my team is overworked — and I’m the boss

A reader writes:

I’m a newish manager at a small non-profit whose work site is overseas. I report to an international Executive Director and oversee a small office in the U.S. We’ve recently grown our U.S. team to address problems of overwork. The dominant culture on the team is to sacrifice to get work done, despite my attempts to help team members manage their workloads, address inefficiencies, model work-life balance, and encourage honest conversations about overload.

As an example, some team members routinely work during their vacations, even when they have another colleague checking their inboxes, and others never take their PTO.

I’d like to help change the culture in our U.S. office, and can’t figure out if I’m being ineffective, if I’m battling personalities that overwork feeds (workaholics, people pleasers, over committers), if they really are too overworked to find balance, or if I’m somehow creating an environment that reinforces the tendency to overwork while paying lip service to wanting balance. Do you have any advice on how to fight overwork as a manager?

I talk with this letter-writer on today’s podcast. The show is 38 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen above.

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. lebkin*

    One possible tip is to reduce your employees access to non-critical communication in their off-hours. If Whatsapp is for critical and email is for non-critical, make email an office-only item. A middle-ground might be adjustments to notifications, so that non-critical items don’t pop-up on phones. Then your employees aren’t making value judgements on what is critical; the systems do that for them.

    1. OP*

      I think this is what we’re going to have to move towards, so that my staff are making a conscious choice to ignore the system in place. It’s a really good idea, thanks.

  2. Greg*

    Interesting that the other group she works with is 6 hours ahead. She did not directly say Europe. But a guess. European workers have laws stating they can only work so many hours a day. And have a lot of vacation time. Would have been interesting to hear about this part of the work.

    Also, you might be interested in implementing a Kanban board for your projects. Or a product backlog. Where you can prioritize the work. Have a visual representation of the work. So both offices can see the list. And when the work is scheduled. And what is being worked on.

    1. LGC*

      If I remember correctly, she says that a lot of people in her company work a lot, both at her site (which might be in the US – the caller has an American accent) and at the overseas site. I listened this morning, but I think that’s what she said. (She also mentions that her boss, who’s based overseas, is a workaholic who never sleeps.) So it doesn’t sound like the overseas site is dumping all their work on the caller’s site – it’s more that no one has appropriate boundaries or consideration of the time difference.

      And granted, a lot of European workers have guidelines as to how much they can work, but as I understand it’s not universal. (And Europe isn’t a monolith! Just like the US isn’t.)

    2. Jen*

      People still work crazy hours in Europe sometimes, I’m not sure if legislation makes a difference but I guess it’s something they could consider pushing back on. (I’m from the UK)

    3. Violetta*

      Those laws aren’t uniform all across Europe. Also, I work in one of the countries that has supposedly implemented a strict version of this, but it is largely ignored.

    4. Eleanora (UK)*

      Just chiming in to say that the working hours directive (which I think is the law you’re referring to), can be voluntarily given up — and it is often expected that you do in more senior roles.

      My contract includes a clause in which I explicitly give it up (I’m in the UK) so I can work more than 48 hours a week on average without my employer getting into trouble. In practice, I tend not to, but it’s part of my employment contract.

    5. Scarlet*

      Like other commenters say, laws vary from one European country to the next. Most of the time, there are no rigid laws actually forbidding people to work overtime. I live in Europe and still work overtime on a semi-regular basis. And even though we do have more vacation time on average than Americans, the number of vacation days varies too (and different countries can have different bank holidays, to top it all off).

  3. rubyrose*

    Speaking as someone who just had to work during her PTO – make sure your staff have designated backups who really can back them up. Then, while the person is out, make sure the backup is following through.

    1. Nita*

      Yes. If everyone is too busy to take on the backup work, or if it reliably gets forgotten and then piled on the person returning from PTO… a lot of people will consider working during the PTO as the lesser of two evils. It beats finding out that your report missed a big deadline because you dared be out for a week, or having to work sixteen hours on your first day after flying back because there are multiple fires to put out.

    2. Other Duties as Assigned*

      +1 AND be sure the backup duties are spread around the group/department/organization. At OldJob, the manager proudly unveiled a new org structure and in our 80-person unit, I discovered I was the primary backup for SEVENTEEN people. Put another way, if any of those 17 were out, I had to do my job AND theirs. The corollary to this is that a large number of the 80 had no backup assignments, since they couldn’t do the tasks. Essentially, those who could do many things were punished for it.

      This structure died a lingering death, and remained a punchline for years thereafter.

  4. BRR*

    I think the podcast covers the most likely scenarios but I’m wondering if the LW’s team feels that it reflects well on their performance to put in this many hours. Regardless of that, I think the LW is going to have to really drive home that work quality and results don’t necessarily suffer from less hours worked.

    1. OP*

      Yup, I think this is a big challenge for us. I think I feel it, too, which sort of threw me for a loop. It’s hard to break that voice in your head. And especially because, like it every office, sometimes there are crises and I do need them to be all hands on deck, but it can’t be the norm.

  5. CL*

    My team started using a resource management app ( that limits us to 8 hours of work each day. Not only does it prevent overwork and help people plan their workloads around time off, but it helps us determine when we need to hire new people! We’re a project/client based company that logs time, so not sure if it would work well in other workplaces… but definitely something to consider if folks are struggling to manage their time due to overwork.

