People Are Tired

Many of my recent conversations sound like this:

Martha: “Hey, how’re you doing?”

Client:   “Busy. It’s just crazy here. I’m so far behind and I can’t seem to catch up.”

Martha: “That sounds exhausting. Is there any end in sight?”

Client:    “Hold on…gotta answer this text…you know how it is, everything’s a crisis…”

Martha: “Sure, take your time…”

PAUSE…

Client:     “Ok, I’m back. Yah, it’s exhausting alright. And it’s the same when I get home…I’m answering emails and texts until midnight. And all weekend. Just madness.”

Martha:   “Have you thought of turning your phone off when you get home?”

Client:      “What century do you live in? Of course not. I have to be online 24/7. Everyone expects it. Plus, I admit, I can’t help myself from checking constantly…”

Does this sound familiar? “I’m so busy” has been a popular refrain for decades, but it seems that unprecedented levels of exhaustion now permeate many organizations. Most of the people I know are perfectly aware that this is not a viable long-term model for work, yet they feel trapped by non-negotiable expectations and a belief that failure to meet them will hurt their standing in the organization. A little probing usually reveals that this is more perception than reality; more cultural norms than established policy. (I can’t think of anyone who has been fired or even disciplined for maintaining a semblance of work-life balance.) In addition, when pressed, many will admit that their fatigue is self-inflicted because they cannot turn off the beeps, turn away from the screen, or turn off the phone. Regardless, the outcome is a growing cadre of tired workers who feel unable to catch up, do their best, or envision another way of working.

What’s going on here? And is there a way out?

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath address this issue in an article titled, “Why You Hate Work.” Referencing several studies, the authors contend that large numbers of people – including senior executives – experience work as a “depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways it’s getting worse” (p. 6). Why? Hyper-competition and a lean post-recession workforce are key contributors. However, the biggest factor appears to be the rise of digital technology which produces an extraordinary “flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night” (p. 6). Not too surprisingly, exhaustion and burnout impact how we feel and how we perform at work: according to a 2013 Gallop study, only 30% of Americans feel engaged (e.g. committed, passionate, focused, excited) in their jobs and organizations.

Schwarz and Porath’s research provides valuable data to help understand the growing problem of burnout and its impact on employee engagement and performance. Conversely, their research also provides practical suggestion on ways to combat this trend. In their study of 12,000 white collar employees the authors found significantly higher levels of satisfaction and productivity when core physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs are met. Specifically, how people feel about their work is strongly influenced when organizations understand and respond appropriately to these four needs:

  • Physical Renewal: Small changes in daily routines provide opportunities to refresh and renew. For example, people who take small breaks every 90 minutes report more creativity and a sense of wellness. Research also indicates that working over 40 hours a week has a negative correlation to feelings of well-being. It may seem counterintuitive, but shorter days could boost productivity.
  • Feeling Valued: We’ve known for a while that engagement is strongly correlated with the behavior of a person’s direct supervisor. Schwartz and Porath go further, saying that feelings of trust and safety are strongly correlated with a sense that you are cared for by your manager.
  • Mental Focus: Multi-tasking is antithetical to performance and fulfillment. Their studies showed that people who were able to focus on one task at a time were 50% more engaged at work.
  • A Sense of Purpose: According to Schwartz and Porath, “employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations – the highest single impact of any variable in our survey” (p. 6).

Implementing these practices make sense – and yet they are a stretch for many organizations. What keeps them in place, I believe, are outdated and misguided industrial era beliefs that do not serve the better interests of people, business, or broader society. These include a presumption that organizations operate like machines: they are mechanical, and can be planned and can be organized to behave in predictable ways. Correspondingly, the role of the manager is to control staff to conform to a set of rules. One of the costs of this mindset is trust. As Schwartz and Porath say, “…many employers remain fearful that their employees won’t accomplish their work without constant oversight – a belief that ironically feeds the distrust of their employees and diminishes their engagement” (p. 7). In today’s environment, these habits of thought are further exacerbated by a relentless drive for short term results, which together create a fearful, toxic work environment.

In our work at Aduro, we see many companies ready to address these issue and create organizations that support human habitation. We have many clients committed to investing in employee growth and development because they see the business imperative and also believe it’s the right thing to do. Nevertheless, this investment is insufficient without addressing the underlying beliefs and metaphors that drive outdated, punitive, and demeaning work practices. Organizations are not machines; they are comprised of human beings who flourish when their natural abilities are appreciated and encouraged. Operating from this perspectives, old habits must give way to new mindsets that value empathy, genuine collaboration, humility, and care. Schwarz and Porath’s research supports this premise, indicating that employees are 55% more engaged when they are encouraged to adopt more sustainable practices at work.

Changes such as this begin with a few simple but powerful questions. Consider this: What would it take to make your organization/team members feel more energized, more focused and more inspired? What would it take for YOU to feel that way?

Source: for more information on this research, see: Schwartz, T. & Porath, C. (June 1, 2014). Why You Hate Work. The New York Times Sunday Review.