Why People Overwork
5 Reasons Why People Overwork


Maggie Sim

Maggie Sim

Most of the people I know who struggle with overwork think that this is due to one or more of the following:

  1. They have been given too much work by their bosses (someone else’s fault)
  2. They have poor time management skills (my fault)
  3. Their co-workers and direct reports are not pulling their weight (someone else’s fault)
  4. They have insufficient support due to staff turnover or an organisation headcount freeze (someone else’s fault)

All of the above are likely to be the case, but may not necessarily be the real reason(s) why one is overworking. We have to dig deeper and become more aware of what is at the heart of the issue to create the most appropriate strategy that will get ourselves out of the rut.

Based on my experience working with different clients, the following reasons are some of the deeper issues underlying the overwork problem. When you get to the end of this post, check in to see which reason(s) resonate with you about yourself or about people around you who overwork.

How To Avoid Overwhelm and Manage Anxiety
Photo by Andre Mouton on Pexels.com

1. Taking other people’s monkey is why people overwork

One of the top reasons for overworking is caused by us taking on other people’s stuff. I call this ‘taking on someone else’s monkey’. Simply put, you took on work that belongs to someone else.

You only have a pair of hands. When your hands are carrying someone else’s monkey, you have no extra hands to hold on to your monkey, so you start to juggle and juggling takes up a lot of physical, mental and emotional energy if you do not want to drop any of the monkeys.

Why do people take on other people’s monkey? A couple of reasons:

1.1 They do not KNOW how to say ‘no’ respectfully

People in this group want to say ‘no’ but may not know how to do so respectfully.

They probably have a skill-gap around setting boundaries and telling others what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to them. They overthink the potential fall-out or consequences that may arise when they say ‘no’. They are also likely to have a belief that saying ‘no’ is being rude or shows them up as being unkind, unhelpful and ungracious and this is not the kind of person whom they believe they are.

To reduce overwork, they have to start setting boundaries and communicating their boundaries to others in a clear and respectful way that is aligned with how they see themselves.

If you believe you are a kind person, how could you say ‘no’ to someone in a way that shows kindness?

1.2 They do not WANT to say ‘no’

This group of people do not want to say ‘no’ because they have a need to be needed by others. When others ask them to help out or to take on more work, they feel valued and this makes them feel good. They have a personal belief that says: “I am valuable and loved for what I do for others’.

To reduce overwork, they have to start noticing when they are doing stuff for others for the purpose of validation. They will also need to make a decision to let go of their personal belief and create a new one that says “I am valuable and loved for who I am and not what I do for others’.

2. Lack of confidence

There are two types of confidence issues and it is important to understand the difference:

2.1 Imposter Syndrome

You may have heard of certain people who are successful or have been recognised for their capabilities grapple with ‘imposter syndrome’. What is ‘imposter syndrome’? When someone successful believes that their success is not due to their own capabilities but due to something else like luck, they feel like a fraud or an imposter. This syndrome seems to affect women more than men.

How does this group of people overwork?

They are constantly worried about being discovered as ‘an imposter’, and they over-compensate by working harder and harder. They believe that they have to work very hard in order to become the person who deserves the recognition that others have bestowed upon them.

2.2 Self-doubt

Other people who aspire to be successful may struggle to take the action that is required to get them to where they want to go. They lack confidence in their own abilities to get them to where they would like to go.

How does this group of people overwork?

People in this group tend to take a much longer time to complete a task or a piece of work because they spend an inordinate amount of time and energy battling self-doubt. They are frequently over-thinking whether their work is good enough or whether they have made the right decision. Or they try to mind-read what others expect of them and whether they have met those expectations. They often re-do their work, procrastinate on starting on or completing a task, or lose the focus needed to complete their work in a timely manner. All this leads to inefficiency and work starts to pile up.

why people overwork

3. Inadequate self-management strategies

3.1 Self-neglect

Some people love their work and are great at what they do. They have high personal standards, strong work ethics and a desire for excellence.

How does this group of people overwork?

Firstly, they have no qualms putting in the long hours to do the work that they love to do. If they also have a job that has little room for errors – lawyering or professional services as an example – this could easily lead to overwork.

Secondly, people in this group tend to neglect or de-prioritize self-care. At some point, the lack of sufficient rest and recovery leads to cognitive, mental and emotional ‘wear and tear’ which makes it difficult for them to maintain their high personal standards and commitment to high quality work. This prompts them to work harder to keep up.

3.2 Lack of strategic prioritisation

Some people think ‘to-do list’ and tasks when they speak about prioritisation. I have clients who meet up with me weekly for 30 to 45 minutes to work through their priorities that supports their work goals. Starting the week organising their thoughts around what is vital for them to give most of their attention to during the week sets them up for maximum productivity and focus.

