17th March 2017

The Price of Overwork

Creativity and problem solving do not flow from overwhelmed, mentally depleted, physically exhausted people. By aligning people and performance management to output, employees are reduced to automatons – ignoring that it is their humanity that ignites the creative spark that leads to innovation.

Companies have a lot of incentives for their employees to solely focus on output: instead of hiring large numbers of people, especially among highly skilled workers where this phenomenon is most pronounced, businesses tend to reward overwork as a way to increase productivity per hour. As a result, we work longer and longer hours telling ourselves that this improves our productivity and drives company profits. Only it does not work.

Because with an ever-increasing workload, burnout becomes a real risk. Burnout is often defined as a state of chronic exhaustion in which one is cynical about the value of one’s occupation and doubtful of one’s capacity to perform. Burned-out individuals simultaneously experience high levels of chronic fatigue and distance themselves emotionally and cognitively from their professional activities. Individual performance is compromised because these workers need to invest extra time and effort in performing their jobs. Higher levels of burnout lead to a faster rate of deterioration in employees’ physical health and a lower job retention rate.

Like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, we toil endlessly and dispassionately. Recall that Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra (now known as Cornith) who was condemned to hard labor. His punishment: being forced to roll an immense bolder up a hill over and over again for eternity. Sound familiar?

For me, this sounds like a lot of my days – wake up, run, get my daughter ready for school, drop off at school, return to my desk where meetings, email, and tasks quickly consume me until I race to relieve our sitter. Then the second shift begins – homework, dinner, bath, maybe a little more work and then bed. It feels like my version of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray where he is assigned the job of covering the Groundhog Day festivities for the fourth year in a row only to wake up the following day to realize that he is reliving Groundhog Day over and over again. Groundhog Day is what happens when you are busy – working and living only through your intellect, or head. It is what happens when you are so busy doing your job that you forget about how you create value.

The book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible says: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and that what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” The labor itself is meaningless. It lacks heart – passion, calling and meaning.

People want their work to matter in the existential sense. They want it to enable their personal growth, help them optimize their inner potential, to make sense of life and to give them a path to pursue their passion or calling. Because, as Maya Angelou said, “Making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”