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Jack the Gay Dull Boy: Overcoming Overwork

Preoccupied, worried young male worker staring at computer

Is that you, Jack, your eyes bagged, clothes wrinkled, and face falling into the keyboard over one more Excel spreadsheet or Powerpoint presentation? 

Hey, we live in America, Puritan work ethic and all that, with fewer vacation days per year than most industrialized countries.  And everyone who’s heard the story of “the ant and the grasshopper” knows that work is a good thing. If that’s so, more work must be better, right? Well, take a break, stagger to the office men’s room, and take a long look in the mirror. Overworking is doing your look no favors, my friend.

I get it; many gay men that I work with in my private practice in psychotherapy and life coaching are “over-achievers”.  One theory with this is that because gay boys, teens, and young adults can be denigrated by bullying, unsupportive parents, bigoted clergy, or hypercritical peers, we defend against this by working harder, smarter, and longer than others to stand out and defend against devaluation.  It’s a logical idea, but a flawed one.  Overwork to compensate for being judged, criticized, and put down by others makes us all exhausted, but not necessarily triumphant.  For the ones who bully us (from the school yard, to the pulpit, to Fox News, to the Republican Party platform), no amount of our achievement will ever satisfy or derail their thirst for bigotry.  We don’t need to add ourselves to the list of people who put us down by indulging in such “compensatory” overwork.     

Do you need more reasons to slow it down? Check out these arguments against putting in over-long hours:

  • You become, literally, a dull boy. There are any number of studies that prove the longer we work, the less productive we are. That’s easiest to measure at the low end of the pay scale, of course, where widgets-per-hour proves that overwork slows you down. Up in the rare air of investment and law firms, medical offices, even artistic jobs, productivity is more a matter of impression.  Working smarter, not harder, to support your company or organization’s goals is the key to success and prestige/income. 
  • You play havoc with your social life. While the whole world is out flirting and fandangoing, you’re in the one lighted office in your building, hunched over your keyboard, sucking down a lukewarm latte, and losing your best years. If you’re already in a relationship, or if you have kids, you are robbing yourself and the people you love of the most precious part of being a family – togetherness.
  • You give up your life for The Man. Your boss is motivated by a bottom line that may not be in your best interest. Considering the cost of benefits, it’s cheaper to keep you at your labors for 80 hours a week than to hire a second employee so you can each work a regular week. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports American workers are 400 percent more productive today than in 1950. Chances are you aren’t living 400 percent higher on the hog than your parents or grandparents.  Keep some historical and social perspective.
  • We’re out of step with the developed world. According to the International Labor Organization, Americans work 137 more hours per year than the industrious Japanese, 260 more than British workers, and 499 more than the French. Is number of annual hours worked really where we want to lead the world?

Maybe you just love the grind too much to let it go; more power to you.  But just be sure to keep your health insurance paid up, because stress from work is the number-one health risk in this country.

If you’d like to improve your own self-care and ease up on the overwork, try to:

  • Be your own best advocate. If there’s a reasonable reason for everyone to really push this week, OK, be a team player. But if the expectation is that you’ll put in 10 or more hours of overtime every week, it’s OK to explain that that doesn’t work for you.  Your overall professional value is measured in ways other than just magnitude of hours worked.
  • Practice problem-solving. Invest some time in figuring out if you can boost your productivity. If you can go to your boss with a solution, your firm stand on working fewer hours will go down much better.  Ideas for this are in Elaine St. James’ book, Simplify Your Work Life
  • Give them quality, not just quantity. If you’re being paid for 40 hours, give a good 40, maybe an hour or two extra. Keep focused and on top of your tasks and organizational/departmental goals. Don’t whine; do your best and let the boss know in advance if you just can’t finish a job in a reasonable workweek.
  • Cultivate new opportunities to move on. Scary prospect, right? But there are other jobs (and if you suspect it may come to this, you should already be looking – think about networking opportunities with friends, colleagues, and LinkedIn figures who interest you). One thing that older people know that we’re all too young to fully understand is that life is too short to spend your days laboring for an unreasonable boss.  Practice assertive communication to get what you need; if you need help with this, that’s what my therapy and coaching services are for. 

The Japanese (and remember they work 137 fewer hours than we average) have a specific word for death by overwork, “karoshi.” Aren’t there other words – balance, fun, relaxation – that better describe the life you want?

For more information on my career services, click these links for career coaching and job issues, or for executive coaching

If you need help strategizing all this, let’s talk.  I offer sessions in my office, via Skype, and via phone, to anyone in Los Angeles/West Hollywood, or globally.  For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 310-726-4357 or email

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