However, prioritisation is more than just ticking off tasks on your to-do lists. It is about engaging in activities, tasks and relationships that serve your goals or mission professionally and personally. You prioritise the stuff that allows you to progress on your goals.

Where our attention goes, our energy flows. It is not time-management, it is attention management or energy management. When manage your attention and energy that is focused on your priorities in various aspects of your life, you will naturally know how to manage your time.

Without having clear strategic priorities, you will find yourself stretched in many different directions by different people wanting different things from you.

3.3 Inability to manage distractions is why people overwork

I like what Nir Eyal, the author of the book Indistractable says about distractions: “You cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from”.

This backs up point 3.2. Anything that does not serve your personal and professional priorities are distractions. Until you know what are your priorities and goals, you are unlikely to have clarity of what is distracting you from those priorities.

What could be some common distractions?

At a surface level, our digital devices, social media platforms, the 24/7 news channels and Netflix serve as distractions. At a deeper level, other stuff that we normally think are ‘positive and good’ activities could become our distractions too.

For example, if you have a goal to become more knowledgeable about an area, say, cyber-security, and you have made it a priority to spend 45mins every day reading about the topic. Picking up a history book about the American Civil War is a distraction in relation to that goal.

If you have a work goal to deliver on a project that will bring a new product to the marketplace, then to chair a series of industry conferences would be a distraction in relation to this goal. Even if this activity is great for enhancing visibility at a professional level.

4. Perfectionistic tendencies

If you have worked or interacted with people with perfectionistic tendencies, you would probably have noticed that they have impossibly high standards of themselves and everyone around them. Having perfectionistic tendencies or working for someone with perfectionistic tendencies is another common reason for overworking.

What is the difference between people with high standards who pursue excellence and people with perfectionistic tendencies? The former knows when something is good enough and the latter does not. The former also has a clear and realistic standard of what excellence means while the latter has an idealised standard that is not realistic in most circumstances.

I used to work for someone with perfectionistic tendencies who would revise and edit reports endlessly in pursuit of the idea of delivering only the best possible work. This meant that our work did not get reviewed in a timely manner, and we often stayed back to work into the wee hours of the morning to re-draft numerous versions of our work.

To reduce overwork, people with such tendencies have to work on shifting their perfectionistic mindset and there are a number of ways to do so. However, if you are overworking because you are working for someone with perfectionistic tendencies, then you need to create and try out different strategies in responding to this person. More often than not, this may ultimately involve making a decision about whether you want to continue working with this person.

Why people overwork

5. Avoiding pain or discomfort

5.1 Avoiding difficult conversations is why people overwork

This might come as a surprise to some of you but ‘avoiding difficult conversations’ is one of the key reasons for overwork. Whenever I dig deeper with clients who are in this space, it comes up that they are typically covering for team members and direct reports who are either not performing up to expectations or not pulling their weight.

  • A team member who has a dozen excuses for not being able to deliver his or her part in a project. Sounds familiar?
  • Or a direct report who often sends in shoddy work at the eleventh hour and you end up patching the holes in the work product?
  • How about a boss who does not distribute the work-load fairly amongst his team, because you are the most reliable member of staff on his team and tend to get the lion’s share of the work?

Instead of having a difficult conversation about how their behaviour is impacting your well-being, it feels easier for you to fill in the gap. Navigating difficult conversations is a skill and learning to say ‘no’ is part of it (see point 1 above). Having strategic priorities (see point 3.2) will enable you to navigate such conversations far more skilfully than if you had none.

5.2 Avoiding conflict or tension is why people overwork

Some people overwork because they are conflict-avoidant. They generally dislike conflict or tension and are motivated towards maintaining harmony and connection. They want to say ‘no’ to others but hold back because they perceive this to threaten their need for harmony.

  • How could conflict be healthy for you? (This is about reframing how one sees conflict – not all conflict is bad.)
  • How could healthy conflict serve you in this situation?
  • What could you do to be comfortable with healthy conflict?

To reduce overwork, people in this group have to learn to set boundaries and communicate their boundaries to others in a way that aligns with their need to keep perceived conflict to a minimum.

5.3 Self-numbing is why people overwork

There are people who overwork because it is their way of numbing themselves form emotional pain that they are experiencing. This is the secondary benefit to overworking. It allows them to forget or avoid dealing with their bigger emotional pain – grief, loss, disappointment, anger, low self-worth.

Some people do overworking consciously as a coping mechanism while others may do so unconsciously. They are unlikely going to stop overworking until they pick up the courage to acknowledge and process the emotional pain.

Work With Me

Prolonged overwork has serious consequences on your mental, emotional and physical well-being. If you are battling overwork and would like to work with a Life Coach to manage this, please reach out to me for a chat.