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Workplace Bullying (4) - Overwork

What is overwork?   When is it bullying?    When does the job requirement tip from high expectations to unreasonable requirements?

Starting with overwork itself.    Is a 40 hour work week adequate in companies that are expanding or simply trying to keep their heads above water?   Should delivering great service mean that people have to work long hours?

One definition of overwork is "to force to work too long or too hard".   So with that definition in mind, when does hard work become too hard?  Obviously, the word force has a lot to do with it.  Many people in business are so passionate about their work that it is both their career and their hobby, and they consider every moment spent on the job a pleasure.   However, once overtime is not voluntary and impacts on the desire to have a happy personal life, it will be seen as overwork.  

There are also professions where, by their very nature, long hours are an expectation.  Medical interns, and the medical profession in general, work incredibly long shifts, and that is considered standard.  People coming into the profession know what they are committing to, and accept it.   Although that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be continually reviewed.

In business and many professions, overtime is expected.  People who are not prepared to do it can soon find themselves on the sidelines.  In fact, some of my discussions and observations have indicated that people will deliberately stay at work, even if they have completed their tasks, so that they are not seen as early leavers.   Also, there are social and business benefits of hanging around after hours in many organisations ie being seen might get you invited for a drink with the right people, or given a project, simply because of availability.

When the expectations of the company and the ambitions of the individual are aligned, it is more about high expectations, but it can be challenging for the ambitious employee who wants to achieve a good work/life balance to compete against the single mindedness of the 24/7 worker.   It is also a reality that senior management come to rely on the "always available" person, and promotions are in line with that reality.   Women with young children are often disadvantaged in this situation.

The tipping point into real bullying might not initially even be noticed, because it can be gradual.  Like the frog in cold water which is gradually heated, the knowledge that you are in danger, might come too late for survival.

So when you are given a last minute project with an extremely tight deadline, it is not necessarily bullying.   There might be very good reasons eg the person running with the project before you is unable to complete due to illness, skill set, termination of employment etc.   However, if you are the only person continually being given projects with unrealistic deadlines then it might be time to find out why you are not being given them earlier with more time to complete effectively, especially if  you are starting to believe that you are being set up for failure - a common example of workplace bullying.   Once you have accepted the first project, refusing the second one is not easy, and before you know it, you are being regularly overworked without realising how it happened.

The current economy is putting strain on management to continue to deliver service and product while managing costs tightly.  This means that people are being asked to be more productive during actual working hours, as well as work longer hours.   Management are stretched thin, too, and might be less tolerant of employee's personal requirements when they believe they are doing their own job as well as that of some of their employees.   I have spoken to a number of managers who comment that servant/leadership means that managers have moved from the responsibility of getting the work done, to actually doing the work so that they can meet deadlines.  These managers say they sometimes feel bullied by both their boss and their staff.  At least two sides to every story......

If you feel you are being bullied into overwork, it is really difficult to change the pattern because of a number of factors:

  • Fear of losing your job
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Fear of career path limitation
  • Fear that the situation will get worse after a complaint
  • Fear of being seen as a whiner and complainer and
  • Fear than nothing will change, anyway
 Besides the above, confidence and self esteem are often seriously eroded when somebody is being bullied, and they find it very hard to deal with the issue on an adult to adult basis.   When the bully is the direct manager, it feels like there is no place to go.   A poor job market also helps keep the bullied trapped.

Are there options?  Yes.   Are they going to work?  Maybe.   Sometimes the bullying behaviour is so entrenched in the culture, it is an enormous task to move in a different direction and the bullied are certainly not the ideal group of people to remove bullies.   While changing culture needs to come from the top, there are some things that do work.

When it comes to overwork, it is worth keeping a detailed record of the time spent, particularly overtime.   Check with a friendly colleague, in a similar role, what hours they are working, so there is a basis for comparison.   It is also important to look at your relationship with your line manager and the hours that he/she are working.   If they are there alongside you, and also working long pressurised hours, there will be less sympathy for your case.   It is sometimes possible that an incompatible partnering in a pressurised environment can leave the more junior person feeling invalidated, more because of discourtesy, disrespect and lack of recognition, and the feeling of being overworked is a result of being disengaged.

Once you have some facts and can validate that your workload is way above the average, and that you are being deliberately targeted, take your story to the HR department or to senior management.

It will help if you have been a relatively low maintenance, high productivity employee with a record of delivering on time, prior to the onset of the bullying.  Management have a very human approach and the negative perception around an employee who is often late, takes a monthly day of sick leave, etc, may colour the positive approach to the problem.

The Frog Story

If you place a frog in boiling water, he will immediately jump out.
If you place a frog in cold water, and gradually heat it, he will remain in the water until he is cooked.
(It does beg the question, how did we find this out, but apparently it is true).

Links and References

Overwork definition
Accsys News

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