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OPEN for Discussion: Are You Working Too Hard (and How Can You Change That)?

Are you checking your email every night? Not spending enough time with family and friends? Here are ways to break the cycle if you're just working too hard.
July 10, 2015

The traditional 40-hour workweek stretches 49 hours for salaried employees, according to a 2014 Gallup survey. And it’s an even longer grind for most small-business owners.

While it’s safe to say few business owners got where they are without hard work, it’s less certain that continuing to work hard will keep them there. For people in leadership positions in particular, there can be such a thing as too much work.

Tired leaders make more mistakes reading people’s emotions, and are more likely to negatively and wrongly interpret things like facial expressions. Sleep-deprived people instigate more conflicts and resolve fewer of them successfully. In addition to hobbling relationship skills, insufficient sleep can impair decision-making ability.

OPEN Forum asked two leadership experts whether business owners can work too hard, how they can tell if they are and what to do about it. Marshall Tarley is a New York leadership consultant and former director of leadership development for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Josh Davis, Ph.D., is research director at the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York City and author of the book Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done.

Can business owners work too much?

Marshall Tarley: I think you can work too hard. We're all going to have periods where we have to put out a tremendous amount of work in a relatively short amount of time. If it’s on a short-term basis, you know it’s going to end at some point and it’s something you are probably capable of coping with. But on a long-term regular basis, the demands you put on yourself can be so extreme, you suffer. You’re unaware of the way you’re relating to others. You suddenly become really terse, even rude, without being aware of it. You may start being late for meetings. You’re making errors. Your family is suffering from it. You’re having trouble sleeping. Your body is getting out of shape. You may be gaining weight or losing weight. You may be more prone to illness. Generally, you’re unhappy.

Josh Davis: Yes, you can work too hard. In my opinion, I’d say that probably what we’re dealing with is not just diminishing returns. We’re actually getting less. When we work too hard, we’re getting less out of ourselves than if we were to work within the boundaries of what makes a human being thrive.

How can a business owner tell if he or she is working too hard?

Davis: One sign is if you feel the urge to always be on. Do you feel there’s danger in not checking your email at night? That’s a sign you’re working too hard. There are very few things that are actually emergencies. And there are many people who don’t get together with friends or their kids as much as they’d like to because of work. Or they love cooking but don’t do as much of it as they’d like. I’d say, unless you’re getting as much of that in your life as you want, that’s a sign you’re working too hard.

What can you do if you are working too hard? Take a vacation? Delegate? Other suggestions?

Davis: What I’d encourage more than a vacation, although those are certainly valuable, is changing the ways we’re handling ourselves throughout the day. We should be aware of how much of the day we’re on autopilot. We can waste a lot of time, especially when we’re feeling overworked, because we get started on the wrong project, something that doesn’t actually matter the most. There are just a few moments of the day when we’re conscious and can make a decision about what we’re doing. For instance, if I’m trying to type emails and somebody comes in and wants to talk, those are golden moments. Those are the few times in the day where I can actually step back and assess what am I working on and what’s important. The key is to recognize those decision points, do what matters most and work less as a result.

Tarley: In the short term, if you’re really stressed out and frazzled, just take a day off and recharge your batteries so you can think clearly. A vacation for some people would be an even better idea. But that’s just a short-term breather.

In the mid term, delegation is absolutely critical. If you’re working too hard, you could be trying to control everything and not delegating. Delegating is critically important, because one of the key responsibilities of a leader is to cultivate new leaders. 

Long term, you have to assess whether you’re in the right career and industry. The first step in that is looking at what you value in life. If you have a family, for instance, especially a young family, you have to decide how important is being a part of your children’s lives and how much time you want to put aside for that and how you structure your business.

Read more articles about work-life balance.

Photo: iStock