“Worker stress levels are rising, with over half of the global workforce (53%) reporting they are closer to burning out than they were just five years ago”, according to a Regus Group survey of over 22,000 business people across 100 countries.1

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As I stare at the cover of January-February, 2016’s Harvard Business Review, I’m shaking my head in utter bewilderment. What’s the top story? Collaborative Overload: Your Most Helpful Employees are Burning Out. Let’s be honest here — this can’t be new news to anyone unless we’ve been living under a rock.

How ironic…

As I was flipping to the HBR article, a colleague whom I highly respect, contacted me. I’ll call her Kristy. She’ll be diving back into the workforce in June after having taken a 2-year, self-selected sabbatical to raise her young family. Kristy is a mega-athlete. No doubt about it. Any organization on the planet would epically benefit from Kristy’s strong values, talents, contributions and expansive workload capacity. Kristy, however, is facing a disturbing dilemma. While her former employer, a prominent Fortune 500 company, would re-hire her in a heartbeat, Kristy isn’t taking the bait. Despite all company and hiring manager promises that her work/home life balance would be honored, she knows with 100% certainty that all reassurances would suddenly go *POOF* within weeks of rejoining. Kristy has witnessed this scenario play out repeatedly with her fellow high performers — like a bad movie. Kristy isn’t unjustly skeptical.

High performers are consistently and unconscionably dumped on.  Another star performer and colleague of mine resigned from a different Fortune 500 company because she ran into the same predicament. While one could say that the problem lies in a high performer’s inability to maintain his/her boundaries, that’s scapegoat thinking. The root cause squarely lies at the company’s feet for preying on and emotionally manipulating uber-achievers, knowing full well that performance athletes self-sacrifice for multiple reasons including not wanting to let their boss’ down. When we keep pushing on the elite to take on more and do more, we eventually wear them down into submission until they get wise and either say “no” or resign.

High performer abusers are short-sighted and reckless

Here’s what we know with certainty:

  • Performance athletes, hyper-performers, the elite, the vital few contribute an average of 30.1% of total production and only account for roughly 10%-15% of the workforce.2
  • Of the 10%-15%, 80% are the cream of the crop collaborators who amplify the success of others while their 20% counterparts singularly focus on advancing their own individual success (though the 20% still perform at extraordinary levels).3
  • Executive superstars know that they’re on the cusp of burnout as they genuinely worry about compromising their physical, mental and emotional health and stamina, their relationships and their personal interests.4

Specific to the last bullet…

In my mid 30’s I was honored to work for an inspiring, sage and seasoned EVP who was business, financially, operationally and relationship savvy. He was the poster executive for being tough on performance and problems though fair with his demanding, exacting yet justifiable expectations. Immediately following a “merger of equals” between two financial institution titans, or more accurately, a head-on collision of disparate company cultures, strategies, leadership styles and processes and systems, many of our lives became a living “inferno”. Executive-level turf wars, major system outages, missed service levels and dissatisfied internal and external customers abounded. Not exaggerating — I was receiving in excess of 300 emails, 25 phone calls and multiple pages per day — and the same for my colleagues. Many of us worked ~15-hour days plus weekends for 1+ years post merger. Eventually we caught a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It was then that the once high-energy but now visibly rundown EVP quietly confided in me. For much of the past year, after dinner, he would habitually sit on his couch and just stare into space for blocks of time — not even able to carry on a quality conversation with his wife and children as a result of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. During this same period our area’s Financial VP suddenly disappeared. We were both shocked and saddened to learn that he had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Why do we treat the most coveted of employees so poorly?

Fact — higher performers thrive on heavier workloads. Fact — high performers produce higher quality work. Fact — high performers turn around deliverables at lightning speed compared to their peers. Fact — high performers seem to inevitably find ways to rise to the occasion as they pull yet another rabbit out of their hat. My working theory is that organizations choose to put on their blinders when it comes to the high performers’ plight. Why? Hurling yet one more assignment onto the high performers’ already-overflowing plate is:

  • The quickest path to ensuring that the work is completed in a thorough, accurate and timely manner.
  • The line of least resistance since high performers rarely say “no”.

That’s the tactics part. But let’s step back even further as we examine the root cause of organizational overload and the accompanying swirl.

Article after article, all of which were written by credentialed authors, point to Executives who…

  • Unconsciously inflict long-term organizational damage given their knee-jerk reactions to an uncertain economy, shareholder discontent and persistent expectations to deliver strong short-term results.
  • Have a need to start ambitious, inspiring and higher purpose initiatives even though as employers they’re not meeting their employees’ core needs. One article referred to this phenomenon as “oppression by purpose”.
  • Promote “the higher purpose” in mission-driven organizations (hospitals, schools, social service agencies, etc.), yet rarely support their own employees.
  • Erroneously believe that in achieving extreme goals, being ultra creative, becoming faster and more intelligent, crushing the competition and gaining more market share — all resulting in expensive executive perks and incentives — will somehow beget personal happiness.
  • With visible pride, mistakenly view plus tout hectic schedules and sleep deprivation as badges of honor, setting the tone for the organization to follow suit.
  • Lack a thermostat for recognizing when they’re close to the edge, so it comes as no surprise that they’re just as oblivious to their organizations and leaders teetering on the brink.
  • Create cultures that are a combination of overlapping and never-ending emergencies layered on top of infinite priorities and neglected structural problems, with no compassion for others thrown in for good measure.

