Portrait of Asian Businesswoman sitting and working hard on the table with front of computer desktop with programming source code over computer screen in work place at late with serious action
Stuck in the cycle: presenteeism takes its toll on workers © Getty

Plagued by fears that she would not make it in the corporate world, Elle Todd made a habit of coming into work early in the mornings and not leaving until midnight.

“It was the whole imposter syndrome thing — this is not me, it is not going to work,” says Ms Todd, now a London-based partner at law firm Reed Smith, of her first few years as a lawyer. She feared she would be unable to do the job or keep up with the lifestyle.

Long hours at the office is a trap that many workers struggle to avoid. Yet it paves the way to stress, takes a toll on family life and saps the creativity and energy needed to achieve what many hang around so long for in the first place — impressing the boss.

A 2019 survey by HR group ADP found that two-thirds of Europeans regularly work unpaid overtime. Nearly one in four UK workers, also surveyed by ADP, said they worked more than 10 hours for free during an average week, adding up to about two months of eight-hour workdays a year.

The trend for working long hours is similar around the world. Workers in China last year began protesting against the 9am-9pm shifts six days a week, which have become regular across the country’s booming technology industry. In Japan, dying from overwork is common enough to have its own name: karoshi.

In some cases better regulation is required to protect the mental wellbeing of people at work. In others, pressure comes from the specific culture of a society, industry or company. Ms Todd believes people can influence their workplace.

Remembering her own rough start, she now encourages her team not to fall into group think around presenteeism, in which everyone feels they have to be seen to be working a lot.

“If I need to leave at 5pm I will wave and say ‘goodbye everyone’, I won’t sneak out the back,” she says.

Paul Ferreira, director of the Center for Life-long Leadership at Brazilian business school Fundação Dom Cabral, works with high-achievers who are trying to rediscover creativity at work.

One of his top tips is to write a schedule each night for the next day with two columns. The left side features the usual times and tasks and the right side states the activity’s purpose. That way, you spend time on what matters, and stop wasting time. “This allows you to meet strategic goals rather than fight fires,” he says.

Victoria Sprott, talent director at recruitment consultancy Robert Half
Victoria Sprott made a career change to avoid burnout

Victoria Sprott, talent director at recruitment consultancy Robert Half, says breaks are essential. “Instead of eating lunch at your desk, step outside the office for some fresh air [and] make sure you make full use of your annual leave,” she says.

But personal adjustments only go so far; sometimes the situation needs to change. Ms Sprott remembers a time when she felt “overwhelmingly stretched in multiple directions”.

“I was a leader looking after multiple offices, caring for three children under the age of five and trying to support my husband,” she says. “I felt stuck in a cycle of guilt — feeling like a bad mother, wife and employee with no time to perform any of my roles to my usual high standard.”

Ms Sprott knew something had to change so she raised this with her employer, even though she was worried her career would suffer as a result. Instead, she was able to transition from a regional management role into human resources. “I changed my career path, reinvented myself and have never looked back,” she says.

Top tips

Don’t be hard on yourself

I managed to overcome my imposter syndrome by being completely myself at work, but it took me a while, says Elle Todd. You can’t put yourself under immediate pressure to “be yourself” — but you should start from that point. I had started with what I thought a professional lawyer was, based on what I had seen on TV.

I don’t tell myself I will do 15 minutes of meditation each morning, because I just won’t do it, but I do listen to podcasts. This week I listened to some on topics from eiderdown farming to hand dryers — and that keeps me more grounded.

Learn when it is time to make a serious change

If you are feeling overwhelmed, do not try to shrug it off, advises Victoria Sprott. Try to understand the reason and build a plan to change that. For some, this plan might be working towards your next promotion. For others, it might be evaluating your work-life balance by asking for more flexibility, or even finding a role with a business that offers a more inclusive culture.

Have a clear goal — goal setting is intrinsically linked with performance. You need a clear destination to aim for, along with strategies for reaching the finish line and milestones built in. This will ensure you concentrate on the right activities.

Break projects into several deadlines

If you are incapable of starting a project until the day before it is due, I suggest breaking a project into a handful of deadlines and letting key stakeholders know so that the deadlines are public and “feel real”, says Paul Ferreira.

People often become distracted because they get involved in too many projects with the best intentions, but eventually their interest pales, and they wind up either constantly fighting fires or abandoning projects.

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