Eliminate Work Creep and Reclaim Your Life!

Working long hours may be costing you more than you know.

If your work is crowding out your family and leisure time, you may be experiencing work creep. According to a growing body of research, habitually working long hours can lead to reduced productivity, deteriorating health and even death.

And yet, despite significant evidence of harm, recent surveys reveal that since the onset of the pandemic, many of us are working longer hours than ever.

What is work creep?

Work creep is when work bleeds into your family and leisure time on a regular basis. For those of us who have so called “9 to 5 jobs”, working the occasional evening and weekend to meet a deadline is not unusual or a sign of a problem.  Work creep is when working extended hours becomes the norm and finishing before dinner or enjoying a two-day weekend with your family becomes the anomaly.

Work creep sneaks up on you. It starts with a few extra minutes in the evening to clean up some emails. Then a few minutes becomes a few hours. You give yourself “Friday night off” in exchange for working for a few hours on Saturday morning. Then by about 3 p.m. on Sunday, you can feel the anxiety build, which drives you into your home office to “get ready” for the week. Your phone becomes your office away from the office. You react like Pavlov’s dog to texts or email notifications, and you interrupt conversations with, “So sorry, I have to take this.”

Why work creep is a problem?

If any of this sounds familiar, you need to pay attention because it leads no where good.

Working long hours is bad for your body.

Working long hours (more than 55 hours a week) led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 per cent increase since 2000, according to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) published in Environment International.

In addition to the toll it can take on your cardio-vascular system, working long hours has been linked to several other adverse health effects including sleep disruption, immunologic reactions, and obesity.

Working long hours can be harmful to your mind.

Work creep also impacts your mental health. Working long hours without significant recovery time, contributes to fatigue and exhaustion, chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. Further, fatigue impedes memory function, decision-making and effective communication.

And the long term impacts may be even more serious. A report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found middle-aged civil servants tracked over five years who worked more than 55 hours a week showed a decline in performance on vocabulary and reasoning skills tests compared to those working 40 hours or less per week. The reasoning test (Alice Heim 4-1) is recognized as a measure of fluid intelligence which is associated with information processing, short term memory, abstract thinking, creativity, and reaction time. Because mild cognitive impairment is a risk factor for developing dementia, these results are a cause for concern.

Work creep erodes productivity and performance.

And here’s more bad news. All those hours are not really making you more productive. In fact, they may be slowing you down.

“When we’re tired, we see decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, and this leads to serious performance deficits. Attention wavers, cognition slows, and processing errors arrive with increasing frequency.” Steven Kotler, The Art of Impossible.

When working long hours becomes habitual, it creates harmful consequences for your health and actually hurts your performance.

So, if we know working late is so bad for us, why do we keep doing it?

We tend to think we don’t have a choice. We believe that workload and the unrealistic deadlines imposed by others are what is driving our long hours. And in some respects, we are right. As technology accelerates business processes, it also increases expectations, the volume of communication and the freneticism that comes with trying to operate at the speed of light.

But work creep is not only about workload. It’s a complex problem with many drivers, some of them related to external forces and some of them driven by internal ones. To reduce work creep, a good place to start is to examine the causes that may be within our direct control.

By looking, without self-judgment, at the ways in which we contribute to our long hours, we have a greater chance to break the work creep cycle. Further, as we challenge our own assumptions and habits, I believe we are better positioned to challenge the conditions and cultures in our organizations that aggravate or perpetuate it.

When work creep becomes self-perpetuating.

So here is a good place to make a confession.

One of the reasons I know that work creep can be self-perpetuating is that I am a fellow sufferer. My earliest inkling that the issue might be partially of my own making was when I changed jobs and the problem persisted. Then, I decided that the problem was working for others, so I became my own boss. The problem got worse.

For the last 20 years, I’ve seen this issue come up again and again in my coaching practice. Even leaders who have a lot of autonomy around how they use their time, are still chained to their desks long after their workday should be over. Further, their own work habits are creating negative downstream effects on the people who report to them.

