Women Stretched Too Thin May Find It's Time to Set New Limits

If you're one of the working women who feels she's being assigned more than she can handle, there are things you can do to help ease the load, experts say.

Overwork is not an illusion. Studies report that Americans put in longer hours on the job than do workers of any other major industrialized nation.

In the U.S., according to the monthly newsletter Manpower Argus, the average worker put in 1,966 hours in 1997. That compares with Japan, 1,890; Britain, 1,731; Italy, 1,717; France, 1,656; and Germany, 1,574.

A widely held view is that women have a harder time than men saying no to a boss, so they end up doing more, says Susan Ginsberg, editor of the Work & Family Life newsletter in New York.

"We say yes to everything," says Hattie Hill, a Dallas-based author of "Smart Women, Smart Choices" (Golden Books, 1998). "We're so busy being busy that we don't sit down to do an analysis of what's not working."

Sharlane Hesse-Biber, a Boston College sociologist, says women's personalities are not to blame for the situation.

Hesse-Biber notes that in Fortune 500 companies, most women are not in upper-echelon jobs and are dependent on their boss' goodwill.

"It's not that they're weak or there's a character flaw. If I took men and put them in the same [subservient] positions, they'd be as powerless as women and they would act just like women," she says.

A BusinessWeek report in November underscored the point: "The few women who do attain the executive suite still occupy mostly staff positions--corporate marketing, human resources and the like."

Even a woman in a lower-echelon job might profit from some of the antidotes for overwork prescribed by the experts:

* Avoid the "hero syndrome," that unconscious need to be wanted that makes you over-promise what you can deliver in order to be liked, says Laura Berman Fortgang, author of "Take Yourself to the Top" (Warner Books, 1998).

* Improve your time-management techniques. "Some people overcommit because they don't know how much they can do or they don't use their time well," says psychologist Paul Spector at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

* If you don't get out of the office most nights until 10 p.m., Hill says, write your supervisor a one-page letter describing how people are burning out, how the company is losing money and what might be done about it.

* Remember that senior managers respect women who set limits, says Martha Sherwood, a principal in the New York office of Towers Perrin, a human resources consulting firm. "Be as assertive as men, and don't acquiesce to every request that is made of you."

* An employer may overwork you because he or she does not realize how much time an assignment takes, says Barry Miller, associate director of Career Services at Pace University in New York.

"Go to [your boss] right now and give an estimate of how much time is involved" and negotiate the time you need to do it. "If they're trying to get an 80-hour workweek out of you, that's not acceptable," Miller says.

* Ask yourself the following question: "Is it hard for me to ask someone to do some copying or to mail a letter?" If so, it is an indication that you don't feel comfortable asking for help on big projects, says Barbara Distler, a psychologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She says it is vital to learn how to share assignments with colleagues.

* "Start out with a positive" when you respond to a request, says Sally Haver, vice president of Ayers Group, a New York-based human resources firm. An example: "I'm happy to do it, but what you don't know is I'm sitting on another project with an identical deadline and only one can get done." Ask your manager to state which project has priority.

* Finally, avoid extraneous assignments, such as picking up someone at the airport. "Try saying, 'I'm glad you thought of me, but please consider that X is on the way here to see me,' " Haver says. "Be pleasant but firm, then go into compromises and solutions."


Sherwood Ross is a freelance writer who covers workplace topics for Reuters. He can be reached at sherwood@mato.com.

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