TribLIVE

| Business


 
Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

Companies fear burnout affects bottom line, advises workers to relax

On the Grid

From the shale fields to the cooling towers, Trib Total Media covers the energy industry in Western Pennsylvania and beyond. For the latest news and views on gas, coal, electricity and more, check out On the Grid today.

By The Associated Press
Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

LONDON — Volkswagen turns off some employees' email 30 minutes after their shifts end. Goldman Sachs is urging junior staff to take weekends off. BMW is planning new rules that will keep workers from being contacted after hours.

This surge in corporate beneficence isn't an indication that employers are becoming kinder and gentler: It's about the bottom line. After years in which the ease of instant communication via email and smartphones allowed bosses to place greater and greater demands on white-collar workers, some companies are beginning to set limits, recognizing that successful employees must be able to escape from work.

“Industry is now responding,” said Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University, who says the imperative to be constantly reachable by iPhone or tablet is taking a toll on the work delivered at the office. “Employees are turning up, but they're not delivering anything.”

After seeing colleagues lose their jobs during the Great Recession, workers are more inclined to come in to work, even when sick, surveys show. After hours, physical presence is replaced by the next best thing — a virtual one. Many employees fear switching off, instead deciding to work on vacation, during dinner and in bed with the help of smart phones, laptops and tablet computers.

People have more data than ever to process — whether they ask for it or not. Information overload cost American businesses just under $1 trillion in employee time lost to needless emails and other distractions in 2010, according to Jonathan Spira, chief analyst of the New York research firm, Basex.

The cost of replacing employees who leave in search of better work conditions is a concern. A study from the Center for American Progress put the cost of turnover at just over a fifth of the employee's salary for people making up to $75,000 a year. That goes up exponentially for top managers, with turnover costs as high as 213 percent of salary for very highly paid positions.

After worrying about trimming staff numbers during the recession, employers are focusing on how to keep those who are left from burning out.

Job safety

One strategy, which Goldman Sachs has been trying, is to make people feel less at risk in their jobs. That's not easy in most companies, much less so in investment banking, infamous for its competitive environment and grueling work hours.

To keep junior analysts from burning out in the attempt to prove their worth, the bank has decided to start hiring first-year analysts as permanent employees, instead of taking them on as contract workers. It is encouraging them to not work weekends.

“The goal is for our analysts to want to be here for a career,” said David Solomon, global head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Work conditions in banking came under scrutiny when an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London died from an epileptic seizure that may have been brought on by fatigue. The case prompted the bank to review work conditions for junior employees.

But it isn't just the junior staff. Last month, Hector Sants, a senior executive brought in to help London-based Barclays bank overcome a costly scandal, resigned after a leave of absence because of exhaustion. The chief executive officer of Lloyds Bank, Antonio Horta Osorio, took time out in 2011. The CEO of AkzoNobel, a Dutch paint company, did the same last year.

“The HR people now talk about regrettable turnover. We cannot afford to lose our best people because we have fewer people,” said Cooper, the professor. “We will lose them to companies with better work/life balance, where they don't have to work 19-hour days.”

Tougher measures

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

Quirky, a New York-based start-up that 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 e-mail.

“We all dropped pencils together,” said CEO Ben Kaufman.

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 last week. 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.”

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

Information overload

Though technology has helped boost worker productivity over the past few decades, it has come with related costs, like stress.

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.

 

 
 


Show commenting policy

Most-Read Business Headlines

  1. Rule to close coal royalty loophole
  2. Toy sellers to enhance marketing as holidays approach
  3. PUC approves Columbia Gas pipeline extensions program for homeowners
  4. Mortgage rate slide’s impact could be minimal
  5. Falling fuel prices help airlines — not fliers
  6. Education Management removes itself from Nasdaq listing
  7. Stocks jump on strong earnings, led by 3M, Caterpillar
  8. World’s 1st carbon capture power plant switches on in Canada
  9. Highmark seeks double-digit increase for more benefits, heavy use
  10. Large-scale batteries are integral in shift to renewable energy
  11. Chevron puts $20M into educating, training Appalachian workers
Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.