Crazy hours: Stories from the front

In one week, I heard three stories. I've changed the names.

Sandra, six months into a new job with a global manufacturing company, was, after a workforce reduction,
handed another person's role on top of her own. She works 12-14 hour days. Booked solidly into meetings at work, she brings files home to review in the quiet, until midnight. (Sandra is childless.)

I met her last week and noticed her hollow eyes and gray skin. Her spark has gone.

Betsy, a manager in the Canadian office of a North American firm, told me that her manager, a time zone away, called regularly to discuss business during her maternity leave, and now that she's back, phones as late as 10 pm. on a Sunday evening. He schedules phone meetings for 6 pm., "forgetting" it is one hour later where she is.
But it's 7 pm. at her house, prime family time when wrangling a newborn and toddler.

Marcia, a service manager at a huge telecom, gets BlackBerry buzzes at 9 pm. saying, "WHY aren't you there?"
Though she scheduled time off between Christmas and New Year's, she came in to work for two days to make sure a deal was completed. No one thanked her.

Is it a coincidence that each of these stories is a woman's?

When men tell me about the erosion of their personal time, they duck their heads as if disclosing a shameful secret.
Or they brag. I heard two IT road warriors on a plane boasting about how long it had been since they had been home for a weekend. The winner hadn't seen his family in seven weeks. "What can you do?" he said dismissively.

Two of the three women are looking elsewhere. I've worked with each; they're no wimps, have a top-notch work ethic and understand that emergencies and crunches mean extra hours.

This demand on worker's personal time is increasing. If you are working days, evenings should belong to you, unless you have accepted responsibilities that require extended hours or on-call work. Some hourly workers welcome overtime as a way to make extra income. These women are salaried, and do not want the overtime even if paid.

If employees want to give mega-hours to an organization, that's their business. But I know too many people forfeiting their personal time against their will, cowed, resentful, exploited.

When I began working in corporations four decades ago, the hours were long at certain periods, but you could take compensatory time off, and no one expected to see you first thing in the morning after your red-eye flight from London. It was intense but civilized.

Many of you agree, and have commented on the factors that have contributed to the shift. And what can we do about it?

I deplore what the pressure to cede private life to corporate "productivity" is doing to these dedicated, hard-working women.


Artful Lawyer said…
Wonderful post! I am a law firm lawyer whose spark got up and went a few years ago and am also looking to escape - there is no end, and there is no "off time" unless you accept being a second class citizen and performer (this category is mostly female). It's insane - I've been thinking that it was some crazy American Puritan thing (along the lines of "no one may enjoy life, working yourself to death is a sign of virtue") but perhaps the crazy Puritan mindset is in Canada too?

I've given up even trying to address the issue at my current workplace - the most common retort from many men in power to the issue of life balance and retention is "well, some people just don't know how to work hard" which is utter BS but makes the man saying it feel big.....

Thank you for posting on this issue - may it help someone, somewhere, to get herself free.
Duchesse said…
Artful: It is not Puritan, at least they rested on Sunday. If your spark went a few years ago, hope you are well on the way to the change you seek.
LPC said…
Yes, when I worked for a company with most of its operations in China, many calls were scheduled for our California evenings. Luckily I was senior enough, and with enough corporate good will, that I could say no most of the time.
Frugal Scholar said…
I don't know if it's just women. Both my brother and his wife--working in corporate NYC--are in constant terror of being fired, and will do whatever is asked.

This is also a downside of all the communications devices--people expect to reach us at any time.
Belle de Ville said…
This is a very timely topic to post about given that the US has shed some 2.3 million jobs in the past few months.

Employers know that they can push their workforce more that ever because jobs are not pleniful. I know executive that have been out of work for YEARS and I know people who were laid off in the last month.

The entire situation is dire...except of course for the corporations whose productivity numbers are incereased as numbers of employees are reduced.

I work extended hours because
1. I am building a business from the bottom up and
2. an internet business is intrinsically 24/7.
I'm tired but I don't complain...neither do I brag...I don't get paid enough for that!

It is one thing to be a 25 year old in investment banking or law who is working 60-80 hour weeks and who will eventually make partner. It is another thing to be a young mother (or father) with a family who has to take calls at all hours or work on weekends.
OdetteO said…
Great post.

The organization I worked for laid off a quarter of its staff, including myself. All the job listings in my field now look like at least two jobs combined.
After the last few months of having time to listen to my own needs, getting enough sleep, eating at regular hours and seeing my friends (I saw them more in the last two months than I had in the last 5 years), I'm horrified by the realization that if I'm lucky enough to get another job, I'll likely be expected to work most evenings & weekends w/o complaining, w/o any recourse (& w/o any extra compensation). In this drudgery, where do I get a life? And if I don't, what is the point? I don't care about stuff accumulation - I would rather have life balance.

A friend of mine lost his 7-year marriage. His company was taken over by new management who expected him to travel most of every month. He had a newborn daughter at the time - she's 3 now and is being shuttled between two houses as her parents try to get past the fallout & mutual recriminations enough to be good parents.