So how does the executive tone cascade down and throughout the organization?

  • Some work long hours because their bosses tell them to.
  • Some have allowed themselves to become brainwashed into believing that any sign of fatigue or unhappiness is a sign of personal failure, so they hide and push their way through it vs. say “no”.
  • Some log excessive hours due to inner drivers including ambition, bravado, pride, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, a need to feel important or excessive ownership and accountability.

Where do we go from here?

Make no mistake about it — CEOs set the cultural timbre for their organizations. To eradicate cultures of burnout, it therefore stands to reason that CEOs must lead the way, yet will they? Here’s Jim Clifton’s take on that pivotal question…

“Most CEOs I know honestly don’t care about employees or take an interest in human
resources. Sure, they know who their stars are and love them — but it ends there. Since CEOs don’t
care, they put little to no pressure on their HR departments to get their cultures right…”6

— Jim Clifton, Chairman/CEO, Gallup

And the disappointment continues…

My goal was to discover how professional human services organizations, such as SHRM, are currently leading the employee burnout charge, starting in the C-Suite. After initiating a multitude of Google searches specific to SHRM, I came up blank, as in zippo…nada. Granted, a few 2015/2016 SHRM articles offered band-aid solutions (e.g., provide a more flexible work schedule, make sure employees take breaks, improve technology to do their jobs), but no solutions — at least none that I could find — were designed to exterminate this universal threat at the highest organizational levels.

So here’s the cold, harsh reality…

High performers (as well as strong performers) — you must approach the potential of burnout by taking control of you and your circumstances:

  • Recognize that if you’re working in a burnout organization, the CEO is either completely out of touch with the culture or he/she simply doesn’t care about the people and their well being. Additionally, HR is not your proactive advocate. Accept that the only one looking out for your best interests is you.
  • Realize that high performers are not terminated for saying “no” in a respectful yet firm manner. As I’ve shared with the many high performers that I’ve coached, managers will certainly try to push the envelope to manipulate high performers into taking on even more, but managers aren’t dummies. They know they can’t nor would they want to discipline one of their precious few mega-performers for saying “no” to unrealistic demands.
  • Tell your manager that one of your professional growth and development goals is to learn how to say “no” before you reach your breaking point, so as not to negatively impact the company or you. Let him/her know that this goal is critically important to you and that you would appreciate your manager’s support. You are now setting the expectation that: 1) you’re going to learn how to say “no”; and 2) the manager can expect you to say “no”.
  • Engage a qualified, high-performing professional coach or colleague who can help you determine why you consistently say “yes” even though you must say “no”. You want to work with someone who knows, first hand, how to say “no” under difficult organizational circumstances vs. engage a theorist who has never walked in similar shoes as you. You must tackle this personal challenge head-on and do the work required so you don’t risk your and your family’s mental, physical and emotional well-being.
  • Practice saying a respectful yet firm “no”. The more you say “no” (legitimately, of course): 1) the easier it becomes to say “no”; and 2) you’re in effect re-training your manager to stop taking advantage of you and your willingness to go the extra++ mile.
  • Consider moving on to another employer if you’ve mastered the above, but then decide that the environment is so overwrought with dysfunction that it’s simply not worth your talent plus time investment.

And on a final note…for the CEO and HR Department that is burnout concerned

Please refer the two prior articles that I recently published if you and your organization are truly serious about retaining your athletes:

Thought Provokers: Per the data, “Worker stress levels are rising, with over half of the global workforce (53%) reporting they are closer to burning out than they were just five years ago”1; and 2) “Most CEOs I know honestly don’t care about employees or take an interest in human resources. Sure, they know who their stars are and love them, but it ends there. Since CEOs don’t care, they put little to no pressure on their HR departments to get their cultures right…”6 So you’re a high performer who is feeling trapped in a burnout culture. Do you have the courage and commitment to apply the recommendations provided in order to protect your and your family’s mental, physical and emotional well-being?

Sources:

Help Your Team Manage Stress, Anxiety & Burnout, Harvard Business Review, 2016.
2 Star Performers in Twenty-First OrganizationsPersonnel Psychology, 2014.
3 Collaborative Overload: Your Most  Helpful Employees are Burning Out, Harvard Business Review, 2016.
4 Prevent Your Star Performers From Losing Passion for Their Work, Harvard Business Review, 2015.
5 The Research is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies, Harvard Business Review, 2015.
6 U.S. Workplace: No Progress in 12 Years, Gallup, 2015.

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