A reader writes:
I’m currently working in a job that requires what I can only describe as a soul-crushing amount of overtime just to keep my work afloat. This is common in my department and shows no signs of changing any time soon (if anything, it’s probably going to get worse). My field is very deadline-driven, but I know from conversations with others in similar roles that the sheer volume of work on my plate at any given time is not normal.
I’m starting to job hunt, and I’m incredibly nervous about taking another position, only to end up in a similar situation. What kind of questions can I ask in interviews that will help me gauge what kind of overtime will be expected once I’m up to speed without sounding like I’m not willing to go the extra mile? I don’t mind working late now and then, but right now I’m on a bullet train to Burnout Town.
This can be tricky because some managers will give you a sugarcoated version of the truth — which is ridiculous because misleading candidates is how you end up with dissatisfied employees who leave sooner than they would otherwise.
But you can try asking, “Can you tell me what hours the person in this role typically works?” Then, once you get an answer to that, follow it up with, “What about during your busiest times? What does that usually look like?”
It’s also okay to say, “One of the reasons I’m thinking about leaving my current job is that I’m working 60-hour weeks nearly year-round and I’m looking for something with more balance.” You’re not going to sound like a slacker when you explain the hours you’re working now; the fact that you’re working that much now makes it clear you’re willing to go the extra mile when it’s needed. And trust me, people at companies with more reasonable hours will 100% understand why you want to get out.
Beyond that, though, don’t just take your interviewer’s answer as the final word. Ask other people there similar questions. You’ll sometimes hear different — and more realistic — answers if you talk to others on the team or people who have been in the job previously.
You should also watch for signs of good or bad management more generally. Good managers are more likely to prioritize work in reasonable ways, set goals that are aligned with the resources to achieve them, understand that people have lives outside of work, and see the value in not burning people out. Bad managers … less so.
And last, read between the lines when you observe the culture. If you’re seeing foosball tables and are told pay for dinner every night, those are often signs you’re going to be spending a lot of time there. (And if they offer to pay for you to freeze your eggs, like some Silicon Valley companies have done, you probably won’t be going home much.)