Businesses have been forced to tighten budgets this year and it’s employees who will feel it the most.
We all know about the long-term impacts of overworking. It makes us fatter. It makes us more unhappy. It diminishes our mental resilience. It ends our marriages. It even kills us.
For many, these facts are just words on a page. We have to personally experience a combination of the above in order for it to have any real impact.
This happened to Jeremy Britton. In the early 2000s he was working as a financial planner for one of the big four banks. As you might imagine, his hours were insane. It wasn’t uncommon for him to clock a 76-hour week. He was at the height of his career and the money and praise he received justified such gruelling hours – or so he thought.
In 2005 his team shrunk from 10 to six people and rather than hiring replacements his boss told them they’d just have to work 10 per cent harder.
“We didn’t really notice it at first. It was like that analogy of throwing a frog into water. If it’s already boiling it will jump right out, but if you increase the temperature little by little, it doesn’t realise,” says Britton.
His diet disintegrated along with his physical health. And his marriage wasn’t far behind. He was working into the evenings and on the weekends, chasing that adrenaline hit so many of us get from ‘working hard’.
At just 33 years old, he suffered a heart attack – and he didn’t even know it had happened.
“I was feeling run-down and thought I was coming down with a flu or bad indigestion. When I had heart pains, I thought it was just heartburn. So, I popped Quick-Eze all day.”
After months of feeling ill, he finally went to the doctor and was told he’d suffered a heart attack.
“My surgeon warned me I’d face another heart attack within 12 months if I didn’t change my lifestyle. And the second one, he said, would probably be fatal.”
You might think this shocking news immediately jolted Britton out of his overworking habits. But addiction is not so easily overcome. His plan was to leave the doctor’s office and go straight back to work to tie up loose ends and hand over ‘important tasks’. Thankfully, his doctor wouldn’t allow it.
It would take some time before Britton would be able to untangle himself from his complicated relationship with work. His doctor often had to call someone at his office to make sure he wasn’t working over their agreed hours (he often was). The health scare was just the beginning of a long road to recovery.
“My heart attack was followed by a divorce. My relationship was so bad by that stage. I hadn’t been there for my partner. I was always patting myself on the back saying, ‘I’ve bought this big beautiful house and I’ve got my wife all these beautiful things: cars, diamonds, international holidays.’ But, you know, she was going on those holidays without me.
“When I eventually did have to stop work for a couple of weeks, I basically laid on the bed for the first three days. I didn’t know what to do because work was so much part of my life. It wasn’t just where I got my pay, it’s also where I got my social interaction and my pats on the back. Work had become everything to me.”
Worked to the bone
Overworking is nothing new, but COVID-19 has made it common. In order to survive financial turmoil, organisations are making deep cuts and asking employees to maintain or increase their regular output with fewer resources. And working from home makes it that much harder to switch off at the day’s end.
“When we talk about overworking, that means having such a high workload that you feel you’re constantly under pressure, and that work spills over into your non-work time, like the evenings or weekends,” says Stacey Parker, senior lecturer and centre director at the Centre for Business and Organisational Psychology, University of Queensland.
Parker specialises in occupational health psychology and work motivation, with a particular interest in managing workplace stress and improving employee performance.
“This sort of job stress has serious implications for peoples’ mental and physical health, as well as their motivation towards their work, and their commitment to their job overall. There have even been links between overworking and the development of cardiovascular disease.”
A 2010 study of over 10,000 civil servants in London found that employees who averaged three or more hours of overtime (when a seven-hour day is standard) are 60 per cent more at risk of heart-related problems. Different research from the University College London showed those working over 55 hours per week are 33 per cent more likely to have a stroke than those working 35-40 hours per week.
So Britton is not alone. If anything, he’s somewhat lucky.
Japanese journalist Miwa Sado died in 2013 from heart failure after clocking around 156 hours of overtime the month before her death – she was only 31 years old.
Mortiz Erhardt was interning in London at Bank of America Merrill Lynch when he was 21. He was averaging 20-hour workdays, according to Reuters, and died from a seizure while in the shower.
Mita Diran, a 24-year-old copy editor from Indonesia, reportedly threw back energy drinks in order to be able to work through the evenings. Just hours before she slipped into a coma, from which she would never awake, she tweeted: “30 hours of working and still going strooong”.
These days, overworking can feel part of the job description. People who’ve taken a pay cut or witnessed redundancies due to the pandemic are often compelled to work themselves to the bone to prove they’re worth keeping.
We were already living in a state of chronic urgency, but COVID-19 has accelerated that, says Dermot Crowley, founder of Adapt Productivity and author of the upcoming book Urgency: strategies to control urgency, reduce stress and increase productivity.
“We have a culture of ‘everything needed to be done yesterday’. And when people are working in that state for too long, the stress levels go up and they burn out,” he says.
It’s not just the act of overworking that’s bad for us, the ripple effects – such as a lack of sleep – can have equally devastating effects. Researchers from the university of Groningen in the Netherlands studied the brains of rats and found that when the rats didn’t get enough sleep, their hippocampus – the part of the brain that regulates motivation, emotion, learning, and memory – shrunk. When hypothesising how the results would affect humans, the researchers said a lack of sleep could affect our learning abilities and mood.
