Everyone knows that when asked, “What’s your biggest weakness?” in a job interview, the one thing you’re never supposed to say is, “I just work too hard.”

I can understand why it’s seen as a poor answer. On the surface, it comes off as a sort of half-answer, an attempt to say something negative about yourself that still sounds positive. It’s vague, non-committal, and devoid of any self-reflection, which is the main thing the “weakness” question is attempting to gauge in the first place.

Now, I agree that your verbatim answer to questions like this should never be “I just work too hard!” However, I do think the essence of that answer carries some weight. I think that if we drill down into the concept a bit, unpack what it truly means to “work too hard,” then we’ll see that it can indeed be a legitimate and crippling weakness.

What Does “I Work Too Hard” Really Mean?

When I think about what it means to “work too hard,” two things pop into my mind:

  • Prioritizing the quantity of work you do when the quality matters just as much, if not more
  • Working significantly more than is required of you, a behavior which leads to job burnout, amongst other things

Quantity Over Quality: An Illusion of Productivity

It’s quite easy, to think that if you finished a large volume of work at the end of the day, then your day was super productive. For many careers, that may actually be the case.

For other careers, however, productivity may not be so simply defined. In particular, I’m thinking of careers with an emphasis on client relations; careers which require the creation of numerous client-facing products, documents, and/or literature. In these lines of work, documents/products will often require multiple rounds of revision, editing, and quality assurance before they are presented or handed to a client. The quality of documents/products is paramount because it is directly correlated with the trustworthiness and professionalism of your company.

Normally, the “rough drafts” of these documents/products are expected to have some mistakes; no one’s perfect, after all. Some small grammatical and formatting mistakes here and there are nothing to worry about. Your editor or superior will point them out, you’ll make the fixes, and, usually, the product/document is good to go. If you take your time and produce the product/document with reasonably high quality, everyone’s job is easier, and the whole process takes less time.

Many careers of this type tend to be high-pressure. If you’re new to the company or to the line of work — or if you’re a junior employee who lacks job security — you may be tempted from time to time to prove yourself, prove your worth.

It may start slowly, taking on an extra project here, picking up the slack for a teammate there. You may ask for a little more to be put on your plate in order to show that you’re a hard worker who can handle the workload and the responsibility. You’re showing your ambition, in a sense, but there comes a point when you start to spread yourself too thin. You’ve concluded that the amount of work you do is what’s important and what your superiors take notice of. In these types of careers, however, there’s a point where, due to time constraints, the quality of your work simply cannot keep up with the volume of it.

And that’s when small mistakes begin to add up. That’s when the person who edits your work has to spend more time editing, and that’s when you have to spend more time revising. The more time you spend making corrections to past work, the more time is taken away from current projects you could be working on. You may appear, both to yourself and to others, to be working quite hard, but it’s an illusion. In reality, you’re spinning your wheels. You’re working hard, but much harder than you would have to if you didn’t take on more work than you could reasonably handle.

When you prioritize quantity over quality in this way, you jeopardize your productivity and the productivity of everyone else involved in what you’re working on. That’s a major weakness.

The Loss of Work-Life Balance: An Invitation for Anxiety

This point comes to mind when I take the phrase “working too hard” in its most literal sense. If you are working an unnecessary amount — meaning coming in much too early and staying much too late, working on weekends, or just generally burning your professional candle at both ends when you don’t need to — you have developed a truly debilitating weakness. You have let work take over your life. You’ve let it become your life. This can be an issue for a couple of reasons.

If your work-life balance erodes — or becomes non-existent — then it opens the door for severe anxiety and stress. It eliminates your ability to relax after work, because, in a sense, work never ends. If you’re not actually working, then you’re spending what free time you do have thinking about work or worrying about some work-related thing. There’s no time to decompress, there’s no time to enjoy life beyond the cubicle or the job site.

This can do a number on your morale — both in the workplace and in general. Poor morale in the workplace can hinder your productivity and usefulness. Poor morale in life can lead to depression and debilitating anxiety. Neither is ideal.

Secondly, if your work-life balance skews too heavily toward work, then you risk becoming, for lack of a more refined term, boring.

If most of your time is spent pumping out work, you may lose track of the more enjoyable things in life: exploring hobbies, traveling, bonding with family and friends, relaxing, etc. When your personal life blends too heavily with your professional life, you lose track of your identity; you lose track of who you are when you aren’t being an employee.

In this sense, all work and no play can make you quite dull to be around. It can also cause you to lack valuable life skills and experiences which make you an asset in the workplace, in friendships, and in social situations.

How Can We Combat The First Weakness?

I must admit that I am quite familiar with the first definition of “working too hard,” that is, prioritizing quantity over quality. That was one of the more prominent critiques in my recent mid-year review at work.

Ask for help, and don’t let your pride and your need to “prove yourself” sabotage your performance.

My specific problem was that I often stacked my plate with too much work. I was overly ambitious, primarily because I was eager to prove my worth when, in reality, I had no reason to do such a thing. Since my plate was so full — too full — with audits, copywriting tasks, data entry, and whatever else, I usually had to rush to get everything done, quite often to the detriment of quality.

During my review, my manager had some advice which she really wanted me to take to heart: Ask for help, and don’t let your pride and your need to “prove yourself” sabotage your performance.

To generalize that advice a bit, I think tackling the “quantity over quality” prioritization has two main steps to it.

Step 1

Determine why you’re prioritizing the amount of work you get done over the quality of it. Is it because you want to appear to be a hard worker? Is it because you want to prove what an asset you are to your team or company? Is it simply because you want to get a head start on future work? Whatever your reason, find a way to identify it. This may take a good deal of self-reflection or, as in my case, some observation by a supportive third party.

Step 2

Find a method for getting back to quality-focused work (or, at least, an optimal balance of quality and quantity). Perhaps you ask teammates for help. Ask them if they can take some work off your plate so you have less to work on and don’t feel tempted (or forced) to rush. Likewise, consider placing a greater emphasis on project management. If you start each week with a solid estimate of what needs to be done, how long it will take, and when its due, then you’ll be able to tackle work diligently without having to worry about what comes next.

Good project management comes with another advantage, too. In addition to knowing how much time you can allocate to outstanding projects, you’ll also have an idea of how much time you have to take on ad-hoc projects or lend support to others. You don’t have to abandon the “quantity” aspect of work completely, you just have to plan accordingly.

How Can We Combat the Second Weakness?

Combating the second definition of working too hard — working an unnecessary amount and sacrificing your work-life balance — is a bit more complex.

There are numerous reasons for this type of “working too hard.” Some of them may be out of your control, namely a dysfunctional workplace or a poor management structure. What I’m talking about here, though, is the loss of work-life balance by voluntary means.

I think this situation depends on what drives you to spend so many long hours at the office or on the job site. Is there something at home you’d wish to avoid? Is there something unpleasant in your personal life that you need to drown out with constant work and busyness? Do you have anxiety about your job security or about your place in the office hierarchy? If so, do you feel that going “above and beyond,” to the point of going overboard, will help you keep your job and your paycheck? I’ve been there. I know the anxiety that tenuous job security can cause, and I know the measures we sometimes take to try and counteract it.

My advice? Speak to someone, be it a trusted coworker or a person familiar with your situation or one similar to it. Get help at work, help with your assignments and workload, and make time outside of work to get help too. Don’t fear taking a much-needed mental health day.

There is honor in working hard, but destroying your general wellbeing in the process is a detriment to your professional and personal development.

Featured Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash
Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash