Can there really be a reasonable work-life balance?

Almost everyone I meet is looking for a reasonable work-life balance. And many of those people, who are gainfully employed, are also totally exhausted.

So it doesn’t surprise me that when I first meet a potential client, and ask, “What are you hoping for in your next position?”; almost everyone brings up a desire for a reasonable work-life balance.

During the Great Recession, those people who remained employed found themselves doing the work for two, three, and even four employees. This didn’t seem to be an exception by any means. Now we are seven or eight years down the road. The government tells us that because unemployment is at an all time low, the recession is over and we are supposedly in better shape. (No, I’m not at all convinced.)

I’ve been investigating this phenomenon of “overwork” for several years. Because of my work as a career coach, people seem to eagerly talk to me about their work. I encourage this by asking them about it. I want to understand what’s going on in the workplace and how challenges are being managed by both the employee and employer.


When employees begin a new job, they generally want to set the best possible impression with their new employer as well as their colleagues. This is understandable. They put in many extra hours. They may be the first person in the building and the last of their team to leave.


After three months, it is no wonder why their excitement is gone and they are truly back to living a daily grind that never seems to stop. They have exchanged the stress of unemployment for the stress of an unreasonable work situation. I wonder how long they will be able to sustain this situation.

The worst part of this is that the employee has now set clear expectations. The employer now believes and expects the new employee to sustain this unmanageable “work ethic” for the duration of their employment. Not good.

Could it have been that standard interview question?

I’ve been asking myself how this happens and when did it start. The answer surprised me.

Remember the question in the interview: “How would your colleagues (or direct reports) describe you?” or “How would your former manager describe you?” And what kind of answer is usually given? Uh-huh…

What you may have said:

”I’m the person they can count on to consistently get the job done…no matter what!”

Oftentimes, this is stated with a confident smile that indicates the candidate knows how to pressure people to ensure every deadline is met. This kind of a response stresses the environment.

What they may have heard:

If this is a familiar response to you, I’d like to ask that you revisit exactly what is being communicated. How will your interviewer interpret those words?
Here are some options.

  • _____ stresses the work environment by being pushy.
  • _____’s intensity creates a negative work environment.
  • _____’s direct reports will likely be on edge from the pressure that s/he puts on them.
  • This kind of style around here will reduce productivity. We have enough stress as it is.

How to avoid this faux pas:

This disconnect may come as a shock to many people. Jobseekers should be prepared for this question and carefully check out the company culture by:

  1. Checking out their website, especially the careers page.
  2. Finding people on LinkedIn that were former employees and ask for a 15-minute conversation.
  3. Look up the company on and read the company reviews. (And check out any interview questions while you are there.)
  4. Conduct an internet search to find potential complaints about the company.
  5. Look the company rating in the Better Business Bureau database. Check to see if there are unresolved complaints.
  6. Check out their LinkedIn group and look at the topics of conversation.
  7. Look up their Twitter feeds and see what they are about.
  8. Look up their Facebook page: how many “Likes”


What to look for:

There should be a fairly consistent message throughout your investigation.

Alternative responses:

When this standard question arises, I suggest something like one of the following responses:
How would your manager or former colleagues describe you?

  • They know they can count on me to listen carefully, collaboratively define a plan, and follow-up to be sure they are all set.
  • They know my door is always open to help them succeed.
  • They know I’m there to support them and find solutions.
  • They know I’ll go to bat for them and approach concerns in an agreeable manner with everyone involved.

These responses do not add stress to the environment. Instead, they maintain a professional environment where people can focus and maintain productivity.

How to think differently:

Once you go back to work, it is normal to want to impress the boss. New employees want to “prove themselves” and show their employer that they have made a good hiring decision.

Remember that the employer believed you could do the job before you were interviewed! There is nothing to prove. The next step is simply to do the job well and work reasonable hours.

That said, I do not believe that I’ve ever seen an exempt employee that worked only 40 hours. (Exempt means that the company doesn’t have to pay overtime—it is “exempt.” Non-exempt means that the employee is hourly and the company does pay overtime.) Exempt employees generally put in uncompensated overtime. Read more. Personally, I drew the line at 50 hours of work per week.

Remember that work goes week after week after week. It’s a marathon and not a sprint. There were times I exceeded the 50 hours and even 60 hours. But I can not sustain excellence if it become a consistent need.

Ask the critical question in the interview:

It becomes important to ask the question in the interview: “In general, how many uncompensated hours are expected?” I also added (with a smile), “Okay. That’s fine. If work becomes unreasonable week after week, I may be irritable and ask you to reset my expectations.” I said this at every corporate interview I have had and I was still hired every time.

What are the current concerns of employers?

In one word: Engagement.

Even a few minutes on any social media platform that has a focus on employment will bring up numerous ads on “Employee Engagement.” Consulting companies are promoting numerous ways to engage employees. This is at the heart of Human Resource discussions. And…yes…there’s even an app for that. (Really! You can read about it here: Employees Disengaged at Work…There’s an App for That!)

Perhaps we are so exhausted from the Great Recession that we have become a nation of exhausted employees.

Do you remember when:
Do you remember when employees were committed to the success of “their” company. How about the time when there was pride in one’s job AND it was rewarded!
Do you remember when creative ideas were welcomed and companies weren’t spending all their energy on survival?

Yes. That was a time when we were: Engaged.

Getting back to engagement.

I am delighted to find that the Human Resource industry is working overtime (ohhhh…bad pun!) ….to find ways to help employees become engaged again.

In a recent interview, a client of mine heard the following from an Executive VP:
“When I receive an email from an employee at 11:30 at night, I’m not impressed.”

This last week I spoke with a Sr. Human Resource Manager who said, “At this company, a person is more likely to get fired for treating someone poorly that for not doing their job.”

* * *

I’ve written this blog with the hope of bringing encouragement that we are headed in the right direction. If we all bring our best work to our daily job and intentionally strive for success, it is my hope that we will get through our current employment challenges.

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