First though, I have to give you a little background – in early 2011, I was offered job as a Principal Engineer at OfficeMax’s corporate headquarters, and after saying yes, I was asked to help their CRM team deliver a new system that would automate all of the company’s call center operations. This wasn’t a new project – it had originally been outsourced to a big consulting firm, who after promising to deliver the system within six months, spent over a year and a half trying to build it while going way over budget and continually pushing the go-live date back which had adverse effects on other parts of the business in the process. So in short, the project was floundering and the team that was in place to deliver it was wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars of the company’s money every month, causing management to lose faith in them and decide and they needed someone new to come in and stop the bleeding. So a decision was made to completely revamp the CRM team with a mixture of internal and external resources with varying backgrounds, and since I was a CRM expert (whatever that means), I was put at the front and center of the project and asked to provide technical leadership to the team.
It was my chance to be a hero.
This all sounds impressive, and as much as I’d love to tell you that I came in and kicked some serious ass and lead the new team to a solid victory, that really wasn’t the case. Yes we did manage to get things turned around and we ultimately did get the project rolled out successfully (something that probably wouldn’t have happened if my team and I hadn’t been involved)…. and the company’s management was ultimately really happy with what I was able to bring to the table so that by the time it was all over, I had gotten a raise and a promotion…. but it also came with a price.
You see, this project had been circling the drain for so long that the only way to really straighten everything out and get it back on track was to spend some very long hours doing research into the various issues that the previous team had been running into, coming up with solutions for them and then making sure that those solutions got implemented correctly. Now, I’ve been in similar situations a number of times in the past and I’m used to them, but the problem here was that the timelines for the project were so compressed by this point (management had had enough with the delays and wanted to see immediate results) that the only way to get all of that work done was for my team and I to work nights, holidays, weekends, and whatever else it took to get things delivered. 90 hour work weeks were the norm, and on more than one occasion a couple of us worked over 72 hours straight without taking breaks or sleeping.
So as you may have guessed by now, the point that I’m getting to here is that putting in that many hours at work is not good for your health. Sitting behind a desk for 90 hours a week doesn’t leave any time for physical activity and not getting enough sleep will not only affect you physically, but it will also affect your diet because you’ll be too tired to care about whether you’re eating healthy foods or not. Over the year and a half that I was there, I watched my weight balloon up while my finishing times in races increased dramatically (in 2010, I finished the Indy 500 Mini Marathon in 2:01:39… exactly one year later, I finished the Kentucky Derby Festival Mini Marathon in 2:34:46, and later that same year I ended up having to back out of another race I wanted to do because I didn’t have enough time to train for it). And don’t get me started on the other damage that working that many hours week after week this does to your personal life and relationships with friends and family members, etc…. The final straw that made me decide to quit working there was when I overheard my daughter (who was 6 years old at the time) having a conversation with one of her friends whose dad had just taught her how to ride her bike and listening to her say “my daddy doesn’t have time to teach me to ride my bike”.
Almost three years after leaving that job, I’m still feeling the effects of the toll that it took on me.
Now here’s the thing though – the purpose of this post is not to bash the management at OfficeMax because in reality this was my own fault. While the management team I was working for may have expected me to do whatever it took to get the job done, there really wasn’t very much that they could have done to me if I had taken a step back and said “NO” to putting in so many hours. My position had been open for 9 months before they hired me and I was the only person who had enough qualifications to even get an initial interview for it….. so what were they gonna do? Fire me for only working 50 hours a week instead of 90 and then wait another 9 months to find someone else that was qualified to do the job? Whatever…
The mistake that I referred to earlier wasn’t working hard and being dedicated to completing my project; it was forgetting that I also had a life outside of work and needed to make sure that I was taking care of myself. And really, working as many hours as I was without sleeping or eating right affected my performance at work as well – I made a ton of mistakes and missed a lot of details along the way that I attribute to not being able to focus because I was so exhausted… So even though we were eventually able to get everything delivered, I can only imagine what my team and I would have been capable of if we were all well rested and healthy the entire time.
In the end, I spent about a year and a half at OfficeMax before finally deciding that I had had enough. I gave my notice three weeks after getting a promotion and a fairly sizable salary increase because some things just aren’t worth it. And then a little over a year after I left, OfficeMax got bought by Office Depot and I heard through the grapevine that after analyzing the IT landscapes of the two companies, the newly formed management team made a decision to retire all of the old OfficeMax systems and migrate everything over to the equivalent Office Depot systems. So after all of the hard work and long hours that I put into making sure that a new system was built to correctly meet all of the requirements of the business and deliver value to the company, it was decommissioned less than 3 years later. Was that worth all of the negative physical and mental effects that putting in all of those long hours had on me? No, not at all.
Ultimately, the decision to retire the OfficeMax CRM system would have been made regardless of whether I worked 90 hours a week or 10 hours a week to build it while I was there – it didn’t have anything to do with how well the system was built or what it was capable of doing as much as the overall strategy of the company shifting in a different direction regarding the way its leadership wanted the IT landscape to look. Another side effect of this shift was that all of the legacy OfficeMax employees got severance packages and were terminated from the company after the systems they were responsible for were decommissioned. So if I had stayed there, regardless of how dedicated I was or how many hours I put in, the outcome would not have been any different – the system I put in so many hours redesigning would have been decommissioned and my position would have been eliminated.
So my point here isn’t that you shouldn’t still work hard and try to do a good job at work…. it’s that you should never work so hard or put in so many hours that you let your work start to negatively affect your health. Ultimately, the company you work for doesn’t care how happy or healthy you are or whether or not you have a good work / life balance (regardless of what they may tell you). If you make a decision to put in 90 hour work weeks, your manager isn’t going to stop you, especially in this day and age of employers continually trying to get more done with fewer resources. It’s up to you to make a conscious effort to limit the amount of time you spend working, make sure that you’re taking care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and taking some time every day to pursue other interests that aren’t directly related to your job because not only will doing these things be good for your overall health, but they’ll also help you to focus better and do a better job when you are at work.
If your employer can’t appreciate this, then it’s time for a change…..