Employers step in to prevent worker burnout

By Danica Kirka

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 24 2013 3:28 p.m. MST

Technology, for example, is eliminating the downtime or slack that used to be built into the day — such as the time one took going to the library to do research that can now be completed online, says Edward Tenner, author of "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences." Those minutes used to act as a buffer that prevented people from working constantly.

Though physical exhaustion in traditional enterprises was bad, conflicting mental demands can be more problematic, Tenner says, particularly in the United States, where professional workers often don't have union contracts or the same legal overtime protection as hourly workers do.

"So it's as the Red Queen said in 'Through the Looking-Glass,' it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place," Tenner said.

Companies haven't yet come to grips with how bad it is, said Spira, the analyst. Information overload has decreased people's ability to manage thoughts and ideas. Fixing it means changing company culture — such as the idea that dozens of people need to be cc-ed on a given email.

"Almost every organization is burying its head in the sand," said Spira, the author of "Overload!: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization."

It is hard for a company to control the amount of technology used in the workplace and at home since it is so integral to modern life. Volkswagen addressed the issue in a blunt, if effective, manner — by deactivating some workers' email accounts once their shifts were over.

TOUGHER MEASURES

To get everyone, from intern to CEO, to not overdo it with the work hours, some companies have resorted to bolder measures.

Quirky, a New York based start-up which shepherds inventions to the marketplace, has instituted a "blackout" week once a quarter during which no one except customer service representatives are allowed to work, lest employees be tempted to check email.

"We all dropped pencils together," said CEO Ben Kaufman, who figured he could bring the idea of re-invention to his own company. "People were getting burned out. They needed to see other things besides their desk."

And having the message come right from the top was important for Shirin Majid, the company's 39-year-old head of digital marketing, who laments not having enough time to spend with her husband and 9-month-old daughter, Ella. In 17 years of public relations work, she has yet to take a vacation devoid of that dreaded phone call from the office.

But not during a recent vacation. No one could call from the office — since no one was at the office.

"If you know that your boss is checked out, you're going to relax a bit and not worry that you're going to get an email," she said. "You can just have a nap."

All that blackout-inspired creativity is working out for them so far: General Electric just invested $30 million.

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