When Stephen Gironda worked in hotel management in the 1980s, it wasn’t unusual for him to clock 50, 60, even 70 hours a week. When he worked in the restaurant business, his hours were worse — sometimes 80 to 100 weekly — and with lower pay.
But Gironda loved working in hospitality, so he kept at it and rarely complained since he was single and didn’t have a family waiting at home for him. Only after his first son was born did Gironda decide to change careers so he could work fewer hours.
For many people, a beloved job that pays well can make up for outrageous hours that go along with it. But what if it just gets to be too much? Can you regain control and buy yourself enough time to have a life outside of work? Experts say it’s possible with a little thought and effort.
It’s said that it’s easier to get a higher salary going into a job than big raises later. The same can be said for a manageable work schedule. Rather than waiting until you’re on the job, speak up in your interview, suggested Gironda, who now works as an executive coach and runs New Jersey-based Torch Learning Programs.
“You must ask the hard questions like, ‘What kind of hours am I expected to keep at work?’ and ‘Are there any opportunities for work at home or to work different hours?’” he said. “It seems simple and it is, but it’s so often forgotten during the interview process when one sees a potential steady paycheck.”
If you’re already in a job and the hours have ballooned from, say, an expected 45 per week to 55 or 60, you’ll want to start documenting your extra work and to make a plan to discuss the changes with your supervisor. Don’t let too much time go by; the longer it goes, the harder it will be to get the time back.
In the right place?
Does the company, either where you work now or are considering joining, have a culture that will allow you work-life balance?
“The notion of ‘clocking in and out’ of work and being seen to spend a set number of hours in the office is mostly an artefact of the past,” wrote Melbourne-based Richard Anderson, an executive brand coach with career consultancy Point Ahead, in an email. “The most nimble of organisations equip executives to work from home, setting up a blended work/life mix where the two domains overlap
When considering a position at a certain company, talk to as many former and current employees as possible. Research the company on LinkedIn using its advanced search function to find people connected to it. That way, you’ll have a better idea about the work culture before you accept an offer.
And if you’re already at a company and your hours have ballooned out of control, check with human resources or your department. Perhaps there’s a new policy that allows for a work-at-home option or the chance to take a few days off in exchange for working longer hours. You won’t know unless you ask.
To negotiate the set up that works best for you, you need to build trust, according to Anderson. Have a conversation with your manager and find out what he or she needs. Ask questions such as, “What is most important to you about this proposal I am writing?” or “When do you need me to deliver this so that you have enough time to put your finishing touches to this?” suggested Anderson.
“Once you have mastered this practical approach to building trust in others on your reliability and integrity in getting the job done, you are in a position to” ask for a change, wrote Anderson. “This will enable you to show that… you can be trusted to get the balance right.”
Solutions, not just problems
How you frame your conversation with your manager is extremely important, especially if you are going to ask that extra help be brought in. Prepare documentation of your success “to make your value clear as well as making a case for why additional resources are necessary to achieve objectives,” wrote Megan Fitzgerald, an international career coach based in Singapore.
Start by talking about your performance history and your desire to continue to deliver at that level. Then explain the number of projects you’re currently working on and how much time each requires to get the desired results.
“This will insure that the supervisor is aware of the situation, as sometimes they can be too far removed from things to understand what is actually going on,” wrote Fitzgerald.
But don’t stop there. Maintain “a solutions focus” so that the conversation stays positive and constructive, wrote Fitzgerald. Show that you see solutions to address the situation and that you can insure that the quality of work will be maintained and that objectives will be met.
Make sure to share your solutions, wrote Fitzgerald. For example, the first suggestion could be to identify which projects are the most important and to make those a priority while shelving the low-priority projects for later. The second might be to hire someone else to take on those low-priority projects. Another could be identifying tools or resources that could save the company time or make it more productive.
Work from home
Sometimes fewer hours are not an option but a more flexible set up, such as working from home once or twice a week, could help lessen the burden.
“Approach your manager with a plan that addresses reasons you anticipate he or she might reject your request for a little more flexibility in your schedule,” wrote Allison O'Kelly, founder and CEO of Georgia-based Mom Corps, a professional staffing firm with a focus on flexible work. O’Kelly suggested including how you propose to work remotely with team members, how you can be reached at all times during work hours, how you have set up a dedicated at-home office and what schedule you think works best for the team dynamic.
“Asking for a trial period will allow you to prove flexible work options can work,” she wrote. “This also makes it more difficult for your boss to turn down a permanent option if there haven’t been disruptions in work during that time."
By having any of these conversations, you can get insight into the real reasons behind management requiring the extra hours, said Erika Kauffman, executive vice president and group director at New York-based 5W Public Relations.
“At the very least, this conversation can act as a wake-up call to your manager that perhaps they may have been putting too much on you,” she said. And it will also tell you where you stand and whether it might be time to look for a new job.
Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you been able to take back your time? How did you do it? To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.