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by Cathy Vandewater | November 02, 2010


You probably know that working long hours isn't great for your health or your social life, but did you know it can be bad for your career too?

Burning the midnight oil may feel productive, but it can hurt your performance in the long run—and warp your supervisor’s expectations for a sustainable workload. It can also cover up a whole host of structural issues in the company, putting you in a position of responsibility if that structure fails.

Here's why:

1. Working late masks ineffectiveness instead of addressing it

Perhaps you're loaded up with admin tasks while waiting for that assistant you've been promised to materialize. Maybe you're just an awful procrastinator, or a lack of organization is causing you to have to re-do work.

Whatever the cause, the existing system is not working. You may feel like a rock-star for managing a bad situation on your own time, but no one will be impressed by your long hours if they suspect that poor time management is to blame.

Ask for help! Let your boss know, in numbers, what the lack of an assistant is doing to your productivity. If you’re the problem, utilize your colleagues' expertise: the desk neighbor with the alphabetized business cards might give you some organizational tips, while a coworker in another department could have experience with a project you're stuck on and putting off.

2. "Hard working" and "dedicated" doesn't set you apart

You may associate long hours with excellence at your job. After all, 'tireless,' 'committed,' and 'painstaking' are positive associations. But your boss likely hired you for 'expertise,' 'creativity,' and 'education'.

Thus, if you waste those assets pushing paper around or doing favors for others, you're diluting your worth to the company. You're also eroding your reputation, and shrinking your time capacity to earn it back with challenging projects.

Say yes to work that helps build your portfolio and correlates with your skills. As for the other stuff—think hard before committing. If the busy work is coming from above, gently suggest that it may be an inefficient use of your time. Who knows? You may even find yourself with a shiny new intern.

3. You won't have the energy to rise to a challenge

In truth, there is a time and a place for longer hours—it's called "crunch time."

Crunch Time is generally that last few days before a big project wraps up, when you really want to come through with something great.

You dig deep, order dinner at your desk, and make some magic.

Unfortunately, if you've been eating dinner at your desk for weeks, a late night now means the wee hours instead of 7pm. When you finally turn in your best, sleep-deprived effort, your boss may be less than wowed.

You may be thinking, I always work hard—it's not fair! But unless you've told your boss you’re overburdened, she's going to wonder why you didn’t give her project an extra effort. Decide on a reasonable end to your average work day and stick to it. Then, you’ll be able to go above and beyond when duty calls.

4. You're hurting the company

So you stay late because do the jobs of 4 people? Great! I'll bet if management knew, they'd be amazed at your dedication.

Unfortunately, they're most likely to figure this out when you get mono, and the office falls apart during your weeklong absence. Then, they're less than likely to be impressed.

To get a visual, picture your company as the Titanic—if a single person (you) acts as several water-tight compartments, they all get punctured when an iceberg strikes, and the ship sinks.

Step one: open mouth. Step two: utter words.

Until there's a problem, management will have no idea that it's vulnerable, so it's up to you to enlighten them before there's a disaster. Come with a list specific areas you need resources on and you'll likely get help faster.


Am I Working Too Late? The Checklist

  • Are you working later than others at your level?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed and stressed by your workload?
  • Are you regularly finishing or correcting others' work?
  • Could you work harder, if asked? (If the answer is no, you're going to have a big issue with #3!)
  • Can you see yourself continuing at this pace for the long term?

Remember, admitting an issue to your boss (especially if you do so with a solution in mind) is always preferable to letting things fall apart. Speak up, and you may see your days at work drastically improve—and shorten.


Filed Under: Job Search