Thirty years ago, there was a very obvious cue as to when the workday was done.
For many knowledge workers, you were expected to be in the office around eight or nine in the morning. And you were expected to stay until five or six in the evening. And since all your work materials were in the office, your “work” was at the office. And when you went home, that meant you were done with work for the day.
Life is not that simple anymore.
Today, work (for many people) “begins” the moment they wake up, roll over, and look at their phone: emails, news and social media notifications, Slack messages from teams in different time zones, etc. While they’re getting dressed, they’re working—or at least, thinking about work. While they’re eating breakfast, working. And for those who, in a post-COVID world, have been working from home full-time, work and life are even more difficult to separate. You might be sitting in front of your computer, working, before you’ve even gotten out of bed and brushed your teeth (guilty as charged).
All of which raises the question: if you lead a team, a function, an organization, or even a single other person, do they know when to start and stop working for the day?
More importantly, do you?
Purpose-driven work has a dark side: overworking.
I love my job. I love the work I do. And as a result, it’s almost always on my mind to some degree. It’s part of who I am.
But in a world where companies are becoming increasingly purpose-focused, and more and more people are finding (or creating) opportunities for truly meaningful and rewarding work, there’s a fine line between feeling engaged and over-engaging. If you love what you do, and especially if you want to advance in your career, you’re going to want to contribute discretionary effort and go above and beyond. And that can oftentimes lead to burnout.
One of the questions I like to ask leaders I’m working with is, “How do you know when your day is done?” Or, “How do your team members know when their days are done?” And the unfortunate truth is that many people, in many organizations, define their days as being done when bad things will no longer happen. Bad things meaning a client isn’t going to send an angry email asking where something is, or a manager or executive isn’t going to call asking why something slipped through the cracks. And yes, while it’s important to uphold your responsibilities in work (and in life), that’s a very defensive and unsustainable way to end your day, every day.
“Nothing bad will happen—which means now I can stop.”
Working from home has removed physical cues of overworking and exhaustion.
There are many benefits to working remotely, and I am a big proponent of remote and flexible working styles.
But one of the things that gets lost in remote work is the ability to really see, feel, and pick up on how the people around you are feeling. If someone stayed late the night before and you see them dragging their feet in the office the next morning, you can tell they’re burning the candle at both ends. But when all you can see is the person through Zoom (or worse, if their camera is off or you don’t have a reason to interact with them that day), these cues get lost—which again, leads to less peer acknowledgment and more overworking.
It’s one thing to work late with other people.
But it’s entirely another to work late by yourself.
Leaders need to make it clear to team members when they should feel good about ending work for the day.
Just because we can reach each other all hours of the day (and night) doesn’t mean your job should consume your life. And just because you have the freedom to work from home doesn’t mean your work begins the moment you wake up and ends the moment you fall asleep.
Instead, it’s important that we create rituals for ourselves—and we encourage others to create and honor rituals for themselves. On a recent project team, we agreed to only communicate on slack from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. It was hard! And the fact that it was hard isn’t great. There were lots of “schedule sends”. I realized just how much my brain was addicted to a 24-hour ambiance of work. And yet, it felt like a step in the right direction.
The sooner we realize that work is a bottomless pit, the better.