Does Working Too Hard Lead to Burnout


Does Working Too Hard Lead to Burnout

  • By Ian Bradley
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The question of excessive work leading to burnout was cited in a recent case conference that I attended.  A young, but very competent, presenter described how months of working long hours led to her client’s eventual burnout.  The concept -excessive work leads to burnout- was dutifully accepted by everyone around the table.

No wonder, this well-entrenched belief is easily visualized in a hydraulic metaphor long part of our tradition in psychology. Sustained and excessive work utilizes more energy reserves than can be placed by restorative processes of sleep, leisure or pleasurable diversions. The pump goes dry when the output exceeds the input.

However, the comment got me thinking about my own experience in coaching executives and managers in some very stressful and demanding jobs.  Some of my clients routinely work 14 hour days. They love the challenge, they are energized by the “buzz” of achieving. Others, some of whom might work only one or two hours of additional time per day, are on the verge of cracking.  What’s the difference?

To my mind, two key processes modulate the effect of working over-time; specifically, motivation and choice.   By motivation, I refer to whether the additional time was designed to gain something positive for the worker or to avoid something bad.  In psychological jargon was the overtime based upon reward conditioning or avoidance/escape?

Secondly, was the over-time discretionary or was it imposed?

Jeff headed a team of crack business development professionals who were called in to rescue companies on the verge of financial disaster.  Jeff often flew to a new job on Mondays, and left on Fridays with each 14 hour day in between filled with meetings, analysis and report writing.  In his mind, each consultation was an opportunity to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again he loved the challenged and felt he was well rewarded in terms of prestige as well as salary for his efforts.  In short, his long hours yielded recognition and advancement – goals that were clearly in Jeff’s career trajectory.

Jacques was not so lucky. His overtime was begrudgingly given. He felt that his boss was asking him to perform an unreasonable large number of tasks that no one could ever accomplish in a day.  To avoid more cutting remarks about why his projects were late, Jacques felt that he had to put in more hours hoping that his boss would at least see his efforts, if not completed results.

As the months went on, Jacques’ strategy was clearly not working.  More over-time seemed only to whet his boss’ desire for more accomplishment.  Jacques began to feel tired, his weekends were preoccupied with unfinished work and he saw no way out. In Jacques’ case, his overtime was motivated by the desire to reduce or eliminate criticism and not to achieve something positive. In addition, Jacques viewed the extra working time as imposed, and not a self-directed choice for his own career path.

Two cases, the first approximating the hours of two full-time jobs; the second working a scant hour or so a day extra.  The first is headed to opening his own firm, the second to a disability leave.

Yes, long hours can yield to burn-out, but as it happens so often in psychology; it depends.