November 11, 2010 | File under: Advice and Lessons • On the Job
A colleague and friend of mine at a law firm where I previously worked admitted to me once that she had a hard time saying no to the persistent and increasing demands that were placed on her by people in our firm. It was clear she was being taken advantage of by some partners who took for granted her diligent work habits and her willingness to sacrifice personal and family time when client needs appeared pressing. As it usually goes in a law firm, the partners were apt to interpret “client needs” as requiring service at all hours, and my friend was repeatedly the one called to duty because she was perceived as always being available. Understandably, her stamina was depleted after many years of this and she ultimately left for greener pastures.
While I don’t think my friend would have stayed at the firm forever had her working hours been more reasonable, she may not have jumped ship so eagerly had she been able to establish some sort of boundary between her working time and personal time that the partners respected. As a cynic, I believe that if you give your employer the impression you will drop anything to aid in their cause, they will use that to push you to your limits. Give them an inch, and they will surely take a mile. If you make yourself known as the “yes man” with unlimited working capacity, your employer will pile on the work because it is efficient to do so. Work will magically expand to fit the time which is made available to complete it.
Erecting a boundary between work time and personal time is not easy. In fact, it is really, really hard. As a lawyer, I was always struggling to meet my minimum billable hour quota. When I had fallen short on my hours (usually through no fault of my own, but from the partners’ inability to bring in consistent work), I was expected to make up for lost time by fitting in extra hours here and there. It was something that partners loved to use as leverage for getting more work out of me. But whenever I could, I tried to establish some sanity in my working hours by indicating a need for having balance in my life.
Finding balance is an extremely tricky endeavor. Most importantly, it involves learning to say no from time to time, which requires walking a tight rope between garnering an employer’s respect and their approbation. Done right, using careful discretion to say no at the appropriate times, it is possible to send a message that you are willing to work hard during reasonable working hours and during times that are true emergencies, but that moderation and time off is necessary to keep you happy and productive. Overworked people are not happy and low morale will hit employers in the pocketbook sooner or later.
In my experience, an employer who realizes you are not an infinite resource is more likely to get used to your working style after some time and will take into consideration your needs when making business decisions. It is a bit like teaching a dog a new trick. Your strategy must be consistent and persistent. So long as you provide a quality work product and demonstrate that you are a valuable employee, your employer may think twice before dumping a huge assignment on your desk Friday afternoon that is due on Monday, or asking that you do some work remotely while you are on “vacation.” If you don’t take it upon yourself to fight for having a life, no one will do it for you.