Exhaustion: The Latest “Status Symbol”

Recently, I have been following the work of Brene Brown, Research Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.  She spent over 10 years studying the topics of shame and vulnerability in an effort to help uncover how we can find our inner courage and be more authentic in today’s world.

In one of her talks, she spoke about how part of her research work involved going to a popular office building in downtown Houston and just riding the elevator up and down to listen to the interactions of the employees in that building.  The one story she shared was about two law firm employees and their interaction with each other.  One talked about having to work til the wee hours of the morning on a project.  When this person asked the other person when they left work for the day, the other’s response was that they hadn’t left the office yet (since the day before).

While it may seem immature that two co-workers were having a “one-up” conversation with each other, the truth is that many employees today do think that to be considered valuable and successful in their careers that they have to work themselves to the point of exhaustion.

Can we really blame them for this perception or do companies need to take ownership of the fact that they are the ones that created this status symbol?

Think about it – Employers see that the main advantage to putting an employee on “salary” is that you aren’t tied to limiting their hours for the week since you don’t have to pay them overtime.  Many employers have gone so far as to expect their employees to be available even after hours and weekends for phone calls, emails, special projects…whatever is needed.

And, consequently, many of these salaried employees will do whatever their employer wants because they fear 1) loss of status in a management or leadership position if they aren’t working “harder” or 2) loss of employment.  These employees sacrifice family and personal time to keep on top of whatever their jobs needs…not to make sure the work is carried out and completed but to make sure they remain in good graces with their employer.  Hence, working themselves into exhaustion!

Now, from a business standpoint, the recent announcement from the Department of Labor concerning the proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act concerning overtime will play a huge role in attacking this status symbol as companies have to re-categorize exempt employees and pay for the overtime they have been getting for free.  While some companies will, obviously, still encourage overtime – especially if they can pass on the cost to their customers or clients – but the pressure to work more just to impress the boss should find some relief.

From an HR standpoint, we should never make employees feel obligated to work  themselves to death just to make an impression to the boss or keep their job.  Shame on companies for doing that!  Expecting employees to work excessive hours, breaking into their personal and family time, should not be an expectation…as if it is some “right of passage” to promote within a company.  With all the technological advances we have made in business in the last 20 years alone, we now have two scenarios: 1) work doesn’t require as many “man hours” as it once did so there is additional pressure on employees to “look busy” and 2) things such as “smartphones” (especially if they are company-issued or paid for) give employers the excuse they can contact employees they want.

So, how do we start to reverse that?

As HR professionals, we have to start pushing for management to turn their focus off of “quantity” and back on to “quality.”  It has to start with the top down or middle managers will keep that stigma going.  How can we “maneuver” that?  Two ways come to mind: 1) hold an informational session with management to talk about this issue, how they shouldn’t be encouraging it and how it can actually hurt the company in the long-run (not just in financial costs but in employee morale) and then 2) establish (or promote if already available) any programs or incentives aimed at work-life balance or family values (such as after-hours contact guidelines, time off for family events – not just emergencies, paid “volunteer days,” etc).

The point of any program you put into place is to make both the employee and their supervisor understand that you don’t want them spending all their waking hours thinking about or doing work.  They need to know that it is okay to set boundaries.  Once employees begin to see they aren’t being penalized for “having a life” outside of work, the trend will begin to correct itself…we just need to have that conversation to get the ball rolling.

Author: Barb Buckner

Over 15 years of experience as a strategic Human Resource Professional with a proven history of implementing HR strategies and managing employee relations, process improvement and compliance. A reputation for leveraging business relationships, engaging the workforce and creating a positive return on investment into HR initiatives.

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