  6. Jen*

    Great episode. The manager sounds like she’d be a lovely boss – I wish more managers were this conscientious.

  7. Catmum*

    For late night emails – Outlook has a function that allows you to type the email and then schedule it to be sent later – the email is then written but the email itself isn’t in the receiver’s mailbox until a more work-appropriate hour.

    1. LGC*

      I love that so much. I’ll actually use it often when I’m working Saturdays and I have Issues, because I don’t really need anyone to care about it until Monday. (Otherwise, I’ll get a response Saturday night.)

    2. Drew*

      If you’re using Gmail, there is an extension called Boomerang that does the same thing AND allows you to “snooze” email for a period of time, so you can say “This is important but I can’t interrupt what I’m doing right now; bring it back to my inbox in two hours and flag it urgent” without seriously affecting your workflow. Gmail is just starting to natively implement the same sort of thing, but Boomerang does it better IMO.

      1. OP*

        I did not know about Boomerang and can’t wait to start using it! As a working mom, I just have to play catch up some nights late at night, and I hate that my most workaholic team member sees and replies to those emails. Thanks!!

    3. LurkieLoo*

      Also, Thunderbird has an add-on called “send later” that I use as a default because I seem to see something wrong just as I’m hitting send. My default send button is to “send in 1 minute” which gives me just enough time to stop it and fix it. It also reminds you if you mention you’re putting attachments, but don’t.

  8. Circe*

    Changing culture is hard work and takes a long time. But if this manager is as transparent and understanding with her staff as she is in this conversation, it will happen.

    1. OP*

      I really loved that she encouraged me to be so transparent – I had been afraid to with my staff. I hope I can be, because I really, really don’t want them to burn out.

  9. Archaeopteryx*

    Email is asynchronous by design! I’d say definitely try to retrain both your and the overseas workers to not feel like they need to respond to something just because it’s in their inbox.

    1. Eleanora (UK)*

      This! I think rather than finding ways to stop people sending emails, the more straightforward solution seems to be to train your team not to feel like everything needs an immediate response.

      At my work, it’s a phone call if it’s urgent, and everyone knows email will get looked at when I’m next in the office.

  10. Dave*

    You might also try having a designated night time on call person for emergencies to spread the responsibility. This will only work if the team trusts each other. In our world it is an answering service that calls a designated person on a given night. The manager doesn’t want to go on vacation and have all the staff working all hours in case we t was an emergency call.

  11. I coulda been a lawyer*

    We changed shifts to solve this problem at the small US office of a foreign engineering company. Half of each discipline + Assistant PM worked 6 am to 2 pm or so; everyone else worked 8 to 5. As support staff I worked 8 to 5 because most of my work was with my own time zone, but I took some early morning calls during emergencies, and sometimes I had to call an early shifter late in the day, but we all tried to respect the schedule. It worked well. As long as an engineer or two and a supervisor or manager or two was always there it was fine, so there was lots of flexibility.

  12. LadyCop*

    Sorry this is commenting on last weeks (I have to read the transcripts) but I’m big time not cool with the “evil twin” thing. I am an identical twin, and people think it’s so darn cute or funny to ask which one of us is the evil one, or what kind of psychic powers do we have…or (it’s happened more than once) have we ever made out (or worse?) *thinks thoughts of rage*

    Anyway…I get that twins are fascinating to everyone else…but we’re not a gimmick, or a cliche, or a trope. Stop making us a Halloween costume.

  13. Smithy*

    Really great call – if I caught it correctly and the OP’s team is in development doing an “audit” of sorts of what everyone’s doing could be incredibly helpful. As development teams grow – there may well be systems in place designed for a group of X many donors that become incredibly time consuming when an org grows to X squared donors. Databases might be old and staff just assume longer work arounds are necessary. Also – there are loads of fundraising activities a team can be doing – because yes, every dollar does count! But the ROI on certain streams of income may truly not be worth a team’s time.

    Either way – lots of great suggestions for going forward.

    1. OP*

      You did catch it, we’re a fundraising team. This is a really good point, and I think part of the challenge. We’re not yet organized enough to be able to pinpoint ROI but we’re starting to get there (and it’s explicitly in the plan for 2019). You’re right that database training and systems review might help. Thanks!

  14. adk*

    Assign weeks to be On Call. If you’re going to do the WhatsApp emergency line, the caller/boss shouldn’t be the only person answering the emergencies. Sure, maybe she can assign herself lots of weeks, but each person at the US office can take a couple weeks a year to be on call. Once the system is working, there really shouldn’t be more than a couple emergencies per week anyway.

  15. Seeking Second Childhood*

    The region your employees are working with is relevant. I recently worked on a project with someone in a sister company in Jordan, and I have had to re-explain to my US-based counterparts that her work week is not the same as ours. Their weekend is Friday/Saturday.
    Is your employee who works Sunday supporting a Sunday-Thursday team? If that’s the case, maybe she should be formally switched to a Sunday-Thursday schedule as well. Or half day Sunday and adjust her other days to bring them down to standard.

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