Why Your Company Doesn’t Deserve All Your Time

How overworking affects your identity, your mental health and the success of your company.

There’s a story in American folklore of a man by the name of John Henry. John Henry was a steel driver hired by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad whose job was primarily to dig a spike into the ground, making way for new tracks to be placed on the planned railway. One afternoon, a challenge was proposed by a traveling salesman with a steam powered drill to test the effectiveness of his product against the sheer power of a qualified steel driver. He proposed that this drill could outwork any man on the site. Henry, being the bold and obvious leader amongst his cohorts, took the challenge. As both man and machine worked, people cheered; the men had much to fight for. Technology was on the rise, and these new machines posed a threat to their livelihood. The energy was palpable.

This must have inspired Henry, because he came out the victor. As the salesman walked away and cheers from Henry’s fellow steel drivers shook the mountain they were tearing down, nobody noticed Henry dropping to the floor. It was only after the blood vessel burst in his brain did everyone circle around him and realize he worked himself to death. His efforts, albeit noble and inspired, went unenjoyed by Henry himself. He was never able to take a ride on the railway he helped build.

As a natural born leader, Henry very quickly identified himself with his work. He was the strongest, quickest, and most effective steeldriver on the site. As he continued to identify himself this way, he was less and less concerned with the effects of spending too much time working. And not unlike Henry, there is a pattern of this type of behavior in entrepreneurs today.

Overworking is commonplace amongst the visionaries and leaders in the world of innovation. The problem is that when your identity is tied to your work, the tendency to put in long hours doesn’t seem illogical or harmful to your mental health.

This is who I am, I should be spending as much of my time on this as I can.

But the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have proven that after 50+ hours of work, productivity actually decreases. The work suffers, and if the very thing you identify with is now suffering from these habits, what does that say about your identity?

I want to make a note here. I hesitate to get too deep into a philosophical discussion on identity (take Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum — I think therefore I am, for example) but I also don’t want to discount this point: Entrepreneurs tend to find their identity in their work. The question I’m posing is simply, what does it mean if the work starts to suffer because of their desire to push… and push… and push? This is a cultural norm in this demographic which makes it difficult for one to change the view of many. Remember, Henry’s fellow steel drivers were depending on him to prove their professional worth against a machine. And their response when he did so — the cheers and the hugs — was loud enough to hide the fact that Henry was dying. It is not just about keeping yourself accountable to a healthy balance of enjoying life, it’s about keeping others accountable as well.

If you’re the leader in your company, setting an example for your employees is crucial and setting boundaries is a start. But showing that you know when to stop, and recognize that you are no longer working to the best of your ability, will enable those around you to feel they can stop as well. The sentiment of one becomes the sentiment of many.