I don't know what the solution is - but I think we should all be paying a lot of attention to which laws our local politicians support - or don't - and whether their rhetoric about family values actually matches how they vote on legislation that protects employees. It's never in a corporation's best interest to give its employees more time to themselves -they will take as much as they can get until someone puts limits on them & enforces those limits.
tiffany said…
There's a lot of this in Australia too. I work on the periphery of banking and stockbroking and I've seen changes even in just the last five years. One thing I've observed is that some of the younger workers (both male and female), in their 20s and early 30s and often still living with their parents, voluntarily stay very late, come in on weekends, etc. It seems to make them feel productive/noticed, but it has also led to the expectation that everybody should want to work like this. When you don't, you're considered a slacker. I'm all for putting in the extra time when there is an urgent deadline or a huge project, but as a general approach to work/life balance, it is simply not feasible.
Duchesse said…
LPC: I have been scheduled for calls at 4:30 am (means getting up at 3:45 to be lucid). Ridiculous, I stopped participating.

Frugal: Fear is the weapon, potent and real.

Belle: Starting a business is a different universe, and yet those people need rest and balance too. Some entreprenuurs I know work crazy hours way beyond the start-up phase, for love of the venture or for other, less healthy reasons.

OdetteO: I have a friend who went into real estate sales for that reason- she loves it and is doing well after 2 yrs. There is no one right answer but I'm glad you see behind the curtain.

re your friend: a recruiter I know calls 50% travel or more for a job "marriage breaking".

Tiffany: Yes, that's another contributing factor. I see young couples "together" in restaurants, both on their Blackberries. Wonder what they will be like in 15-20 years.
Anonymous said…
I was exercising at a woman-only gym the other day and could not believe my eyes: one of the other women was constantly checking her Blackberry while working out! Part of the point of exercise is the mental break it provides. Her approach will lead to health problems. [Sorry I did not ask what sort of work she did.]
Anonymous said…
The Canadian Index of Wellbeing just published a study "Caught in the Time Crunch: Use, Leisure and Culture in Canada" which documents the erosion of Canadians' leisure time.
Rubiatonta said…
As a life coach, I hear versions of these stories all the time. (My own version of the story was what led me to leave publishing and get trained as a life coach, in fact.)

I think the most insidious thing about the expectation that people will be on-call all the time, will work late, will travel incessantly, etc., is that it creates a feeling of powerlessness. And feeling powerless is extremely stressful. (Notice that's "feeling powerless" -- not "being powerless.")

While many of us are not in a position to leave a job that is eating us alive, it is possible to change the way we react to situations. If your job is like one of those described, I highly recommend that you find a coach! S/he can help you find ways to reduce stress and to restore balance to your life.
Belva said…
One of the great blessings of my life is that I have a boss who firmly believes in work-life balance, to the point that she's hurt her career - she's insisted on working a 4-day week and allows her team a fair amount of flexibility in how we keep our hours (as long as the work gets done with a high level of customer service). The real story is that she often works very late into the evening, working much closer to a 45-50 hour week, but she does not come into the office, nor check e-mail on Fridays (her day off) or weekends.
Duchesse said…
Anon@ 12:50: My yoga teacher told me she was teaching a restorative yoga class and a young woman took out her BlackBerry and read it during the poses. Teacher was astonished!

Anon@ 12:55: Saw the Globe article about this; part of the issue is workplace demands but time crunch also caused by "sandwich" caregiving (elders plus children.)

Rubiatonta: Delighted to learn more about you! Re: "many of us are not in a position to leave a job that is eating us alive", yes, you are. Maybe not immediately, but make and carry out an exit plan. And if you do not leave, you could end up out anyway, on disability.

People are not, unlike the days of slavery, kidnapped and forced into the job.

(Right now I am reading a wise manual of Gestalt therapy, which emphasizes awareness, so I am "into" that- how much people piss away their power and responsibility.)

A coach, therapist or even a friend who has made the move herself can be enormously helpful. As far as reducing stress in current job goes, I view it as a temporary fix. That might be fine, if there is an exit plan, but it will not change the culture.

Belva: Sounds like this woman has decided where to give, and where to draw the line. I still see 4 days/45-50 hours as moving the furniture around, not changing a culture. I'm glad she champions flexibility for her team.
Duchesse said…
OdetteO: Re laws, I've seen some of my client organizations flout labour legislation for decades, b/c they know people won't whistle-blow. Though I find most North American unions unappealing in their current form, I support the original purpose and the idea of a seat at the table to determine working conditions.
diverchic said…
On the other hand, I am very grateful for any employee willing to slightly inconvenience her/himself by staying an extra half-hour when needed without being sullen. I don't find many, particularly among the young ones.
Duchesse said…
diverchic: First, you are a small business. These women are in large and in two cases, the world's largest, corporations. Second, your request is for an extra half-hour when needed, not nonstop unpaid overtime. There is a significant difference.
Rubiatonta said…
Duchesse, I agree that people shouldn't stick with a bad job indefinitely -- after all, I didn't. But while I was planning my exit, and getting up the nerve to go out on my own, I did make a lot of changes that kept me calm and sane. My coach was a life-saver.

