Whether or not working long hours is worth it is an age old question with no clear answer. In looking back at my career and that of other friends and colleagues, I’ve seen the full span of hard working people doing the right thing and being rewarded with great career opportunities and advancement to the other end of the spectrum whereby someone works like a dog day and night, living and breathing work, with very little to show for it. In some cases, I see emails from people at midnight, 2AM, 6AM, making one question whether they even sleep – or whether they have a life. Is it worth it? Popping up out of bed for a quick reply every time the Blackberry buzzes? Maybe, it all depends on your perspective – and several other factors.
Are long work hours expected? The Status Quo?
When I worked in biotech manufacturing, it was virtually assumed that you were working 60-90 hours per week. With a combination of complex biological processes, lean support staff, employee turnover, weekend coverage, vacation coverage, production emergencies and other requirements, I worked a lot more than any of my friends from college. I missed out on a lot of weekends at the shore, a lot of catching up, many family functions, hanging around; basically, a lot of what everyone else was doing. I worked both days every other weekend and often pulled doubles during the week. My wife (then fiance) had to go to a lot of functions alone and say, “He’s working again”. It was rather burdensome and lonely, but it was a requirement of the job – a good one at that, so I went along for the ride. I was turning into a little bit of a workaholic. Since everyone else was doing it (at work), it just seemed normal – and expected. It wasn’t like I was jumping at the chance to sign up for open overtime shifts, but each time someone resigned or switched jobs or production emergencies popped up, it was work or you’d be letting down the rest of the team. And with such a small team, we were all working a ton. On the rare occasion where I had a doctor’s appointment or some other commitment to leave at say, 5PM, I actually felt somewhat embarrassed or ashamed and peers would seemingly scoff, “where’s he going so early?”. Granted, early on, I was eligible for overtime, and for the hours I charged, I was making great money for my age. With the little vacation I had, we got to see Europe, see Hawaii, buy a house my first year out of school, and max out my 401K in my early twenties, etc. Thankfully, I transitioned out of that cycle (albeit, while accepting a decrease in annual pay) and I’m in a much better work-life balance situation now that I have children and recently finished an MBA.
Working Long Hours – Is it Bad for Your Health?
Well, it would be tough to argue that it’s actually “healthier” to work longer hours than normal, especially if your job is high stress. Another factor is what kind of hours you’re working and how that meshes with your biological clock. There is a multitude of evidence demonstrating that night shift workers suffer health effects much greater than the general population as a result of higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. At one point, I was working 6PM – 6AM 5 days on, 5 days off and it was pretty miserable. I’m a light sleeper as it is, and 12 hour shifts are really 15-16 when considering the prep and handoff to the next shift, plus commute. I had a neighbor who was home during the day and always seemed to mow the lawn and leave his barking dog out on days I was trying to sleep. There were some days I would just start laughing maniacally about how ridiculous my situation was and how I was supposed to function that night. In retrospect, this is probably how most new moms feel, so I’ll stop complaining. But I’ll say, it didn’t feel good for my health and it doesn’t surprise me at all to see actual evidence that over sustained periods of time, night shift workers and long-hour workers live shorter lives.
Is Your Job Scalable?
This is an interesting concept that I started to pay a bit more attention to after reading the Best Selling 4-Hour Workweek. Not that I would try and pull off a 4-hour workweek in my profession, but the book did highlight some tips on efficiency and career management that I hadn’t seen previously. One of them, which is pretty basic, but instructive to consider, is whether your job is scalable. Take even a high-paying role like a doctor. Since the medical industry is fee for service, a doctor’s annual salary, while high, is directly correlated (roughly) to the amount of hours they work. If a surgeon performs 200 surgeries in a year, they may make $400,000 that year. Perhaps at 300 surgeries in a year, they make over $600,000 (perhaps not linear due to overhead, insurance, etc.). Meanwhile, a writer might write 5 books and never make a dime, but when they hit that perfect story, get the right publisher, critical acclaim and make the best-seller’s list, they’re pretty much set for a career in writing. While they start collecting a royalty stream now on even their older books that they now had published themselves, one extra book may bring a massive advance and a portion of sales for life. Being a ProBlogger (not me) is somewhat similar as well. Once established, and with years of experience, followers and thousands of posts generating a revenue stream, each successive post is incrementally less work to bring in even more money. While I might take an hour to write this post and generate 50 bucks over the life of the blog on it, when Darren Rowse writes a post, it may incrementally generate thousands of dollars.
Similarly, someone that puts in tons of time early on with a Wall Street gig may build up tons of experience and contacts so they could leave the scene and start their own financial planning firm later where just a dozen or so massive clients can sustain a lucrative salary given the annual fee structure and commission structure in the business. The examples are numerous, but it’s something each of us should ask ourselves. Personally, in my current career, I don’t consider my job to be scalable. While I may get that extra couple percent on the bonus if I’m in the top 5% of employees each year, that’s a one-time deal. I could just as well be in the middle the next year, or even at the bottom in a year where I averaged 70 hours a week – because it’s all about results and how you went about achieving those results, not how much time you put in. Perhaps if you’re in one of the highest paying careers, you’re OK with just working a lot early on and putting that extra money to work, but often times people outspend their income and end up regretting “selling their soul to the corporation” later when they don’t have much to show for it.
Are the Long Hours Worth it in the Long Run?
While it’s often a pipe dream to think you’re going to be a professional sports star or rock star which is the ultimate in scalable work situation, occasionally in life you are presented with a scalable career. This may entice you to put in tons of hours up front to build a brand, a reputation, a following and a future so that you don’t need to work so hard later in life. Conversely, if you work on an hourly basis and your extra hours and hard work will never result in anything more than additional pay, while it’s great to earn extra money and sock it away or invest it, just know that you’re not working on a scalable basis. Perhaps you could dedicate all that extra time and effort into something scalable. If you’re a landscaper working 90 hours per week cutting lawns for the boss, maybe you could slowly work on starting your own business by transitioning out of the grind into something more scalable – your own business. If you’re in virtually any small business with a reasonably low barrier to entry, just think about what you’re forgoing now for an hourly wage that’s consuming your entire life. Ask yourself if in 10 years you’re even going to be with the same outfit, in the same industry? The world is changing fast. Employees need to be nimble and adjust to not only what’s hot, but what’s going to be hot.
In my case, 10 years later, yes, I’m in the same industry and I happened to be in an area that’s grown increasingly hot – biotech and pharma supply chain optimization. The long hours I worked earlier in my career were beneficial even though it seemed questionable at the time. However, manufacturing isn’t the guaranteed lifetime employment it used to be, even in high tech sectors. In retrospect, I was probably more lucky than I was wise in cranking out the hours, the experience, building the reputation and the contacts I did because had I been with a different company or started my career a few years later, perhaps my job would have been outsource during one of those weekend doubles. I don’t regret the way I started off my career, but I’d have to think twice if I had to do it all over again starting today knowing what I know now.
What Are Your Thoughts? Worth the Long Hours?
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