When you take the time to get under the hood of work creep, you find some common tendencies that drive people to keep working.

  • A tendency toward hypervigilance or perfectionism.
  • A need to feel in control.
  • A tendency to over-prepare.
  • A desire to feel valued and indispensable.
  • A need to please.

At the heart of all this, and this is what makes work creep both pernicious and sometimes even addictive, is anxiety. Working late becomes a means to quell your anxiety by providing the illusion of control.

“Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.” Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

Five faulty assumptions that fuel work creep.

  1. I have to work late because my organization, boss or clients expect me to.

Okay, maybe this is true. Sometimes working “overtime” is baked into the expectations of the work culture. It may even be a pre-requisite to getting promoted or worse, for keeping your job. You may be working in a work creep culture.

How you perceive expectations and actual expectations, however, are not the same thing. Rather than just sucking up the extra hours, perhaps its time for a vulnerable and authentic conversation with your colleagues. You may find that you are not alone. A thoughtful and collaborative conversation about how you engage with the work and with each other might surface some practical solutions.

2. I have to work late because I’m disorganized, slow, or less efficient than everybody else.

I once worked for a consulting organization. I held the belief that I had to work longer hours than everybody else because I was slower and less efficient. After six years of 12, 14, sometimes longer work-days, I finally left – exhausted, burned out, 30 pounds heavier and depressed. I later learned that the person they hired to replace me, declared after only a few weeks that the workload I had been carrying was unsustainable. So, the organization divvied up my former workload among three people.

Maybe you are not as productive as you could be. Maybe you are inefficient. Or maybe, like me, this is a false assumption. But here’s the thing. Even if you are right, working late and driving yourself to exhaustion does not solve any of those problems. It perpetuates them.

3. Working late shows that I am “fill in blank here.”

This is the identity trap. This is when your self-worth becomes tied to the perception that you are a hard-worker or a top-performer. When you believe your constant presence in the office or on email telegraphs that you are committed, hard-working, reliable, you have the perfect ground conditions for work creep.

Commitment, hard work and reliability are not actually measured in how long you work. They are measured in the way you work.

4. If I work a little longer, I will “catch up” and then I’ll feel better.

One of the things about working late that is so addictive is that it can actually soothe and calm you in the short term. The truth is, if you do that one last thing, you may feel better for a few minutes, until you receive the next urgent email or text.

There is no magical place of no more work. You won’t catch up. There is nothing to catch. Work is a cycle; it doesn’t actually end. Working longer hours rarely gets you to a pristine state of inbox zero and ‘everything off your plate’. You get to inbox zero and your inbox just fills up again. For every outgoing email you send at 9 p.m., there will be flurry coming back at you at 9 a.m.

Further, with a few exceptions related to individual circadian rhythms, you are less productive in the evenings or when you are tired. If you really want to improve your productivity and the quality of your work, shut down your computer and get a good night’s sleep.

5. I can’t “fill in the blank here” because I have to work late.

Have you ever turned down an invitation, not taken a phone call, got out of a family obligation by saying “Sorry, I can’t. I have to work.” Working late can be an unconscious (or conscious) form of avoidance. It can also be a sign that you are not focusing enough attention on building a rich and rewarding leisure life.

Love your life first, then love your work.

Even if you love your work, you can have too much of a good thing. When work fills a hole or becomes a way soothe your fear and anxiety, it can become habitual and addictive.

Whether you find your job engaging, fulfilling and meaningful or it is a means to fund fulfillment in other areas of your life, it needs to be contained. While I don’t believe in some nirvana state of perfect work-life balance, I do believe in healthy work-life rhythms. Finding a rhythm that works for you requires attention to the conditions under which you work best and attention to the signs that you need to stop.

For more on this topic including practical tips on how you can break the work creep cycle check out parts two and three in this series: 4 Simple strategies to keep work from eating into your personal time and The Shut Down Sequence: A simple practice to help you feel better, work less and get more done.

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Cathy Jacob

I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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