Right now, I'm reading "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall Rosenberg, and I can't recommend it more highly. It's a great tool in a stressed-out world.
Artful Lawyer said…
These comments have gone in a great direction - awareness, self care and coaching are all key strategies to staying sane.

I'm a 40 year old lawyer who might make partner - but I don't want to (ick, cooties and entrapment) - and it wouldn't make me much more money anyway (I'm not in NYC, DC or LA). I've been plotting how to get out for a few years now, with a coach's help and afterwards, but it has taken a while. Now I have some very good "irons in the fire," one of which I think will come to fruition before the New Year, but I've had to get out of my own way a lot (out of the way of ego, exhaustion, depression and that "who cares?" feeling, etc.) to get some progress.

One key for me is, sad to say for the legal profession, mental disconnection and not really caring about the reward "stuff." I do excellent work and serve clients well, but when I'm not here, I'm not here. I'll never get the midnight Blackberry response award again - fine. I'm not doing face time - fine. I'm not overworking to make myself into a superstar partner candidate - fine. Think I'm a slacker? That's fine too. I'm only a slacker to the insane, and I might not have a heart attack at work - that is good enough for me.
Duchesse said…
Rubiatonta; I have studied NVC (including with Marshall) for over 16 years and have led workshops in the process for over ten. NVC continues to be a simple yet transformative practice for me. It is NVC's emphasis on a language of responsibility that in fact inform my assertion that no one "has to" stay long term in that kind of work environment.

Artful: Wise to catalog the beliefs that are implicit in "success" in most law firms, then see if you share them. (Clearly you do not.) Hope you will tell us more about your path as the year unfolds; I'm going to guess it would inspire many.

Another reason why coaches/therapists are good is b/c friends and family can lack objectivity or fade from asking the hard questions.

My nephew (a lawyer) told me about a colleague who taught a first year law school course. The prof asked what their motivation for practicing was. Every student said "Make money".
LaurieAnn said…
Wonderful article Duchesse. When my son was born 13 years ago I had the opportunity to job share my current position with another employee (also a mother of small children). That position paid well enough so that the two of us sharing the job each made the same as a clerical staff person working full time. As the other employee and I were a great fit we really made the job share a success. Unfortunately after having the job share for eight months our supervisors decided they needed me to return full time. I tried it but 40+ hours per week was too tough and I retired (deferred) after six months.

What I really miss about working was having the chance to keep my skills current and be able to save for my retirement years. If I ever need to return to the work force my skills are so out of date that I will have to return at about a third of what I was earning full time 11 years ago.

This system really puts women at a disadvantage financially. If I were to advise a young woman about a career choice I would ask her to seriously consider becoming a professional in a career requiring a license. The professions lend themselves to much more autonomy and flexibility than does being a line employee for either a company or a government agency.
Duchesse said…
Laurie Ann: The logic "we were both making as much as a clerical staff person working full time" is a bit puzzling as I assume (perhaps in error) that you were not clerical staff.

If you each made half of the full time position, that seems like a more accurate way to capture what you were earning. Job sharing *can* work, but if mega-hours are expected I have seen both job sharers going way beyond their half.

I've seen stats that a woman loses 5% of salary for every year out of the workforce. Depends on the field, but upgrading on one's own nickel is sometimes possible.

I recently met with a group of women on maternity leave- various occupations- and advised them to read journals, newsletters, ANY publications in their field. None of them were doing that and here in Canada most are out for 12 months.

When they go back they'd have to hit the ground running and that's hard when you haven't picked up a professional journal for a year.
Rubiatonta said…
Artful has used a phrase that really caught my attention: "good enough."

In most of the developed world, we are taught from an early age that good enough is, in fact, not really that good. What we're really supposed to want to be is exceptional, ne plus ultra. Chasing that is what makes us crazy, at work and elsewhere (for example, body image, but that's another conversation).

It made huge impact on me when I learned that "good enough" was perfect for me. No more, no less.
Duchesse said…
Rubiatonta: I have a friend who says her husband who will never utter those two words in sequence. They are both working mad hours in the corporate senior exec jobs. Both have had cancer, hers cured, his is in remission. And the daughter of one of her friends (and mine) asked, "But when do we get to live?"
laurieAnn said…
Duchesse: I should have been more clear in my earlier post. The position I had the job share in was an administrative level position. The job was not eligible for over time per US. laws. Still, when I had it in a job share, it paid well enough that even with the 1/2 pay cut I could have afforded to keep it as a job share indefinitely; which is what I wanted to do. When I was ordered to return full time I receive my full administrative level salary, but would much rather have been able to keep the job share.
Duchesse said…
laurieAnn: Thanks! I can see why you wanted to keep it, jobs like that are scarce and when you have the right co-worker, its a really nice situation.

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