Are You Working Enough Overtime?

Anybody who knows me knows that this is a trick question. I have fought this issue for many years - but not for the right reason.

I have been afflicted since childhood with a heart condition known as Paroxysmal Tachycardia. Thanks to a doctor 30 years ago who had no understanding or compassion for the feelings of a 15 year old boy, I was made to feel ashamed of this condition - and hide it. I was told "it is just hormones", and you will outgrow it. I did not outgrow it. I suffered silently, until a continuing attack forced to seek immediate care. Unknown to me - because I was conditioned to hide my problem - was medication that could have helped me live a normal life, and new outpatient procedure to correct the problem. Fortunately for me (a person that detests doctor visits and loathes the prospect of a hospital stay), a software developer put his experience on the web: His experience was remarkably similar to mine, except for his homosexual flirtation, I can assure you! After contacting him, we may have differences on that topic, but are in total agreement on the surgery: If you experience rapid heartbeat when under stress, after excercising, after drinking caffeine - there is a way to get rid of that and have your life back. We strongly recommend you go through with it!

Now - for why I included my medical woes here. I really needed to work that 40 hour week, or risk serious repercussions from my heart. I guess I was pretty attuned to 40 hours, and would have few problems if I did not exceed that. I found that staying late was much more dangerous than leaving early, and tried to compensate some by coming in early. This is seldom appreciated - most all of the "workaholics" are night people. They won't even bother to notice your effort. Naturally, this led to conflicts with workaholic managers. I have received bad reviews because of it - I even had one supervisor record my conversation of half-baked excuses on tape, and transcribe them into an insulting memo. Over a period of years, I thought he had grown as a person, changed. We even became good friends. When the chips were down and a project became hopeless, however, he did the same thing again. Still without a clue that there was a cure - I investigated legal remedies I could use as a smoke screen. This ruined the friendship, which I regret very much. I had to leave the company rather than admit I had a medical problem. Thanks, Dave. You could have cut a fellow Midlander some slack. I miss you, buddy.

In November of 1999 - as a result of yet another conflict - I had the surgery, which was a complete success. Does that mean I now work overtime? I, too, have grown as a person through this. I have learned to feel good about myself - and my accomplishments during a 40 hour (only) workweek. I have nothing to be ashamed of - have made significant accomplishments at each employer. I have some reasons (other than medical) why I think anything over 40 hours a week is a bad idea. These are no longer "smokescreens" - using these as excuses over the years has helped me to organize my thoughts on these topics, and develop logical rationale. Remember - this was survival for me up until 6 months ago. I needed to have my facts straight!

First - it is important to put things in perspective. Life consists of a balance between the personal and professional. It is important to know the boundaries of each, not allowing one to interfere with the other. Establishing this boundary wrongly can lead to personal and professional disaster.

Everything you accomplish on the job will be in a landfill in 100 years. Perhaps as little as 10 years. All that work you did on overtime - the schematics, simulations, layouts, documents, prototypes, test fixtures: GONE without a trace! If you are looking to those things as your lasting legacy, you have nothing. A fortunate few can point to a successful product and say "that is mine!" But those products will be outdated - replaced by competing products from the same or a competing company in a few years. Then your proud accomplishment is scrap. There is no room to store your work accomplishments - your professional life counts for nothing except your paycheck. Your name forgotten, your accomplishments unrecognized. Many an engineer has already gone to his grave with no record of him even existing.

The only job with security is the military. Loyalty, committment, and honor do not exist in companies towards employees. You are a disposable commodity, employed at the whim of your company - look at your application! Step on the wrong toe, and you are out no matter how many hours you work. Yet you feel loyalty towards them? Where is the balance in that?

I will give you a name. Nicholas Corbin, a modest farmer who was born 350 years ago in Maryland, and died at 47. How do I know of him? He invented nothing, never held an important political position, never was a war hero. I know of him because he was a good and honest man, who had a family that he was devoted to. His accomplishment in life was the raising of a family - an accomplishment that is known to the present day by his descendants, including me. Like it or not, the only thing in life that you will accomplish that will matter in a hundred years is the raising of your family. Do a good job, and your name will be remembered by them. Mess up your family, and the consequences will haunt your descendants for centuries. Who will honor the memory of the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold - the Columbine High School gunmen? Screw up your family, and you have screwed up your own legacy.

For many of you, though, the logic is simple: "I must work more hours to meet the schedule." "I am exempt, which means this overtime is expected." "Others around me do it all the time, and if I don't, it will look bad on my record. Besides, my wife can handle things at home." "By following the fast track to management by making a name for myself, I will land that management job, and I will be making enough money to give my family all the things they will ever need."

Have I described you? If so, please read on for the sake of your family, health, and career!

Lets look at the scenario above. Where does this logic fall apart?

