(By Scott Behson)
“In a highly competitive global economy, employers need people to put in full days working hard, and sometimes to put in longer days than others. But if workloads are draining more energy than is being replenished, the pace cannot be sustained. How many talented contributors do we lose because of extreme job demands? How much productivity and quality do we sacrifice because of accumulated fatigue? Occasional overwork may be a necessity, and even embraced by ambitious men and women trying to make the “A team.” Chronic overwork leaves everyone, employees and managers, in the dust.“
In high school, I was on the cross-country running team. I was only a decent athlete, and midway through the season, my coach demoted me to the “B team.” I wanted to prove to him I deserved to be back on the “A team,” so I launched into my first “B race” at a far faster pace than normal.
I was leading the pack almost the entire way, and, even though my legs were burning, I thought that I could win, get a shiny medal, and more importantly, get my deserved promotion higher up the team pecking order. My coach was thrilled by my “all in” performance. Coming down the last ½ mile of the 3 mile race, however, my legs turned to jelly and I fell from the lead all the way to the back. I even threw up at the end of the race. Afterwards, my coach asked what happened.
I think he knew the answer, and most of us who work in competitive fields know it too. I hadn’t paced myself. I lost my race because I treated a three-mile run like a 100-meter dash. As a result, I had no energy in reserve for the last, most important stretch.
It’s possible in the realm of knowledge work, too, to work so hard for so long under so much pressure that we run out of energy, not just to the detriment of our family lives or our mental and physical well-being, but also with terrible consequences for our long-term job performance. Yet many of us launch into our workweeks, six-month projects, and even whole jobs as 100-meter dashes, seemingly oblivious to the long race over uneven terrain we are actually running.
According to a recent Families and Work Institute study, one third of employees report chronic overwork. Those reporting chronic overwork cite:
- Extreme job demands, in that they are given more work than can be reasonably accomplished even in 60 hour workweeks
- Expectations that they stay connected to work remotely (email, phones, text) after work hours
- The inability to avoid “low value-added” tasks such as paperwork or unnecessary meetings
- Having too many projects to work on at one time, diminishing their ability to focus and prioritize among projects and creating too many interruptions and distractions.
As a believer in work-life balance, I often make the argument that “all in” and “work before all” corporate cultures and work expectations are actually enemies of sustained high performance. Smart companies, who know they stand to gain most by retaining the talent they develop, know better than to make their people choose between employer and family.
However, I also firmly believe that the problem is circular, and a worker’s own lack of balance can lead to chronic overwork, and, by extension, to poorer work performance over time.
A few months ago, I was at a Leadership Summit for the Thirdpath Institute, an organization that advocates for work-life balance. One speaker told an anecdote that stuck with me. It was the story of a man who ran a small law firm, talking with a potential client. The client questioned whether to hire this firm because it had advertised itself as a family-friendly workplace. “What happens when an emergency comes up during my case?” asked the prospect. “How do I know you’ll be able to respond?”
“We can respond better because we have a balanced approach,” explained the attorney. “And here’s why. We prioritize better, are staffed more appropriately, schedule time for long-term planning, and yes, allow for time outside of work for our lawyers to have full family lives. Because my lawyers aren’t chronically overworked, they have the capacity – in terms of time, energy, and mental focus – to respond effectively to your crisis situations. We are much more able to rise to these occasional challenges because we don’t treat every day like a crisis.”
He got the client.
In a highly competitive global economy, employers need people to put in full days working hard, and sometimes to put in longer days than others. But if workloads are draining more energy than is being replenished, the pace cannot be sustained. How many talented contributors do we lose because of extreme job demands? How much productivity and quality do we sacrifice because of accumulated fatigue? Occasional overwork may be a necessity, and even embraced by ambitious men and women trying to make the “A team.” Chronic overwork leaves everyone, employees and managers, in the dust.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”