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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Working for a Workaholic—When You’re Not One

We all have addictions. For some, it’s shoes, Groupon, or Reese’s Pieces. For me, it’s all three—particularly in stressful situations. And, for most of my past bosses, it was work—which left me broke in Tory Burch, buried under daily deals, and 10 pounds heavier.

And looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. Why? Because having a workaholic boss is the fastest way to advance in your career and enhance your personal life—if you can survive. But if I can, so can you. Here’s how I made it:

Know Your Limits

When you're settling into a new position, it’s easy to set goals for yourself—both in terms of the things you want to accomplish and the schedule you're willing to work in order to do so. But, after you’ve been there for a while, it’s just as easy to get swept up in the list of a million priorities, the “get it done yesterday” mindset, and the unreasonable hours kept by your work-addicted boss.

So, if you’re starting to feel overloaded, step back and take time to consider what’s realistic for you. Do you find yourself working late because you want to or because you have to? Are you able and comfortable with being available to your employer at night and on weekends? Where can you give in—and what’s getting in the way of you having a balanced life outside of work?

You should also consider the type of work you’re doing. If you’re gaining the skills and experiences you need in order to be promoted or advance in your career, you might be willing to put in more hours than if you’re doing menial work.

It can be hard to determine the right limits here—it’s different for every workplace, industry, and person. I'd say the occasional late night is as common as coffee in the office, but when you find yourself working until 1 AM at home too anxious to sleep because you only have a handful of hours left before you have to wake up and do it all over again, that’s a ruby red flag.


Set Boundaries  

If you realize you’ve got a serious threat to your work-life nirvana on your hands, it’s time to speak up. Your boss isn’t a mind reader, so neither mental messages nor passive aggressive emails are going to work.

No, this will require you to put on your big-girl blouse and call a meeting. This doesn’t mean you need to walk in, guns blazing—this just means you need to have your facts checked and laid out. Time is valuable to workaholic-bosses, so the last thing you want to do is waste it.

Before walking into this meeting, make sure you’ve tracked your time spent on projects (hey, no one can argue with math), especially any that don’t align with your agreed-upon goals. Make sure that you convey your willingness to do the work, but that because you’re spread so thin, the work is suffering.

It’s also important to not only point out problems, but to have solutions ready to propose. The last thing you want is to seem like you’re complaining or the opposite of a team player. For example, if the problem is that the workload is unevenly distributed among you and your peers, make a list of the projects you’re handling in comparison to your co-workers, then give some suggestions on how you could divvy up some of those extra projects to lighten your load to a manageable amount. Make sure your points always go back to the work and your concern for it being done, and being done well.

Go Full Speed Until COB

After a talk like that, you're going to want to show your boss that you can get your work done—and you don’t have to work at all hours of the night to accomplish the priorities put in front of you. So, when you’re at work, make it count. Once you walk through that door in the morning, race to that 5 o’clock finish line like it’s the Triple Crown and that jockey next to you is inching ahead. Just think, the carrot you’re after is an evening free to do as you please—a sweet treat compared to the mounds of spreadsheets you’re used to lugging home. Keep moving down your to-do list, making your progress known, and making your results count to prove that your balanced schedule doesn’t mean less productivity.

Stick to Your Guns

After you’ve made it clear what your boundaries are—for example, no nights and weekends—it’s crucial that you push back when limits are being pushed again. Remember, your boss isn’t tracking your time, so it’s up to you. She will work you as much and as hard as you allow it—maybe assuming you’re a workaholic like she is, or that you don’t mind the work just like she doesn’t—and unfortunately, sometimes it’ll take projects not being done perfectly and on time in order for her to realize that you’re overworked.

This doesn’t mean that you should purposely drop projects or mishandle them. It just means that there are only a certain amount of hours in a day that most human beings can function properly, so if mistakes are made or projects get left on the back burner because your head is spinning, don’t get upset with yourself. If your boss is angry as a result, this is the perfect opportunity for you to discuss your workload (again). This isn’t easy, but it’s definitely a growth opportunity worth working through.


Learn to Toughen Up or Bow Out

By following the steps above, one of two things will happen: You’ll either work out a schedule that meets both yours and your boss’s needs, leading to a harmonious working relationship, or you’ll realize that the demands of the job and the expectations of your employer aren’t a match with what you’re looking for. Remember that any job position is a mutual decision. Don’t just think about it in terms of your employer’s happiness with your performance—take the time to ask yourself if you’re happy, too.

And, after you’ve had a direct conversation with your boss to fix the problem, and you’ve done your part in making the necessary changes you discussed, and the answer is still “no”—then it’s time to move on to the next opportunity that awaits. This time, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for in company culture and a new manager.

Working for a workaholic if you’re not one isn’t the end of the world. On the contrary, it’s the beginning of an incredible opportunity to learn your limits, find your balance, and carve your niche at your current company or find a new employer that’s a better fit for your work style. It’s easier said than done, of course, and at least a few tears, ripped hair, and gnawed nails are inevitable. But remember, there are always heels, group deals, and chocolate-peanut-butter bliss to get you through it. Believe me, if I can, you can.

Photo courtesy of Alan Cleaver.