I’d wager that you know someone who proudly calls themself a workaholic. Or perhaps, you even apply that label to yourself – someone who actually enjoys replying to every single work email after hours, catering to the client’s needs even on weekends.
Truth is, I can relate. In fact, that’s exactly how I used to be.
Most of my younger years, I used to work until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore.
Actually, this practice took root in my life way before the start of my professional career. Back in university, I even used to study this way.
Why? Because I’d always believed that someone like me — someone who was not genetically gifted with the genius gene or boundless resources — would have to work ten times harder than the average person to excel in anything they decide to do.
The same practice seeped into my late twenties, especially when I started working for myself. I would be on call and available anytime and anywhere a client needed me to be.
And being a new business owner, I would feel a deep feeling of guilt and unworthiness if I didn’t reply to that Saturday night email or last minute request on a Friday.
Like, if I didn’t respond, I wouldn’t earn my keep.
Or even worse… I would lose my client if I wasn’t available right there and then, at the exact moment they needed me.
It was exhausting…
But I willingly did it.
And most of the time, I was totally happy to do it.
During that period of my life, I basically lived to work. There was a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment in my work whenever I was able to help someone in need, at exactly the time they needed it.
Regardless of whether or not I was actually supposed to be available at that time in the first place.
Email after hours: The problem with being ‘too’ accessible
However, as more time passed and as I gained more experience throughout my thirties, I came to a troubling realisation…
I had unwittingly created a benchmark or expectation for my clients on what they could, or should, expect from me.
And that realisation did not sit well with me at all.
I went from going the extra mile because I enjoyed and was weirdly proud of being able to overdeliver, to feeling — or actually being — trapped in the cycle of my clients expecting the “golden” calibre of service they have now gotten accustomed to.
In other words, me being available all the time was no longer just an extra perk for them. It had effectively become an expectation.
If I suddenly became unavailable because I decided to take a weekend off to, say, attend a wedding and not respond to any ‘last-minute’ requests… The backlash I’d receive would always feel like I’d just committed a crime.
The feeling of guilt and unworthiness to take back control of my time and my business would eventually grow bigger and bigger. I would slip in and out of wanting to please my clients and carving some time for self-care.
And that’s when it hit me…
It’s my fault.
I had willingly given away my free time, essentially conditioning my clients to feel that this was the norm when it comes to the kind of service I deliver.
Of course, at first, they showed their appreciation. Here’s the thing, though: In nearly every aspect of life, once you get used to something, you no longer see it as a perk. You start seeing it as your right, and you start to expect it to see or receive it, every single time. All because it’s become the norm.
The parable of the free bread and hummus
Look at it this way: Imagine yourself going to a restaurant for the first time. The minute you arrive and sit down at your table, you’re presented with some free bread and hummus before you could even decide what to order. As you take the first bite of this unexpected treat, you begin to wonder, “Is this free?”
True enough, at the end of your meal, you check your bill and find that there’s no cover charge. Of course, at this point, it’s reasonable to expect that the bread and hummus were indeed free. And so, at this point in your gastronomic journey, you’ve found the entire experience pleasant enough to tell yourself, “I’m going to come here again!” So you return a few more times, and like clockwork, you receive that free bread and hummus before you order. In short, everything is as you’ve come to expect.
Then one day, suddenly things change. You walk in with a smile, sit at your favorite spot, and wait… and wait… and wait…
You’re too embarrassed to ask for the “free bread and hummus dip,” so you sheepishly order and quietly finish your meal. You’ve decided that this was all probably just an error on management’s part, and you’re absolutely sure that the next time you come, you’ll get your free bread and hummus. The next 3 times you go to the restaurant, the same thing happens. No sign of the free bread and hummus on arrival.
By now, there’s no denying it. You’re disappointed.
You’re not angry, but at the back of your mind, you’re already searching for alternatives: new restaurants to visit next time, ones that might offer a little bit extra. For sure, though, you no longer feel as loyal to this restaurant as you used to.
If you’re still reading, I’m guessing you’ve either been there yourself or you’re right smack in the middle of it right now. Maybe even in this precise moment in time.
I hear you…
Your complaining about your client and complaining about how much they don’t appreciate you.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
But if you’re nodding along to everything I’ve said so far, here’s the reality: You’ve unfortunately set the tone of this relationship.
You can go around in circles and complain about a client emailing you late at night on a Friday and blame them for not respecting your time.
You can tell your friends and family about how overworked you are and how ungrateful your clients are for your sacrifice.
