Being indispensable will make you miserable—here’s a better goal

Only when your work does not need you all the time will you be free.
Only when your work does not need you all the time will you be free.
Image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
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You have been there before: Pushing off after-work plans with friends or at the gym because workday just never slowed. Or procrastinating on planning that Europe trip you’ve been saving for because your team is still short-staffed and will be until further notice. Maybe your manager has straight-up told you they couldn’t do this job without you–that you’re totally indispensable to the company. That’s a good thing, right? Wrong.

On the surface, making yourself indispensable sounds like a solid career plan. But I would argue that it’s better to be “valuable” than indispensable.

And yes—there is a difference.

Here’s what I mean: Indispensable means your team or company can’t survive without you and the workplace is vulnerable when you inevitably need to take time away. Essentially, it’s an all-or-nothing environment where work literally stops without your presence.

In competitive industries, companies that promote an indispensable mindset encourage employees to maintain always-on schedules. This only leads to employees that strive to be absolutely irreplaceable on their teams, which naturally leads to burnout. It is not sustainable, and performance always suffers in the long run.

Being valuable, on the other hand, means giving your all to your job for 40 hours each week—being engaged, curious and hardworking for the entirety—and stopping there. It means recognizing that your obligations to your job end at a certain point (and hour), and that the boundaries are best for all parties involved.

The path to a truly rewarding career requires being valuable while maintaining the ability to take needed time away from the office. To achieve a balanced relationship with work, employees must self-regulate their workloads, or they can kiss their productivity goodbye—and potentially even their good health.

How to avoid reaching “indispensable” status

The pressure to be indispensable at work has real consequences for employees’ well-being. For example, employees who work three hours more than the average workday face a 67% increase in heart-related illness risk. Those who averaged 11 hours in a workday double their chances for depression.

Being valuable isn’t about doing everything and never stopping; it’s knowing how to make a difference during a normal, sane workweek.

Here are a couple of ways to preserve your status as a valuable team member, without crossing over into dangerous indispensable territory.

  • Structure your time away from work. Book a workout class at 6 p.m. sharp. Set a goal to read one book each week. Make plans for happy hour with coworkers or friends. And to avoid work conflicts, mark these times as busy on your calendar. By creating boundaries for when your work starts and ends, you are more likely to adhere to a healthier 9-to-5 lifestyle.
  • Create an off-hours communication plan with your manager. It’s hard to avoid thinking about work when emails roll in past 5 p.m. and on weekends. On my own team, I find that some coworkers respond immediately to my 11 p.m. emails, even though they could have waited until the next day. To relieve pressure, talk with your manager to determine the kinds of after-hours communication that absolutely must to be attended to. For example, maybe urgent after-hours communication can be sent via text or labeled with a specific subject line.

The concept of work-life balance gets thrown around a lot, but it’s rarely followed. By promoting yourself as valuable rather than indispensable, you create opportunities to discover new processes and workplace efficiencies—developments that can ultimately improve your performance and make your job a lot more enjoyable.

Eric Johnson is CEO at Nintex.