The last few years I’ve noticed a prevalent theme in the feedback shared about leaders I coach. They’re from various levels – senior executives, organizations and industries.  The striking consistency and frequency of the theme “s/he works too many hours – and others believe they must do the same” comes from peers, managers and directs – and concerns me.  

Here’s an example from some of my stakeholder 360 interviews:

“John would do well to grasp that not everyone on his team can work the same hours or gets the same reward as he might for a 70- hour work week.”

I get it – companies making big advancements and organizational changes must push through their initiatives, sometimes 3-6 months of long hours. That pace is never supposed to keep up all year, but it does.  Working hard and being dedicated to achieving goals is applaudable. Often, the company’s success won’t translate to personal happiness or reward the sacrifices required by leaders and those that support them in their roles.

 Is it possible to be on the top team and be happy doing it? Yes.

Overworking as a regular practice extracts a heavy toll.  The long hours are required by some deeply buried myth that blinds us from seeing, feeling and acting in line with our internal values. Just few more months can turn into a few years and it’s too easy to lose the things that money can’t buy. Author Ashley Williams in her 2019 HBR article Time for Happiness, described the findings of her Gallup survey of 2.5 million Americans as a time “famine – a collective cultural failure to effectively manage our most precious resource, time”. 

John’s long hours are often by design, but more often the expectation for emerging leaders who want to emulate those above them. The pattern is often further entrenched by inflexible company policies which make no allowance for long commutes and family needs.  While poor performers might take advantage of more flexible work policies, most do not.

Work is a means of living out purpose, being of service and taking care of ourselves and others. Work is a gift to be shared so it brings good things to others – and happiness is one of them.   

The cost of overwork and its related stress, health issues, accidents, poor performance and low morale has been researched and documented for over two decades.  Sans the reality of horrific work conditions and low wages, we can shape our relationship with work to better reflect what’s meaningful to us and to others.  

With awareness and commitment, we can meet work goals and set boundaries to help protect time for those things we can’t get back once lost – health, family, relationships, reputation.    

So, what CAN you do if you’re like John, caught in the churn of long work hours with the belief he’d be happy when he earned his promotion?

Research by Annie McKee, PhD, suggests you’ll want three critical factors for happiness at work.
According to McKee, the key ingredients for happiness at work were to:
1) Have meaningful purpose to help generate passion for what you do.
2) Feel hopeful that what your effort will succeed.
3) Have positive friendships at work.

Applying this to John’s world made a big difference.  We started with exploring what he really wanted – and what was meaningful in what he was accomplishing in his life.  We worked together to craft a coaching plan that allowed him to regain parts of life he valued but had traded for the myth of ‘someday”.   

He resumed his early AM exercise, left work earlier three times weekly and stopped emails over the weekend. He also removed himself from non – essential meetings and projects, and added 20 minutes between meetings to prepare.  He asked for accountability and feedback from colleagues, family and friends for the first 90-120 days until his new patterns became habits. John continued to advance as a leader and reports now that he’s more focused, a better listener and leader.  

What I notice most is that he says he feels happier and more connected to his own life again – what he values at work, home and in the world. It’s a win -win -win — and as his coach and fan, I’m happy!

Here’s to leading with happiness in our core – and taking it to those we serve at work and in the world. It’s worth it.

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