Jan 01, 2015

Worker Burnout

In today’s workforce, control over individual time is a valuable form of currency. However, as jobs become more dependent on online connectivity and technology, many workers are losing control over their time. Increased competitiveness and leaner workforces are also contributing to the pressures that workers face. While technology has helped to boost worker productivity over the past few decades, it has also come with related costs such as stress.

Christina Maslach, a professor at the University of California – Berkely, has four decades of research on the subject and helped to popularize the term “burnout.” Maslach loosely defines the term to encompass a combination of work overload, lack of autonomy and reward, and social and moral discord at work.

Employers are starting to recognize the negative effects companies face due to worker burnout. Career burnout increases stress and stress-based illnesses such as headaches, heart disease, obesity, and mental health disorders. This leads to an increase in missed days at work and higher healthcare costs. In addition, when workers are experiencing burnout, their ability to focus on tasks is reduced. This leads to decreased productivity and worker engagement. According to a 2013 report by Gallup, only 30 percent of employees in the United States feel engaged at work.

After seeing the job losses during the recession, workers are more inclined to come into work, even when sick. And after hours, physical presence is replaced with virtual presence. Many workers are fearful of switching off, often deciding to work on vacation, during dinner, or from home at night with smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

According to Jonathan Spira, chief analyst of the New York research firm Basex, information overload costs American businesses just under $1 trillion in employee time lost to needless emails and other distractions.

Strategies Employers are Using to Reduce Burnout

Employers are taking steps to tackle the causes of worker burnout. Volkswagen turns off some employees’ email 30 minutes after their shift, and many other companies are starting to set limits, recognizing that successful and productive workers need to be able to escape from work.

At Goldman Sachs, one strategy has been to make workers feel less at risk in their jobs. To keep junior analysts from burning out in attempts to prove their value, the bank has decided to start hiring first-year analysts as permanent employees, instead of as contract workers.

Quirky, a New York based start-up has instituted a “blackout” week once a quarter, during which no one except customer representatives are allowed to work.

A global workforce study by Towers Watson found that employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks. They also report an approximately 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being.

Do Workers have Fulfilling Workplaces?

Do Workers have Fulfilling Workplaces?

Source: The New York Times

Vacation Days

A report by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association found that U.S. workers fail to take 169 million days of paid time-off annually, forfeiting approximately $52.4 billion annually in pay and benefits. 

Workers are also taking less time off in recent years. In 2000, workers took off an average of 20 days compared with just 16 days in 2013.

A separate study on small business owners by OnDeck revealed that 61 percent of workers only take five days off per year. And when they do take off, 67 percent check in with work at least once per day. Only 15 percent completely disconnect.

Unpredictable Hours a Cause for Stress

Researchers, company executives, and advocates have pushed for decades to increase workplace flexibility. A few years ago, a smartphone and a VPN connection were empowering instruments that allowed workers freedom to work on their own terms. Today, however, buzzing smartphones and software that tracks one’s whereabouts actually limit real flexibility for workers at the top and the bottom of the economic spectrum.

Retail workers often work hours that seem flexible, but are often highly variable. Retailers are implementing software that helps to optimize staffing against levels of store traffic. From a corporate perspective, scheduling software removes a time-consuming task from store supervisors and makes the process more efficient. Using analytics to schedule workers on an as-needed basis saves labor costs and ensures adequate staffing during peak periods. However, workers, such as those at Starbucks, say that they receive very little notification of their work hours and it limits their ability to schedule other activities, or even other jobs.

Those in well-paid, white-collar jobs are also impacted by variability. Employees at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reveal that they suffer stress from the lack of control over their work hours and complete lack of predictability over how many hours they would be putting in during the day.

“The big problem wasn’t so much the long hours and incessant travel. Our consultants expected that when they joined BCG. Rather, Perlow discovered, it was the complete lack of predictability or control they had over their daily lives.”  ~Deborah Lovich, Partner at Boston Consulting Group.

The Dangers of Email

The average worker spends 28 percent of the workday dealing with email. A 2013 survey by GFI Software found that 81 percent of U.S. employees check their email outside of work, with more than a third saying they check their work email several times a day outside of work hours. A third of respondents also said that they usually respond to emails within 15 minutes.

Recently, researches coined a term for this urge to immediately respond to emails – “workplace telepressure.” The research, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, found that a fixation on work email could contribute to physical and mental burnout. Workers who experienced high levels of telepressure reported felling fatigued and unfocused. Telepressure also correlated with sleeping poorly and missing work. The findings suggest that constantly checking work email may not be healthy or productive, and that companies should encourage employees to unplug or enact no-email-after-hours policies to ensure the wellbeing of the workforce and the company’s bottom line.

Email Habits

Email Habits

Source: GFI Software

How Burnout Can Impact Health


Research published in the journal PLoS ONE shows that people who work 11 or more hours per day have a more-than-doubled risk of depression than those who work the more-standard 7 to 8 hours a day.


According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average American adult should aim to sleep for 7 to 9 hours per night. However, the foundation’s recent Sleep in America survey found that the average respondent only sleeps 6 hours and 40 minutes on a typical night. And 20 percent of those working over 50 hours per week reported getting fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night. Another study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found a link between long work hours and reduced quality of sleep. The health effects of too little sleep include decreased memory, increased weight gain, irritability, and cardiovascular health problems.

Close to a quarter of employees report doing job-related work within an hour of going to bed. According to Michael Decker, an associate professor at Georgia State University, looking at a computer screen and stimulating the brain with bright light can make it harder to sleep.

Cardiovascular Issues

Working overtime increases the risk for a wide range of cardiovascular health problems, including heart disease, heart attack, and high blood pressure. A 2010 study published by the European Society of Cardiology found that working 10 or more hours per day resulted in a 60 percent jump in risk of cardiovascular issues.


According to the Mayo Clinic, a quarter of people identify work as the primary stressor in their lives. In the short term, stress prompts the body to pump out hormones that can increase blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. And over time, stress can lead to obesity, heart disease, mental health problem, and skin problems.

Eye Strain

A 2011 study by the College of Optometrists found that anywhere from 64 to 90 percent of computer users report experiencing some kind of vision symptoms, including eye strain, headaches, dry eyes, or blurred vision.

“Americans are taking the value of their time for granted. By passing on vacation days and working instead, U.S. employees are serving as volunteers for their companies.” ~Adam Sacks, Founder and President of Oxford Economics’ Tourism Economics division.