thank you!

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