Burnout has also been linked in many studies to an increase in workplace accidents. For example, a 2013 study of 915 Taiwanese public transport drivers found a direct link between the two. More alarming is that burnout is associated with more traffic accidents in people who don’t drive for a living. A study published in May in the journal Stress & Health looked at 509 schoolteachers and found that depersonalisation (emotional hardening and detachment from work) was linked with an up to a 119 per cent increase in risk of being involved in a car accident.
While individuals’ health should be of the most concern, asking employees to work very hard for long periods doesn’t even make sense from a business perspective.
“We have a culture of ‘everything needed to be done yesterday’. And when people are working in that state for too long, the stress levels go up and they burn out.” –Dermot Crowley, founder, Adapt Productivity
Research from the UK’s Department of Business Innovation and Skills shows our individual wellbeing is lower when the demands of our jobs and personal lives are high. It points to empirical literature that suggests higher wellbeing levels can lead to improved cognitive abilities, such as increased creativity and problem-solving skills. There’s also a strong correlation between employees’ wellbeing and their workplace attitudes, such as their willingness to be cooperative and collaborative.
Perhaps most importantly, the research found that high levels of wellbeing can help people recover from illness faster, gain more energy and improve their cardiovascular health. So it’s not just that overworking is bad for you, actively improving your wellbeing tips the scales in the other direction.
While this is certainly interesting, the researchers are quick to point out that wellbeing and performance and aren’t inextricably linked.
“For example, raised levels of creativity and improved social interaction is only likely to generate better employee performance in jobs with a substantial degree of autonomy and those that involve teamwork or customer interaction,” the report reads.
To overcome this hurdle, Crowley suggests employers think differently about work and productivity. He separates the latter into two different types. The first is personal productivity. Most productivity advice you hear addresses this type – such as tips about getting more out of your day, being organised, getting on top of your tasks, and so on. But the second type is a little more complex. He calls it “productivity culture” and this can easily become toxic if it’s not strategically managed. Britton’s former workplace would be a good example of this.
Another example might be a work culture that has silent expectations around working past the official clock-off time. While they never explicitly tell staff to do this, there are subtle cues from management that encourage this behaviour, such as publicly rewarding those who are always seen to be staying back late or mentioning that ‘so and so’ is such a hard worker because they came in on the weekend.
Essentially, a toxic productivity culture is one where the bar is set at an unhealthy level and employers aren’t meeting their people in the middle.
It’s not just that overwork hurts organisations in the long run, it doesn’t even help them in the short term. Overworked employees are more likely to lash out, make mistakes, lose focus and make bad decisions. On top of that, most managers are incapable of knowing if someone is actually overworking.
Research from Erin Reid, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, found that managers could rarely discern between those who actually worked 80-hour weeks and those who simply pretended to.
Reid’s study looked at employees working in a high-profile consulting firm. The employees (mostly male) who logged 80-hour weeks even though they were actually working around 50-60 hours were still completing their tasks, just like those actually working 80 hours. The pretenders were receiving recognition and promotions as a result.
A separate group of employees in that same office were transparent about wanting reduced hours in order to have a better work/life balance. They were given what they asked for, but they weren’t showered with the same rewards as those working 80 hours and those pretending to.
Reid’s data showed employees were capable of completing their work in 50-60 hours. Organisations that put the image of an “ideal worker” on a pedestal like this are shooting themselves in the foot. Instead, employers should encourage staff to work more strategically, rather than just more.
People require different levels of ‘cognitive closure’ – the desire for definitive answers and guidelines to avoid ambiguity. Some are happy to operate within more ambiguous environments while others have a strong preference for absolute clarity.
However, when faced with pressure, tight deadlines or mountains of work, everyone tends to slide up the scale. The more stressed we are, the more cognitive closure we desire. During a time of crisis, giving both clear expectations about what’s required and how long should be given to it is a simple way to alleviate employee stress.
Another part of working strategically is having a wellbeing framework in place that protects your people. This is an issue during the pandemic, because in times of financial crisis wellbeing initiatives can be the first thing to go.
In a research paper titled Corporate Philosophy: Making Stress and Wellbeing a Priority, researchers Emily Livorsi and Olivia Wallis say this frequently happens when organisations don’t have KPIs attached to their stress and wellbeing outcomes. When it comes time to make cuts, these seemingly non-revenue generating programs are axed.
To overcome this, they suggest conducting a needs assessment prior to implementing any wellbeing program to identify the gaps in your organisations. This way you can tailor your approach to your peoples’ specific stressors and challenges.
Wallis and Livorsi say a comprehensive needs assessment will include analysis through “some combination of survey administration, interviews, and focus groups”. With this data in hand, you figure out what level of intervention is required.
They break it down into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary.
“Primary interventions are often preventative and proactive, where the purpose is to reduce stress risk and maximize opportunities for employees to have high levels of wellbeing,” the paper reads.
