I have been working 14 hours everyday since Covid out of pressure and guilt. How to come out of this game?

Dear Ranjani,

I work as a project manager in an IT company, and now we all work from home. The entire day is filled with client and team meetings and calls. Post which I have to sit up a couple of hours and finish my reports etc. I end up working till 11 pm every day, and invariably the next day starts at 9 am.

I’ve found this is the case with most of my peers, and my manager justifies it saying, but anyway you are at home! And frequently reminds us in team meetings that we are fortunate to get salary on time every month,  such are the times. It is true that we all have a slight guilty complex as well because “maybe we are not as productive as before”.

How to come out of this game?

Thanks, A.

Dear A,

From what I’m hearing, this is becoming scarily common. At the outset, let me tell you that this is unfair and exploitative. The good thing is that you understand that you are over-working because of guilt, which is the wrong reason to do anything, let alone work. This needs to stop. Let’s see how you can stop it.

Firstly, unionise. Don’t panic at the sound of ‘union’. Start informal and small. As you say that the feeling of overworking is common among your peers, bring them together and have a conversation with your manager. Tell him/her in no uncertain terms that this is affecting your mental health as well as productivity.

Suggest a plan. For instance, ask your manager to ensure that there are no more than 2 hours of calls each day, before the next 4 weeks time. Or suggest that you’ll do reports twice a week, instead of everyday. Assure him/her that you’re not asking to stop today, but want a commitment that they will reduce work hours in the immediate future.

Secondly, tighten your methods. For instance, ruthlessly decline meeting requests where you’re not absolutely needed. Put a “hard stop” on all meetings at 30 mins. Set up a window for unscheduled calls — say 2-4pm — and don’t answer any outside that time. If someone calls at any other time, you can call back between 2 and 4pm — there is really nothing in the IT world that’s that urgent. Go offline after work hours, don’t reply to Whatsapp, emails etc. If anyone asks, tell them that you’re feeling a burnout and want to take some time to care for yourself.

In the beginning, this will sound curt and unaccommodative to your colleagues. Over time, they’ll get used to it. They’ll not expect immediate responses when they text. As long as you’re delivering on your responsibilities, this shouldn’t affect your performance at any reasonable workplace.

It’s also possible that you’re nervous and keep checking email, Whatsapp etc. at all times. It’s natural to feel anxious, but consider how much of it is internal. Try to reduce that. I switched off all notifications except calls on my phone. Now, I reply to 5-6 Whatsapp messages every couple of hours, instead of getting distracted every 10th minute.

Thirdly, if it’s possible, take your manager aside and have an open conversation with him/her. That you are home is not invitation to be exploited. That others have lost their jobs isn’t excuse for your employer to exploit you. These are unrelated aspects. I’m sure your manager is feeling stressed too and might understand you better.

Lastly, take 2-3 days off. If you won’t be given privilege leave, lie and take some sick leave. During this time, don’t answer calls, join meetings, reply to emails etc. Tell them you’ll check texts alone a couple of times a day. If you’re away long enough, they’ll get used to not having you around for everything.

I know you’re thinking this is easier said than done. That’s true. And is definitely not going to be received well. Don’t give in. Keep pushing back, little by little, politely but firmly. Don’t say, “I can’t”. Say, “my day is stacked, I’ll get to it tomorrow”. If you fail to maintain your boundaries one day, don’t go back to old methods. Try again, every single day.

Trust me, your current exhaustion is the least of your problems. If you don’t resist, this will become your…..”new normal”!