Cindy Krischer Goodman

Balancing Act: Longer hours, intense workloads could be killing you

David Torrence
David Torrence

Would you speak up if an employee or peer were working himself close to a hospital stay — or maybe even to death?

It’s a query we might consider when we see our bleary eyed co-worker reach for another cup of coffee, looking every bit like he has slept at his desk for the past week. We might even ponder it when we hear a fellow manager has postponed his vacation, again, to cater to client demands.

On rare occasions, decisions to ignore or defy excessive work stress can reap unknowing consequences. This may have been the case with the tragic example of a Wall Street intern who worked through the night eight times in two weeks, including three consecutive nights, before he collapsed and died in his apartment in 2013. It might also have been the case with Lisa Johnstone, a Skadden Arps associate who died in 2011 after months of intense pressure and rumored 100-hour work weeks, or Mita Diran, a copywriter for an ad agency who in 2013 suffered heart failure and slipped into a fatal coma just after sipping energy drinks and tweeting “30 hours of working and still going strooong.”

Because we live in a culture that applauds overwork, stories of bosses or peers working themselves to death or collapsing of exhaustion force us to look at what has become the new normal. Employers are asking almost all workers to take on higher workloads. But when multiple 15-hour workdays get met with a pat on the back rather than a look of concern, we need to figure out our role in workplace well-being.

Following the death of young lawyers and bankers, calls have been made for an overhaul of the long-hours culture at some firms. Changing culture, though, represents a challenge when long hours and intense pressure, rather than efficiency, has has become ingrained in how some businesses operate, says workplace consultant David Torrance, CEO of Renaissance Executive Forums Dallas. “People think they are making money for the company by working harder or longer, but that doesn’t mean they are.”

Many bosses shun the idea of curbing overload, claiming that workers want to put in the extra effort to get ahead. Such excuses blind managers to the burnout that results when overwork hits counterproductive levels. The signs, however, are rather easy to recognize — hair loss, weight loss or gain, fatigue, the popping of stimulants to combat anxiety or exhaustion. Health risks are real: Working more than 11 hours a day increases a person’s risk of heart disease by 67 percent and the chance of a major depressive episode by 2.5 times, according to killerinfographics.com.

Intervention can be complex. For some workers, getting ahead is their priority. It is not only what they spend the majority of their days doing, it represents a core part of their identities. They choose to tip the scale in favor of work — whether out of fear for their job, to escape home life, or because they love what they do for a living.

“As a boss or business owner, you want your employee to be high-achievers who make you look good,” admits Leah Carpenter, CEO of Memorial Hospital Miramar. You have goals and deadlines to meet, making it beneficial to have staffers who sacrifice a personal life. Yet, as the company leader, “you have to push it a little,” with those who may not realize they need work-life balance. I tell them, “We are no good to the patients we treat if we don’t take care of ourselves.”

A CEO, overseeing more than 1,000 hospital employees, Carpenter knows she sets the example: “I have to put myself in check so they won’t follow.”

Carpenter says she won’t send out emails past 9 p.m. and she conscientiously takes vacation days: “I don’t want to send the wrong message about expectations.”

Any employee who is determined to advance is going to emulate the kind of behavior demonstrated by the company’s top performers. Torrance says he, as the boss, has been direct in confronting managers on the verge of burnout: “I just walk up and tell them, go home. Usually they do go home, but sometimes they take their computer with them.”

Torrance suggests the time to increase intervention is when an employee or co-worker misses deadlines, sits in meetings and drifts off or, conversely, reacts emotionally about almost anything said. If pointing out a lack of balance leads to resistance, he recommends another approach: a more generic show of concern such as, “Hey, are you doing OK? I see you’re working long hours. I’m concerned for you. What’s going on?”

In most workplaces, co-workers are most tuned in to a peer’s exhaustion or anxiety and often reluctant to get involved. “At first blush, it’s no different from me going to a colleague and saying, ‘Not married yet, what’s going on with that?’” said Nikki Lewis Simon, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig in Miami. “Working around the clock is a personal decision, not unlike the decision to have kids, marry, be openly gay. Some people don’t know what to do without work. If you forced them to go home, they would be in a funk.”

When you have a more personal relationship or when health becomes an issue, Simon said she would show interest as a friendly overture: “I might say, is everything OK? I see you’re working hard, is there something I could do to help?”

Simon says sometimes it takes a health practitioner to convey the message that changes behavior. While balance can be a struggle for all, she admits: “You must unplug and rejuvenate because your body will not forgive you forever.”

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