“The role of secondary interventions is to improve employees’ chances of coping with stressful situations that are present. Finally, tertiary interventions are reactive in nature and are used to treat symptoms (e.g., chronic stress) already present in the work environment.”
Crowley says it is crucial managers are checking in on staff rather than checking up on them. When they micromanage, it’s clear there’s a lack of trust, he says, and that can have the opposite of its intended effect.
And this shouldn’t just be happening on an individual level – trust needs to be a value that’s held across the organisation. For example, prior to COVID-19 many employers strongly believed remote work would diminish productivity levels, however after being forced to trial it, they quickly discovered that output was soaring in many cases. Without trust from both sides, this wouldn’t have been possible.
Of course, there will always be managers who completely miss the mark. After getting his heart surgery, Britton was advised he could only return to work on a part-time load. His manager was having none of it.
“My boss said, ‘You can’t do that. We can’t hold the position for you.’ He was giving me grief saying he was going to fire me.”
When Britton relayed this news, his doctor got on the phone.
“The doctor rang the boss and said, ‘If this guy dies in your workplace, are you going to take care of his family? Because I don’t care who you are or what rank you are in the company. You are not going to be responsible for this man’s life. I am. So, you take your orders from me.’”
But we can’t all rely on having a medical professional to go to bat for us. The fact of the matter is that employers simply need to respect peoples’ non-work hours, says Parker. And HR professionals play a huge role in cementing that expectation.
To make this happen, Parker encourages HR to think differently about the tools they might usually reach for to remedy overworking, especially during the pandemic.
“I’ve noticed some psych and HR professionals seem to think employee engagement and motivation is always the answer. We think we just have to make our workers happy and motivated and the rest will fall into place. But you can’t just focus on the work experience. They’re a whole person; they’ve got a whole life outside of work. I think the most important thing you can do to support them is give them uninterrupted time and space outside of work hours.”
Parker refers to research which shows that while engagement often eases the pressure valve on employees in the short-term, six to 12 months later burnout will catch up with them.
“People can burn out when they’re passionate about their work. Passion takes a lot of energy,” she says.
She adds that giving staff more autonomy over their work is a great way to help ease burnout.
“For people who have a really high workload or high job demands, if they feel like they have control over how they go about organising and managing their work – such as when and how they do it, the pace of it and so on – that’s hugely protective for not only the health outcomes, but also motivation and performance.”
The doctor rang the boss and said, ‘If this guy dies in your workplace, are you going to take care of his family? Because I don’t care who you are or what rank you are in the company. You are not going to be responsible for this man’s life. I am.” – Jeremy Britton
The Department of Business Innovation and Skills research paper backs this up, with results indicating that when employees participate in decision-making and have autonomy over their roles, their personal wellbeing increases. The paper said other protective factors include variety in work, clarity around expectations, feedback on performance, a sense of job security and clear career prospects.
Parker says that during the pandemic, where possible, employers should also be thinking about how to lower the bar on their expectations.
“I know we’re in the middle of a crisis. It can be appealing to throw what we know about all those good things out the window because in crisis mode, but we’ve been in crisis mode since February. People can only take so much.”
And in case you think leave might be the answer, Parker says beating burnout isn’t as simple as telling staff to take a well-deserved holiday. She cites research which suggests the benefits of a holiday only last two-four weeks. After this, we return to our pre-holiday burnout state.
“You can’t keep going and going and going and then rely on a holiday a couple of weeks per year as your way of disconnecting or recharging. You need replenishing daily or weekly habits that help you disconnect outside of work.” (See break out box for some of Parker’s personal habits).
Taking matters into your own hands
Empowering staff to take on a manageable workload while still delivering on organisational outcomes can be a hard balance to strike. To keep the lights on, employers often feel compelled to demand more from their staff.
The harsh reality of this is reflected in the ending of Britton’s story. He wasn’t able to truly slow his life down until five years after his heart attack, when he called it quits with his high-powered banking gig. He went out on his own to get the work/life balance he desired.
He now owns a financial planning firm and determines his own hours (24 hours per week). He stays on top of his workload by outsourcing some of the smaller tasks and enjoys getting to spend more quality time with his children.
“Working 60 per cent less hours, I thought my income was going to drop 60 per cent. So, I sold off my house and bought a little beach shack. I downsized my life significantly. I just wanted to focus on my health. But my income only ended up dropping by 10 per cent. If you’ve got eight hours to complete a task, it will take eight hours. If you’ve got four hours for the same task, it will probably take four hours,” says Britton.
This seems like powerful proof of the above research that suggests overwork and bottom-line success are not linked. Sixty per cent fewer hours every week is a tremendous amount of time. Ten per cent less income is insignificant in comparison – that’s a trade most people would be willing to make. Britton also has advice for HR professionals and employers.
“Most people drive a car. So, they understand if you drive it at 120kms all day, every day, eventually something’s going to wear out. In the workplace, it’s not enough to say, ‘Look, we have an employee assistance program.’ Because people are usually past the point of burnout before they think to contact a psychologist. Instead, that sort of stuff should be integrated into your culture.”