Workplace doctor: Is my hardworking team overdoing it?

World Health Organisation is predicting a global burnout pandemic within a decade

Managers and staff should be aware of the risk of burnout. Getty Images
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I manage a small young team of online financial specialists who are passionate about their work and the company. They are all enthusiastic and ambitious and work long hours to ensure work is delivered to the highest standard. They socialise with each other and their professional lives are the center of their world. But I am becoming concerned that this level of immersion is unsustainable and sooner rather than later they will start to experience burnout – which would be disastrous for the team and the services we have developed. What, if anything, should I do?

BW, Abu Dhabi

It is commendable that, despite what you describe as a passionate and enthusiastic team, you are aware and concerned about the high cost of professional burnout, a growing problem for our modern workplace.

In fact, the World Health Organisation is predicting a global burnout pandemic within a decade, which is already costing the global economy US$300 billion annually.  Businesses have begun to focus on burnout to protect their profits, as these employees naturally are off sick more frequently and are less productive. Burnout is also responsible for up to half of all employee attrition, and businesses can simply not afford to lose their key talent in critical roles. Nationally, the UAE recognises that a healthy population is one of the cornerstones to the country’s future development and is leading the way in making happiness a national policy goal.

Fortunately, a number of the leading indicators for employee burnout do not sound prevalent within your team. Team members that can be described as passionate about their work and the company, indicate that their personal beliefs and values are not at odds with those of the company and you as their leader.  Furthermore, a team that socialises with each other is in contrast to corporate cultures that lack team spirit and where employees are unable to relate to one another, both being triggers for stress and inevitable burnout.

That said, burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and if your team does run on empty for too long, it can, as per your concern, end in disaster with physical and mental exhaustion impairing their ability to perform. So, as you are already sensing, there is a danger that your well bonded, ambitious team could be putting all their life eggs into one work basket with no :off work time" and little chance for balance and energy recovery. It is important to choose how we manage and direct our energy and keep other activities such as exercise, seeing friends, engaging in other interests and hobbies in balance.

We all want to succeed at work, but overworking and failing to find a healthy balance in life will lead us down the path to burnout. In many ways, we can compare how we function at work to that of a professional athlete. There is a band within which the professional athlete will have optimal, peak performance. Below this margin, the athlete will not be well enough prepared and potentially fail. Similarly, if the athlete trains above this band he/she will risk both injury and physical exhaustion. As a "corporate athlete" when we constantly operate at the level above that of our optimal margin, we risk occupational burnout.

Signs of burnout can include physical exhaustion, irritability, lack of focus and creativity as well as a sense of apathy. Physical illness that accompany burnout can manifest as headaches, digestive issues and back or neck pain. The increasing rates of burnout are being exacerbated by technology, especially smartphones, which has greatly expanded the workday even more as employees are expected to be reachable and respond to business matters at all times and are not only taking a toll on individuals and teams, but also on businesses and the economy.

Resilience is another important consideration in order to ensure sustained performance at work. While low levels of stress can be healthy and help to create both energy and excitement, high levels of stress can be disabling and seen as an adversity. Resilient individuals tend to respond to stress more positively, enabling them to think more broadly and be resourceful. Those with limited resilience tend to respond with fight or flight reactions, leading to narrow thinking and focusing abilities, often feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. Research has shown that people with high levels of resilience are less likely to get mentally or physically ill.

Doctor’s Prescription:

Recognising, the need for your team to be more aware of their long term endurance and performance at work is the first step to ensure that they continue to thrive and be successful. With your guidance and support, you can help develop and nourish the skill sets needed for a healthy, balanced and resilient work-life integration.