"I must work more hours to meet the schedule."
This is another way of saying that you are overworked. Practically everybody that wants to "get ahead" habitually underestimates the time required to complete a task, knowing they can make an aggressive schedule by working more hours. This, they think, will "make them look good" and get them better reviews. In reality, they may be threatening to their boss, who may perceive them as a threat - somebody after his or her job. It is also risky, because it does not foresee problems. When problems inevitably occur, many times it takes "all-nighters" to keep on track. Sleep deprivation sets in, causing even less intellectual function. It is far better to "pad" the time estimate, and become a hero when the task is done ahead of schedule. I have received job offers on the spot because I have a documented record of just such an accomplishment as a manager. I had a choice as to how I wrote my own schedule, I could have been aggressive and been habitually late. Instead I wrote a conservative schedule I could meet or beat, and be a hero when I did. Many of you will not have that luxury - but you can push until it gives, voice objections from the start. Then, if it does not happen, you have documentation that it was impossible right from the start, and YOU were the one who was a good planner, recognizing the true scope of the task. If an aggressive schedule is forced on you, at the very least submit personnel requisitions to your boss - a way of saying right up front that you will need help.
"I am exempt, overtime is expected"
Yes, it probably is. Practically everybody likes getting something for nothing, especially your employer. You are the prize chump if you let them get away with it. I have started inquiring of companies up front "how much overtime is expected on this position". If they say none, then HOLD THEM TO IT. I always emphasize that I am the first one to stay in the event of emergency. I do NOT define an emergency as every night, and every weekend. I define that as "bad planning". I have used those very words on interviews. A company that hedges on this point is not a good one to work for. They are skimping on personnel requisitions, counting on extra work from the engineering staff to take up the slack. They will skimp on every other aspect related to personnel as well - benefits, etc. They do not care about you. They do not care about your physical or emotional health. They do not care about your family. They are using you for all you are willing to give, then they will dump you when you burn out.
"Others around me do it all the time, and if I don't, it will look bad on my record."
If you buy into this, you are in deep trouble. Those of us who are parents - especially of older kids - spend hours worrying about peer pressure. If you are practicing this philosophy, you are showing them that you are a hypocrite. You are caving in to peer pressure, so why shouldn't they? Paraphrasing what you say about your job "other kids around me are taking drugs and having sex, and if I don't, I will not fit in". Is that the lesson you want to teach them? Do you believe in that? Peer pressure is how you start smoking, drinking, doing grugs, and having affairs. Clean up your own act before you talk to your kids about peer pressure! I guess the story "The Emperor's New Clothes" brainwashed me as a child. I am proudly tobacco free, alcohol free, drug free, and committed to the sanctity of my marrige. If I did stupid things because I cared about what people though about me - I would pretty messed up. Cigarettes really are stupid, smelly, and disgusting pacifiers without the plastic wings. Alcoholic drinks taste like mouthwash - BLEAH! Drugs are a stupid waste of time. If I am going to laugh or cry, it will be my idea - not some chemical's. I really don't want to have an affair with that good looking new receptionist, and I don't want to hear crude jokes about women. AND - I will not work overtime just because everybody else is. If they don't like me leaving at 5, that is there problem. My work will be done on time and done well. That is all that matters.
"By following the fast track to management by making a name for myself, I will land that management job, and I will be making enough money to give my family all the things they will ever need."
What a sad, misdirected attitude! Your family does not want material things nearly as much as they want YOU. Every evening that you do not show up for your children, they are learning to rely on your spouse, their child care, and their peers as emotional support. Once in a while is OK, but a consistant pattern of missed opportunities to spend time with your spouse and your kids will tell them "I do not love you as much as my job". You will reap a bitter harvest from that message. Absentee fathers are the primary reason for kids having encounters with the law. The father is the most important person in a kid's life, from the standpoint of being a role model for what is right and wrong - what to believe. This is true for girls as well as boys. If you want to raise a delinquent, drug addicted, promiscuous young person - just don't be there when they are young to tell them what is right and what is wrong. A very good link for more information is Life on the Edge.

I recently had the opportunity to peruse two employee handbooks. Do you want to know something funny? Both of them emphasized that you must be in your assigned work area at or before the workday is scheduled to begin. In other words - you MUST be punctual. I think it should work both ways. If they expect you to be punctual at the start of the day, you should be punctual at its end. Fair is fair. But, lets see. An engineer is expected to be punctual in the morning, aware of the time. Then, at the end of the day, the engineer is supposed to become totally unaware of the time. This is difficult for a scientist of any variety, engineer included - who is attuned to precision measurements. But we are supposed to become workaholic absent minded geeks who lose track of the time and work until midnight. Then we are supposed to be at our work station again the next morning at a precise time.

I, for one, would rather go home on time, and come in the next day awake and alert - ready to solve problems. Instead of groggy and tired from sleep deprivation - ready to make mistakes instead of solve problems. I wonder how many really bad problems are the result of tired employees making bad decisions?