Surviving Long Work Hours
How to Thrive With a Demanding Schedule
As she's progressed in her career, Nancy has been putting in a lot of extra hours at work.
She's committed and ambitious, and she's prepared to work hard to get ahead. However, she has seen the effect that long hours have had on some of her peers, and she doesn't want this to happen to her.
For instance, one of her colleagues is always tired and irritable, and doesn't seem to enjoy their work anymore – as a result, their performance has started to decline. Another colleague has put on a lot of weight, and has recently been taking time off sick.
In this article, we'll look at how you can avoid problems like these if you work long hours. We'll explore how you can stay healthy and still perform exceptionally well. Plus, we'll look at how you can lighten the load, where this is appropriate.
Why We Work Long Hours
We have to work hard if we want to be successful in our careers, and this can often involve working long hours. Many people put in extra hours to meet project deadlines, to clear a backlog of work, or to study.
Some people also work long hours out of fear: they might think that their reputation will take a hit if they're not working late like everyone else.
Whatever the reason for putting in the extra work, your performance can suffer if you don't have strategies in place to manage stress and fatigue, get the most out of the additional time that you're putting in, and enjoy work and life in general.
Let's look at these strategies.
How to Stay Healthy and Happy
What happens when you work long hours on a regular basis?
You may not have the time to eat well, you may not exercise enough (or at all), and you may not get enough sleep. Add to this the additional stress and tension that you might experience, and you can see that working long hours can undermine your health, as well as your performance and productivity.
Many studies have linked long working hours and poor health. One study found that professionals who worked more than eight hours a day had a 40 to 80 percent higher chance of getting heart disease than those who worked eight hours or less. Another study found that working long hours was a major predictor of depression. Other studies have linked long workdays with increased family conflict and psychological stress.
The good news is that you can work longer hours and maintain a healthy lifestyle. These strategies will help:
- Get enough exercise – Regular exercise reduces stress, improves your health and energy levels, boosts your self-confidence and self-image, and can even raise your IQ. Think of exercise as an investment in yourself and in your career – you'll get higher quality work done by taking time out to exercise.
Schedule exercise before work or at lunchtime, when your willpower is high, and when there's no temptation to let work overrun.
- Take regular breaks – Step away from your desk and take a short walk every 60 to 90 minutes. This will give your mind a rest and energize you. If practical, consider taking a short nap when you feel tired, for instance, in a comfortable chair or in your car. (Research shows that this can boost performance in the short term, and can have a positive effect on your long-term health.)
- Drink plenty of water – Dehydration makes it harder to focus and can lead you to feel physically uncomfortable. Keep a bottle of water on your desk as a reminder. Also, avoid too much caffeine.
- Eat healthily – Eat healthy meals during your work day, and keep nutritious snacks, like almonds or fruit, at your desk for when you get hungry. Also, avoid fast food and fatty foods if possible. Unhealthy food might be tempting if you're working late or taking a client for dinner, so develop habits that will help you make the right choices, where possible.
- Learn to manage stress – While low levels of pressure can help improve your productivity, working long hours can lead to long-term stress and burnout.
- Stay happy – Use tools like the PERMA Model and the MPS Process to identify the factors that make you happy. Then, make sure that you get these things in your work and in your life.
If you're concerned that work is affecting your relationships with friends and family, commit to finishing work on time on specific days, so that you can spend time with them.
Be mindful of causing undue stress by over-working yourself. Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
How to Enhance Productivity
One of the main reasons that people work long hours is to get more work done. Therefore, it's important to make sure that you're being as productive as possible during all of your time at work. That way, you'll achieve more, and you stand a better chance of getting away on time.
Although maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you be more productive, there are several other strategies that you can use:
- Evaluate how you use your time – Keep an activity log. Then analyze it to find how much time you spend on specific tasks. This will help you minimize or eliminate low-value activities, and allow you to devote more time to high-value tasks.
- Get organized - How you organize yourself plays an important role in how much you accomplish during the day. You'll need to invest a few hours up-front to get organized, but this will quickly be paid off.
- Manage workflow effectively – If you don't already use one, consider using an Action Program to prioritize and manage your schedule, instead of a simple To-Do List.
Improve your concentration and focus – The ability to concentrate is essential when you're working long hours. Distractions will only increase the time that you spend at the office.
Do what you can to minimize distractions: close your email program, shut your office door, and even turn off your phone. The more focused you are, the sooner you can move on to other work – or go home.
If you read a lot as part of your job, use appropriate reading strategies, so that you can use this time more efficiently.
- Avoid multitasking – Instead, do one task or project at a time. Focus fully on what you're doing and, whenever you can, complete it before moving on to something else.
How to Control Your Workload
There's a limit to how much work you can do, even when you're putting in extra time. This is why you should do what you can to control your workload and commitments.
First, think about tasks that you can delegate. (Our article on the subject helps you identify these.) If you're uncomfortable delegating, keep in mind that you can help your team members build knowledge and skills by matching the right person with the right task.
Also, think about whether you can outsource some of your work, or whether you can hire an assistant to take over more routine tasks. (This is well worth the additional cost if you can then work on higher-value tasks, or be more productive as a result).
Next, look at your commitments and review how much time you're spending on activities that other people are asking you to do: this could include attending meetings, answering questions from your team, or helping colleagues.
While some of these activities may be important, you might need to say "no" (politely) to some of these requests until your workload lightens. Alternatively, schedule these activities for times when you're less productive, or when you need a change of pace.
You may also want to turn to your family for help at home: where you can, ask them to take over certain household commitments, so that you can reduce the time you spend on chores in your downtime. Or consider hiring people like cleaners, house painters, and gardeners, who can deal with domestic tasks.
Many of us work long hours. However, studies have linked working long hours to an increased risk of health problems. Therefore, it's important to have a strategy in place so that you can stay healthy and perform well, when you're putting in extra hours at work.
To survive long work hours, keep yourself healthy. Get enough exercise, eat a healthy diet, manage stress effectively, and take regular breaks during your work day.
It's important to do what you can to work more productively as well. Keep an activity log so that you know how you spend your time. Get organized, and schedule your most important tasks for your "peak" time of day.
Also, take steps to lighten your workload, where this is appropriate.
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