On Working Yourself To Death

In America, working a lot of hours is considered normal. Indeed, people who clock out promptly at the end of the day might be looked at askance, as if they aren’t giving enough of their heart and soul to the company. Over the years, I’ve tended to be one of those who works as long as it takes to get the job done, whatever it is. If I leave the office early enough to beat the traffic, that means I’m going to be hitting the VPN once I get home to finish off whatever it was I’d left undone. (And when I pop back online, the other loonies reveal themselves by their available IM status.)

I know for certain that I can’t push too many hours in the day, at least not on tasks that require my brain to be engaged. I’ve often wondered why that is. Mostly, I sit at a keyboard and type. I configure network equipment, I troubleshoot problems, and I keep projects moving along. I don’t have the sort of job where I’m doing much physical exertion. So, why is it that after several hours of purely mental exertion, I feel exhausted? Apparently, that’s just the way we humans are. Working longer hours doesn’t equate to greater productivity, because we’re simply not able to push hard endlessly.

In “Bring back the 40-hour work week“, Sara Robinson brings up a number of old (not new!) findings that explain the struggle people, including knowledge workers, have when working beyond 8 hours a day. Consider this telling quote from Sara’s piece.

Everybody knew that eight hours a day was pretty much the limit for a guy swinging a hammer or a shovel; but those grey-flannel guys are just sitting at desks. We’re paying them more; shouldn’t we be able to ask more of them?

The short answer is: no. In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight…You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.

One of the most obvious signs to me that I’ve exceeded my mental usefulness in a given day is that I make mistakes. I can type quickly, and I do so much CLI configuration of network gear that certain routine code blocks flow out of my fingers automatically. If I’m tired, I’m more likely to struggle to generate that code, or to lose focus of where I am in a complex change. Or I might paste the right code into the wrong window, or fail to notice an error a device spit back at me after submitting a command. Sara observes,

…the potential for catastrophic failure can be every bit as high for knowledge workers as it is for laborers. Robinson cites the follow-up investigations on the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Challenger explosion. Both sets of investigators found that severely overworked, overtired decision-makers played significant roles in bringing about these disasters.

Weariness has a price, and yet many of us put ourselves in the position day after day of dangling over the abyss of mental exhaustion. I’ve tried to change this in my own life, and made a least a little bit of progress so far in maximizing what I get done during the hours my brain is useful. The biggest changes have been forcing myself to sleep enough and relaxing from time to time (totally disconnecting from work and doing something else).

I’m still not doing well at working only 40 hours per week. Somehow, stopping at only 40 feels wrong. But I’m getting more comfortable with the idea. I’ve noticed that letting minor issues roll to the next day doesn’t incur the wrath of anyone, and that when I do tackle tasks while rested and charged, I’m better able to get them done. I’m still keeping up, I’m less stressed, and overall I have a better sense of well-being when I limit the number of hours I’m working. Still, there’s more to it that Sara captures well.

For employees, the fundamental realization is that an employer who asks for more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week is stealing something vital and precious from you. Every extra hour at work is going to cost you, big time, in some other critical area of your life…Changing this situation starts with the knowledge that an hour of overtime is a very real, material taking from our long-term well-being — and salaried workers aren’t even compensated for it.

Indeed. Thinking of working more than 40 hours as being stolen from is a whole different way to view the workplace. I don’t know if I’m ready to take it quite that far yet, as my overtime is rarely compulsory in my case, but it’s an idea with a lot of merit.

Narbik Kocharians, one of the most accomplished people I’ve ever met, once commented to me that he didn’t believe work is an end in and of itself. Work is a means to get along in life – to enable us to spend time doing the things we want to do, and to involve ourselves in the lives of our family and loved ones. There’s got to be more to life than work. He is, of course, right. I’m still looking for that balance.


  1. Alexandra Stanovska says

    Totally agree. After 5,5-6 hours tasks that normally take 30 minutes eat up hour and a half. After 14 hours by the end of day (night?) one just overlooks tiny little default-information originate statement or cannot compute from top of head whether certain IP is covered by ACL that’s being put in place and changes get backed out. Those were extremes but I cannot quite imagine doing this for months or even years.

  2. anonymous work-a-holic says

    my week seems to have a lot of meetings during the 40 hour work week. staying late or using the VPN seems to be the only way that i can get the small stuff done. as one seeking the balance you suggest, how can i get the coordination the meetings provide yet still complete actual work?

