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Over the next few weeks, I will focus on the problem of overworking.  There is much to unpack for this problem. I’ll share it a little at a time over the next few weeks.

I like to start with a definition.

Definition of overwork

1: to cause to work too hard, too long, or to exhaustion
2a: to work too much on b: to make excessive use of

Simply put, overworking is a demand for more than is available.

But who is supposed to know what is too hard, too long, too much, or more than is available? Many people think that “those in charge” are supposed to know.  We think our bosses or our companies ask too much of us. We say THEY overwork us.

Our jobs indeed give us work assignments with due dates.  They ask us to work early or late, and sometimes on weekends, in order to accomplish a goal.  They expect certain results and a certain schedule.  Yes, often, those assignments are a “lot” of work.  

It’s also true that “too hard,” “too long,” “too much,” “excessive,” and “a lot” are all subjective and dependent on the individual.

It is impossible to classify work and agree on how much is “too much” because people are different.

Let’s think about this in terms of lifting weights.  My daughter lifts more often than I do.  She has no problem doing bicep curls with a 15-pound weight.  On the other hand, I would classify that as “too much”.  I know it is too much because my arm would struggle to lift it.  I would only be able to do five or six reps before my arm would experience muscle failure and be unable to lift the weight again.  If I kept going, I would risk injury.

So for me, 15 pounds is too much.  But if I started smaller and lifted every day, after a few weeks of consistent strength training, 15 pounds would not be too much anymore.  

Used as an analogy for work, if my manager asks me to do bicep curls with 5 pounds, I know I can do it.  No problem.  If they ask me for 10, I might feel a little stressed but I could do that too.  I might be more tired and sore than usual.  If they ask for 20, I will feel very stressed because I believe I will either fail entirely or overdo it, burn out my muscles, and need a ton of recovery time.

On the other hand, my daughter wouldn’t feel much stress at 20 pounds.  She wouldn’t feel it until the boss asked for maybe 30.

So, can your employer overwork you?

The truth is that while there is some information that employers can use to determine how much work a person is able to do (shift hours, guidelines and policies, skills on a resume, past experiences with the work, and reputation), only YOU are able to determine your true limits for yourself.

They can ask you to do work beyond your limits, but you cannot expect them to know your limits.  You have to communicate what you are able to do (5 pounds) how much you are willing to push yourself (8 to 12), and what cannot be done right now (20).  It is also okay for an employer to ask that an employee stretch themselves to get stronger and able to do more in the long run.  (Can you be ready if asked to lift 20 pounds three months from now?)

It is best if this is clear in the job description and interview process, but that doesn’t always happen.  Therefore, communication and self-respect are critical for you.  You must regularly discuss goals, expectations, and limits with your employer.

If the work is beyond your limits, there are a few choices.

  1. You can do it anyway and burn yourself out. (LOTS of us do this)
  2. You can ask for help and accomplish the goal in partnership.
  3. You can see it as a stretch goal and work up to it by pushing slightly past your current maximum to get stronger and faster.

For all of these options, it needs to be your responsibility to know your limits, communicate them to the team you work for, and decide how you will respond when someone asks for something beyond your limit.  

So, are you overworking? 

  • What limits are you exceeding?  Time?  Effort?  Knowledge?  Focus?  Strength?  Social?
  • Are you exceeding or strengthening?
  • How much recovery time do you think you need?
  • How can you ask what you need to meet your and your employer’s needs?

Until next Monday,

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