Our Faustian Bargain with Work

We all know that to be perceived as being good at our job, we have to be ever busy and always on. The pressure to uphold the devoted work ideal is real. As Cindy, one of the previous blog commenters, points out, Once you achieve a level of success in your career—say 10 years in, and a senior management/director role—it’s not possible to do that job or progress without accepting that the job now and forever into the future will demand 8-10 hours per day. Sure, we might be able to work from home once in a while or take an afternoon off to go to our kid’s event, but on the whole, success at work seems to be a 50+ hour covenant.

We need to renegotiate our time relationship with work.

Back in the industrial revolution, when the devoted work ideal became mainstream, more time spent working usually meant more production. A fixed work week with guaranteed hours was needed to drive profit. Today, for the over 1 billion knowledge workers[i] like us in the world, more time doesn’t necessarily translate into more production or profit. What matters more are non-time correlated things like critical and creative thinking skills, navigating information overload and complexity, and the ability to rally, engage, and collaborate well with others. In theory, the more skilled you are, the less time it takes to achieve impact. Ideas, not time, are what’s important these days.

While we can’t change what employers put out there, we can reexamine our own stance and take steps to get a better work-life deal for ourselves and our families. To do so, let’s start with the basics:

  • Salaried work was never intended to be endless work. In lieu of paying employees by hour, a company will establish a particular job with a particular fixed compensation assuming it takes, on average, a standard workweek to do the associated tasks. While companies generally don’t have to pay salaried workers overtime, it’s not legal to scope salaried jobs for 50, 60, or more hours regularly. That’s why on most salaried payslips in the HR system, there’ll be a designation of hours (usually ranging between 35 to 40 hours) reflecting the company’s standard work week. When you accept a full-time salaried job, the presumption is you’ll be working a standard work week, give or take, for a fixed rate of pay.
  • We have more control that we realize when it comes to “give or take”. For the most part, the company relies on your discretion as to how much to “give”. Of course, there might be business trips, an evening sales event, or a big project the boss needs first thing Monday morning. Mechanically, though, most of the extra “give” is prescribed by us. (And, without much “take” going on, either.) Companies know this and invest a lot of effort marketing to us as employees, in order to compel us to give more on our own volition. We get recruited, enticed by the idea of becoming part of something bigger than ourselves. We are onboarded, indoctrinated in company mission statements, values, and work identity. We are kept engaged, tempted with the promise of differentiated incentives, professional development, and a meaningful career. Maintaining the devoted worker ideal is big business!
  • The devoted worker is a Faustian bargain with our company. The devoted worker ideal isn’t a fundamental human truth, it’s a business model. We legitimatize this business model when we transact our discretionary time in exchange for a self-created sense of meaning in our work. Pretty early on in our careers, we’ve made a pact with the cult of the devoted worker. Work is not supposed to be this way!

Did we make a Faustian bargain with our work?

To renegotiate this bargain, first, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the financial value of our time:

  • Remind yourself of your going market rate. Divide your annual salary by (52 minus number of vacation weeks), and then divide that by the company standard work week. (We’ll exclude benefits for the sake of argument, but you could add that number to your top-line salary if you want). For example, someone making $150,000 with 4-weeks of vacation would have a going rate of about $78/hr (the math = 150,000/(52-4)/40).
  • Assess the financial impact in expending discretionary time. If you’re a salaried worker where the company standard work week is 40 hours, every extra hour you give in a week means you are accepting a 2.5% reduction in your going market rate (not the 50% increase of time-and-a-half). Regularly working 10 extra hours a week translates into a 25% reduction. In the example above, working 50 hours a week means your going market rate lowers to $62/hr, or an equivalent $112,500 annual base salary – Yikes!
  • Evaluate if bonus, incentives, and salary increases will make up the difference. You might ask, what about year-end bonuses based on performance—isn’t that how extra work pays out? Not too often. Think about it, companies have to make a profit and pay shareholders. Through these performance incentives, they invest a little money to get more effort from you, but it can’t them cost 100% of their incremental gains. And, we all know, especially in today’s times, that higher performance does not guarantee job security. You have to run the numbers to see if incentives will pay out for you.

For me, after one grueling but prosperous year at a former company, running the numbers made me realize my Faustian bargain wasn’t paying out. While I got the highest performance rating, I expended 8-10 hours a week on top of my already 50+ hours a week in order to drive this level of achievement. When I calculated what the extra bonus got me for effectively a part-time gig, it turned out to be about $25/hr. And, there really wasn’t any long-term carryover benefit either, as the performance meter resets every year.

Now that we’re armed with a better sense of the financial value of our time, we can see our discretionary time as an investment, and broker it in way that creates a return that matters to us.

  • Be intentional when giving discretionary time. Time-box your day so you can drive what’s important to the bottom line. Creating time boundaries in your day (I will finish this presentation deck before my meeting at 3pm) makes you much more efficient and focused. Then, be choiceful when deploying extra effort (Where this presentation lands at 3pm is good enough for tomorrow or, I need to fix 2 slides tonight—20 minutes and that’s it).
  • Check your balance sheet. Evaluate your net gains or losses as a result of your discretionary investment. In my case, the balance sheet showed on one side, I gained kudos from my boss, a stroked ego, airline gold status, and a gig that earned me $25/hr, but on the other side, it came with 10 lbs of stress-induced weight, loss of precious family time, not to mention the fact my boss’ career seemed to benefit a lot more than mine did.
  • Be a time miser. Let’s face it, a lot of stuff that drives discretionary effort is either a bunch of fluff, or it’s because we were busy with “non-essential but have-to” crap and now we need to actually do our job. Protect your time like you protect your wallet. If you’re asked to participate in a senior leader’s pet project, negotiate what in your current job comes off your plate. When choosing to do an extra task, be clear in your gains and establish time limits for yourself (e.g., I want to show I’m able to create a business plan, so I’ll dedicate an extra 2 hours a week just for this month so I can turn in a great document) and stick with it. And, never, ever (ever!) volunteer for a low-value project, especially if it’s only because you feel bad no one else is raising their hand.

If we want work to be a more humane place—one where can create the family and work life we want—we have to consider how clinging to a devoted worker ideal helps our employers, not us. We can take back our bargaining power by being intentional where, when, and how we leverage our talents and contributions at work. How long you work shouldn’t define who you are or the value of your ideas.

What’s your time bargain? Comment below.


[i] Roth, C. (2019, December 11). 2019: When we exceeded 1 billion knowledge workers. Gartner. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://blogs.gartner.com/craig-roth/2019/12/11/2019-exceeded-1-billion-knowledge-workers/

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