    • says

      Make meetings for yourself to block out the time. Refuse meetings that do not have a clear agenda. Don’t engage in items which are not on the agenda (how can you bring value if you’ve not been given the opportunity to research the problem: if there’s no problem why are you in a meeting?)

  3. mbushong says

    When I was at a large company, I had a role where I was running product management, product marketing, and operations. I felt obligated to help everyone all the time, so I would frequently end up in 35+ hours of meetings a week.

    About 2 years before I left that company, I made two distinct decisions:
    – Say no to any recurring meeting where I showed up twice and found it useless, or to any meeting that didn’t have a clear decision to be made (including, in some cases, meetings coming from above me)
    – Stop taking my laptop home every night

    A couple of things happened. It turns out that I wasn’t as important as I thought I was; meetings without me still happened, and the company kept moving without missing a beat. Only I had an extra 25 hours a week to get work done.

    And despite people thinking I was nuts to leave my laptop at work, it turns out that no one really noticed. The big stuff got done in the extra daytime hours, and the little things (small actions, reviews of stuff, emails) were not as time-sensitive as I thought.

    Maybe Nancy Reagan had it right all along when she challenged us to Just Say No.

  4. rizky says

    while i enjoy my networking job and the often taken for granted 24/7 attitude, there are boundaries. i try limit work to 40hours as its enough…. i have a life, family, kids hobbies and so much other stuff. its ok to be loyal to your employer, but fact is – do they ever return it? i dont think so, protect your valuable time.

  5. says

    My default position on overtime is to take time off in lieu, and I make sure I take it. Money does not make up for a crap work/life balance; been there done that and would prefer not to do that again.

  6. BJ moore says

    Any company who is still posting “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer with 10 years of experience” positions are telling the world (and customers) we have no support model and plan to work out people to death. There has been a lot of FUD about lack of IT talent which is dog wagging for lower headcount and no training budget. If you are an engineer and still reset passwords or troubleshoot basic performance issues for that matter your support model is broken. There is also the flip side, where bad engineers architect job security into all solutions and do not train or mentor others.

    • BJ moore says

      Here is a process I put in place in a past life. Take
      the top 10 issues that every engineer gets from the Help Desk/Service Desk then reconcile the lists and score them (biggest issue first). Write a very detailed resolution for each with several variants of the issue (Example: RA
      VPN does not work/ cannot connect can have many variants). Go train the help desk/ service desk and give them the documentation.

      • says

        Working on exactly this at the primary company I support. I deal with too much day-to-day noise – it drowns out the planning & design that should be happening, along with optimization of the current environment. But it’s easier said than done.

  7. NeilTAnderson says

    There’s a similar kind of attitude to working hours in Scotland/UK. Since going from permie employment to being a contractor, it’s taken me a long time to adjust to working sane hours instead of the ridiculous times I posted as a permie. Shrugging off the excesses of the Protestant Work Ethic – which, incidentally, has nothing to with religion – has made me much more productive overall. It also lets me have a proper home life, and I’m much happier as a result.

    Don’t get me wrong – sometimes I’ll still end up posting stupid hours for a week when I’ve double-booked myself, or if I’m working for multiple clients at once, but at least those weeks are the exception now and not the rule.

  8. Shaun says

    I don’t like to comment much but this article hit a raw nerve. I am many years older than you are and have fought this battle many times. Early in my life I was a sales manager in financial services for a multinational bank. I was top performer in my group and yet all of us were working 80+ hours per week for over a year. I asked a senior manager when this pace would lighten up and was told ‘what’s the matter Shaun, got span-of-control issues?’ Yeah, yeah I guess I do…

    I left and went into networking (long story) and ended up working 70+ hours/week for almost 10 years. I now work for government and work ~45/week.

    Life is too short and I missed too much of my kids growing up. I regret it every day. Pride convinced me I was the only guy to ‘get it done’. I was up 5 nights a week with escalations – and now I cannot sleep through the night. EVERY company will take advantage of competent people with misplaced pride, count on it, they all will do it.

    A big part of this is working for big corporations, but the bottom line was I let this happen because it made me feel important.

    Carpe Diem

  9. disqus_UrQpStDb9q says

    I’ve made a habit of not doing OT (beyond 40 hours) unless it directly involves support. Any other OT is covered by time in lieu. i’ve won many awards with different companies over the years to recognize my efforts …… but I’m no longer working for those companies and those awards are now meaningless. What isn’t meaningless is spending time with friends and family. No company truly cares about you – never forget that!

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