What to do when you are overworked

It seems in the last few years that I am increasingly being consulted by overworked employees. No one’s being obviously mean to them. They haven’t been demoted. Their wages have not been cut.
What has happened is that their workload has increased significantly. Whether or not they received an unwanted “promotion”, the workload they have been asked to carry has grown out of all proportion to what can be achieved in a reasonable work week.
Sometimes they are carrying the burden of company staffing cutbacks. Other times people have resigned and no one is bothering to replace them.
These individuals have spent years of loyal service making sure the job was always getting done. Now they are spending 60 to 70 hours a week just trying to keep up.
They arrive in my office hoping that I will have some quick solution to their exhaustion. Unfortunately, I don’t.
When you are not in a union, your remedies are very limited in this kind of situation. So far as I am aware, there has not been one case in the history of the country where somebody has successfully taken the position that they had the right to walk out the door and sue for pay in lieu of notice because they were being asked to work too much.
The reason is simple: most judges, including me if I were one, would look at you and say, “Your job is to work a reasonable amount of hours every week, with some flexibility if you are in management for emergencies, and get done what you can get done. If the employer wants to fire you, they can. They will have to pay you reasonable notice based on your age, seniority and level of responsibility. Refusing to work more than 45 to 50 hours a week is never going to be just cause such that your employer can fire you without pay in lieu of notice.”
Unfortunately, if you can’t afford to take the risk of losing the job, there is no point in talking to me. You have to do what you can do and hopefully find time in your 70-hour work week to look for something else. If you are ready to draw the line in the sand, then you should write a note to your boss that looks something like this:
“Dear Boss:
As you are aware, my workload has grown over the last few months to the point that I am now working an average of 60 to 65 hours a week. This is beginning to have a significant impact on my personal life and health. I cannot sustain this any longer. I want you to know that I will continue to give a 100% effort to my job but I will be restricting my hours to a normal work week with some flexibility for true emergencies. I would appreciate your assistance in prioritizing my workload so that the most crucial tasks can be completed in the time I have available.”

And then stick to it. It’s the work horses that can’t stand to see tasks unfinished that are usually exploited. If you put in this letter and stick to it and start getting notes from your boss indicating that if you don’t get everything done you are going to be terminated, don’t panic. Polite notes back indicating that you are doing the best you can with the time you have will protect you. If they are going to terminate you, they are going to have to pay you.
As published in the Hamilton Spectator, September 17, 2012
Ed Canning
Ed Canning
P: 905.572.5809