May 10, 2012 in True Strength, Action, Resilience, My thoughts

Are you working too hard?

It was interesting to read a recent interview with Sheryl Sandberg (The COO of Facebook) in which she confessed to something that she has only recently had the confidence to confess:

I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I’m home for dinner with my kids at 6, and interestingly, I’ve been doing that since I had kids. I did that when I was at Google, I did that here, and I would say it’s not until the last year, two years that I’m brave enough to talk about it publicly.

I think that says something about our attitude to work when somebody has kept quiet about leaving the office at 5.30 and I know many, many people who are consistently working far too hard.


A recent Inc Magazine article ‘Stop Working More Than 40 Hours a Week‘ cited 40 hours as the optimal working week, suggesting that consistently working more than 40 hours/week actually achieve less. There’s a lot of long-standing research around this area and the graph below (source) does a nice job of summarising what Ford Motor Company found in the early 1900s, that the ongoing optimal work week was 40 hours a week. Working 60 hours a week would initially give 60 hours worth of results but quite quickly that person would then be working 60 hours a week and would be less productive than if they worked 40 hours. The message was that 40 hours a week was just fine, although it was OK to work a lot harder for a very short period of time.


Rules of Productivity

 As a Motorsport fan, I find it easier to think about this in terms of how hard I’m revving my own personal engine:



I know that I don’t like just ‘ticking over’ work-wise and that isn’t where I perform at my best. I also know that I have a healthy upper limit of how hard I work. I know that I’m OK to stray above that upper limit (into the red zone) if I need to but I also know that staying there for sustained periods of time isn’t good. What is best for me is working in my ‘power band’, straying briefly into the red when I need (and want) to. This way, I achieve loads but I do it in a way which is sustainable.

Whenever there’s a ‘top 5 regrets of the dying’ survey published (e.g. in Bonnie Ware’s book), a recurring item in the top 5 is always ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. Despite this, many people still put too many hours in.

Knowing that we each have an optimal zone and that working too hard for too long is not productive (or healthy), my questions for you are these: How hard are you working? Is it right for you? Is it sustainable?

Although this post is focused on the challenges of working too hard, other sources of stress are also available! These can include a lack of clarity about your role, uncertainty about the future (re-organisations), having a ‘bad boss’, being in the wrong job (which conflicts with your values or plays to your weaknesses rather than strengths), and not having enough of a challenge.


This post is part 1 of a series on Personal Resilience. Other posts are:

2 – What is resilience?

3 – How to stay resilient


  1. July 25, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Will Sudworth

    Good, brave stuff Ian.

    1. July 25, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      Ian Pettigrew

      Thanks Will. There is far too much of it about!

  2. May 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Flora Marriott

    Great stuff Ian. I really really like the car engine metaphor. That works for me. I’ll definitely use that when talking to people at work about overload. (Hope there aren’t royalty fees each time!)
    I don’t like the term ‘work life balance’ as I think it leads people to think about a constant equilibrium, when in actual fact we have phases. And when I am doing stuff I truly love and am good at, time just flies in a wonderful way…the flow thing. And that’s ok.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

    1. May 10, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      Ian Pettigrew

      Thanks Flora, glad you like it. No royalties required and I’m just delighted if this makes a positive impact on people’s lives (and performance). And yes…. great point about Flow. Can’t beat it!

    2. May 10, 2012 at 9:58 pm

      Ian Pettigrew

       Thanks Flora. No royalties required whatsoever! I took a photo of my dashboard but drew the line at recording the engine noises as an illustration. And yes…. great point about Flow. Can’t beat it!

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