Why employee overload is bad for business
By Derek Parker
Every business wants its employees to put in a good day’s work, but unthinking attempts to reach new levels of productivity can easily produce the opposite effect: poor results, disruption in the workplace, rising levels of sick leave and high staff turnover. In a word: burnout.
The cost to the country is huge. A report by health insurer Medibank Private calculated the costs of employee burnout to the economy at a staggering $14.81 billion a year in 2008, and the figure would certainly have increased in the light of the tough economic circumstances of the past 18 months.
“Burnout happens when people feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they are given to do, or by increases in their responsibilities,” says Tracy Noon, chief human resources officer of recruitment specialist Hudson Australia/New Zealand. “Most people can deal with peaks in their workload, but problems start when people can’t see an end to it.
“In these cases employees can feel that the resources and support they are given do not match the amount of work they have to do. And if that situation goes on, they can use up their reserves of physical and emotional energy until they have nothing left in the tank. Eventually, something has to give.”
The signs of employee burnout that managers need to look for include a deterioration in performance, agitation and argumentativeness, and fatigue due to lack of sleep. There are also ways of identifying whether the organisation’s workforce as a whole is under stress.
“Managers need to regularly measure the engagement of their people, and that is best done by an independent third party,” Noon notes. “Surveys can indicate existing and emerging problems, and pinpoint areas of particular stress. When employees do move, exit interviews can also be useful to supplement other sources of information.
“Analysing leave patterns can be a useful indicator. In particular, a lot of Mondays being taken off as sick leave can be a sign that something is wrong. It can also become problematic if an employee has not taken annual leave for an extended period of time. Of course, that might mean that they are trying to accrue leave for an extra-long break. Or it might mean that they don’t feel they can leave their desk, out of a sense of duty or because the work will just pile up and be waiting for them when they return.
“The easiest way to find out is to ask. Open lines of communication are really important. Sometimes, their manager just showing interest and concern, giving recognition or working with them on meeting their challenges can make a big difference.”
Noon believes that many employees, consciously or not, follow the example of their managers. If the manager is seen to be working very long hours and never taking a holiday, employees feel they are expected to follow suit. Likewise, if the senior people take an occasional break for rest and recreation, their direct subordinates are more likely to feel that they can do the same.
Some companies have become sufficiently aware of the importance of leave that they have broadened the available options. Finance giant AMP allows employees to “purchase” additional leave of up to two weeks a year.
Similarly, technology company Microsoft in Australia offers free programs to help employees manage their health, stress levels and work-life balance. Flexible hours have also been shown to reduce the stress that underpins burnout.
Office employees are often seen as the most susceptible to burnout but Markus Groth, an associate professor in organisational behaviour at the Australian School of Business, believes that there are other sectors at risk.
“My research has shown that teachers and nurses are good candidates for burnout,” he says. “The key with these groups seems to be related to their emotional state. In these jobs, they are required to adopt a certain persona. It might be a mask of authority or it might be a happy face, but it has to be worn regardless of how the employees feels about what is actually happening in the workplace, or indeed in their life in general. That sense of contradiction can generate tremendous pressure over time.”
A shortage of resources is seen as a source of stress in these jobs, and resentment builds up when there is a heavy administrative burden that is seen as unconnected to the job of helping people.
Groth acknowledges that analysis of sick leave data can be very useful, but he believes there is a closely related problem that is not picked up by data analysis.
“Some employees respond to stress by simply tuning out,” he says. “They turn up and do the minimum amount of work, and don’t care if it is done properly or not. They are there but not there. The cost of this to an organisation can be enormous, but hidden.”
Groth suggests that organisations should factor emotional considerations into the recruitment process, so they employ people who are closer in disposition to the nature of the tasks they have to perform.
Noon agrees that employers should see measures to prevent burnout as investments rather than costs.
“After the GFC, we are again in a competitive employment environment and organisations have to work hard to find and retain the right people to grow their business,” she says. “Even aside from the human costs of burnout, managers have to realise that responding to employee needs is a necessary step. Having good people leave for another employer because they are suffering from stress or burnout is a serious blow to competitiveness.”
Article from The Australian