You can beat that punching bag again and again and again… but the truth is that every single time you vent, the only person you’re hurting is yourself.
In my case, that hurt and pain took on a more literal form. I got seriously ill. My stress triggered my auto-immune disease to flare up to the surface.
The truth is, this all started for me because I willingly— or perhaps accidentally — decided not to set my boundaries.
I allowed some business relationships to feel like a one-sided relationship where I no longer felt like I had a say on how and where it should go.
And just like any relationship, the honeymoon period will fade over the course of time and reality will kick in. And when you reach that point, what used to feel like a dream can unexpectedly turn into a nightmare.
Of course, not everyone will have the same experience. Each interaction and relationship is different and our response to a problem can differ enormously. No matter what situation you’re currently in, though, it doesn’t change the fact that this excessive commitment to productivity can have serious repercussions on your health and happiness —and there’s more than enough science to prove it.
What science says
After looking at the lives of 8,000 Australian adults, researchers from the Australian National University have discovered that working long hours could be putting your mental and physical health at serious risk. In their study published 2017, the researchers found that people who worked more than 39 hours a week are putting their health at serious risk, because “it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly.” According to their findings, the work limit for a healthy life should be set at 39 hours a week instead of the internationally established 48-hour-workweek norm.
Meanwhile, a Chinese experiment conducted in 2013 revealed that working from home led call centre employees to demonstrate a 13% performance increase. This work-from-home experiment was conducted at CTrip, a 16,000- employee, NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency. About 9% of this was a result of working more minutes per shift (due to fewer breaks and sick days), while 4% was from being able to accommodate more calls per minute due to the home being a generally quieter working environment. Aside from showing the beneficial effects of a work-from-home setup — a working arrangement that has become increasingly popular, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — it also illustrates the tangible effects of reducing stress from an employee’s day-to-day life.
Another study, this time published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2016, revealed that working 46 hours a week increased the long-term risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases. This was based on data from more than 1,900 participants.
And we’re not just talking about actual workload here. In fact, even the seemingly simple task of replying to a client’s email on your rest day can have serious effects on your well-being.
The results of a 2016 study involving 297 working adults in the United States revealed a link between emotional exhaustion and organizational after-hours email expectations. According to the researchers, the fact that this renders employees unable to mentally detach from their work may increase the chances of them feeling burned out. Interestingly enough, it’s not even the physical act of checking your inbox that can get you.
That’s right, it’s the expectation — the expectation that there’s something in your email inbox after hours that you just need to check, even when you’re supposed to be taking a break. If you do this during your downtime, you won’t feel well-rested; you’ll feel downright exhausted.
So, with all of that in mind, what should you do?
Even worse, what can you do if you’ve already unintentionally set these unhealthy expectations from your clients?
Communication is key
If you find yourself in the same place, my suggestion is to come clean. At the end of the day, no matter what you think of your client, they’re still a human being. And as human beings, we are all capable of both reasoning and empathy.
If this has been the norm in your life for as long as you can remember, well… don’t worry.
It’s never too late to set your boundaries — especially when your health is on the line.
Naturally, you’ll need to prepare yourself to deal with the consequences. Every decision we make is basically us setting ourselves up for either success or failure, or in this case, a crossroads type of situation. Admittedly, this can be an uncomfortable place to be in… And the truth is that it can go either way. At this point, though, you should be ready to accept the outcome and try not to have any regrets. After all, you did this for a reason: Not laziness, but self-preservation.
Don’t stress yourself out over the temporary lack of revenue. The decline in the quality of your health, both mentally and physically, can have a far more disastrous impact on your person than the temporary absence of tasks can ever have on your pocket.
Remember: You can revive a dying bank account, but not a dead person.
Which brings me back to why I’m writing this…
With every new client now, I make my boundaries clear from the get-go. Here’s a tip: Set those boundaries with certainty, and have them clearly written in your contract. If this is a deal-breaker for your client, then that’s a clear sign that they have different working habits that most likely will not suit yours — which means that they are not a perfect fit for what your company needs right now.
On the flipside, if they agree, make sure you repeat these conditions in your onboarding process to ensure there won’t be any miscommunication. Do everything in your power to guarantee that your boundaries are clear to both your client and their team members. Trust me, something as important as this is worth reiterating to ensure a healthy working relationship that will last a long time—and a long life and career that will let you enjoy the fruits of your labour.
Liz Azyan is interested in the ways new kinds of social data and technology introduce challenges and opportunities to society. Get involved with Liz’s latest project here.