Why we need to stop idolizing overwork

No matter how much we smile and nod at trendy headlines about work-life balance, the stench of overwork in the office is still familiar to all of us: the employee who stays past close of business to work til 8 p.m.; the coworker who sends detailed work emails at 9 p.m. on the weekend; and even worse, the never-ending “I worked an 80-hour week” water cooler conversation.

In most working environments, overwork can seem harmless enough. Who among us doesn’t understand the periods of hustle that come with handling a crisis, building a career and the value of just digging down and getting work done sometimes? But for HR managers and leadership teams that understand the value of a healthy culture, it’s time to understand that chronic, obsessive overwork has major consequences.

Not only can a “live to work” culture lead to company-wide burnout, but studies show that this kind of cut-throat achievementism and presenteeism can also lead to an increase in cut corners and bent rules, and considering today’s COVID-19 risks, can pose a health and liability risk.  

Here’s why a culture of overwork can be dangerous and what you can do if you sense it’s a growing problem in your place of work:

Overwork corrodes company, personal values

We’ve already reviewed how late-night work sessions and not being able to “turn off” leads to anxiety and damages productivity. But in addition to these consequences, a culture that promotes overwork will impair the emotional and psychological competencies of your workforce. Our recent eGuide, “How to Troubleshoot Employee Stress and Boost Productivity,” explores how mental, physical, and emotional distress damages workplace performance. We found that employees under stress are more likely to make mistakes, have a harder time making decisions, and struggle to communicate. They’ll also ring up higher health care and absenteeism costs to the tune of 36 percent of your payroll.

Access the full guide here

Even more frighteningly, individuals overly focused on work — who see achievement at work as the ultimate path to fulfillment or the only thing that matters — are more likely to cut corners and bend rules to achieve results. Perhaps the most current and most incredible example of this phenomenon is the ongoing impact of the Wells Fargo fraud. Driven by cross-selling quotas set by the CEO, more than 5,300 employees fraudulently created over 2 million unauthorized accounts for bank customers without informing the customers.

While first and foremost a financial compliance concern, this also points to a toxic company culture that holds achievement and sales activity higher than any basic levels of honesty or customer service. This incident has cost Wells Fargo billions of dollars in settlements and fines, with payouts continuing into 2020, billions more in market value, along with a huge drop in customer trust and loyalty.

But this wasn’t the first example of how far the company’s culture has fallen. In 2011, the company was fined $85 million for hustling customers with higher-than-suitable mortgage rates and terms. It’s no coincidence — when a culture tangibly encourages and rewards its employees for certain behaviors such as achievement under any circumstance, it should be no surprise to see those behaviors repeated over and over again.

Healing the overwork culture

It’s never too late for a culture to identify where its values fall short and decide to turn them around, and that goes for a culture of overwork. If you are starting to see the consequences of workaholism and achievementism within your workplace such as increasingly competitive, unethical, or questionable behavior, here are three things you can do to redirect it:

Scan for power plays in leadership

It’s a universal truth that power tempts people to use it. In a Harvard Business Review article, author and psychology professor Dacher Keltner notes that, “While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade.

The best solution to this “power paradox” is reflection and awareness, and that should begin with those in power in your company. Incorporate opportunities for reflecting on values in meetings, performance reviews, and business development planning. Try to bring focus back to the values that made the company and the leaders successful in the first place, and consider how those values to play out in everyday behavior now.

Give employees a system worth hacking

Writing about the Wells Fargo fraud incident, Chris Cancialosi warns us that the majority of employees are going to figure out how to “hack the system” to receive the maximum personal benefit — it’s just that they usually do it within ethical boundaries. A much smaller proportion will make the leap to behaving unethically.

Still, how you set up your system will determine what that hack looks like. If your company only measures success in terms of sales, cross-sells, and numbers, then those become the components of the “game.” While those tangible factors are very important to success, you can disengage the threat by including other intangible factors in how you reward and rank employees: customer satisfaction scores, repeat business or customer loyalty, or living out certain values such as responsibility, honesty, or collaboration. 

Monitor workload and stress levels

Besides its impact on health and safety, burnout makes employees more susceptible to poor or unethical decision-making. That should win it a prominent place in your yearly or quarterly employee evaluations where managers can monitor the emotional state of the team and proactively support team members who have been carrying too much of the load for too long

Just one thing — the conversation should go deeper than, “Are you stressed? Take a vacation.” If there’s a real problem in your environment, the stress level will only rockets back up the day you get back from vacation. The point of digging into workload and stress levels is to help employees control day-to-day obligations and set realistic, difficult-but-achievable goals for performance and productivity. A good manager will understand how to set goals within those parameters.

It’s time to stop rolling our eyes at overwork and address it as the threat to success that it is. Make these work habits a part of your ongoing culture conversation to ensure that you build an environment supports your values and leads your company’s success.

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