Productivity pressure continues: Which workers are being pushed too far?

There’s a fine line between peak performance and burnout

Everybody, it seems, loves high productivity. Corporations love it because it boosts the bottom line, which in turn makes stock prices go higher. Employee health professionals have become even more enamored of it in recent years, even coining a phrase, presenteeism, to help them get a handle on employee underperformance.

This emphasis on productivity shows few signs of letting up, even as the economy improves and occupational health professionals agree the issue of productivity will loom large on their radar screens for the foreseeable future. Of course, people are not machines, and while few would argue against the pursuit of peak performance, each individual has his or her limits. Thus, there often is a fine line between peak performance and burnout. In the current environment, it is incumbent upon occ-health professionals to learn all they can about identifying that fine line, knowing when it is being approached and, if possible, preventing it from being crossed.

Companies can stress out too

One of the major concerns with crossing that line is that it may not only impact individual employees, but entire organizations, say the experts. "Can organizations as well as individuals become stressed-out? The short answer is yes," says James Campbell Quick, MBA, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior and director of the doctoral program in business administration at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). "If you examine Staw’s [BB, et al. "Threat-rigidity effects in organizational behavior: A multi-level analysis," Administrative Science Quarterly; 1981] threat-rigidity cycle, you see that individuals and groups can get threatened and stressed out in much the same way. The two fundamental processes that engage are parallel at the organizational, group, and individual level."

Such a state is characterized by "centralization of control and shutting down of information processes," he says. "When we get stressed out, we get uptight; Staw calls it rigid. At that point, individuals and organizations rely on well-learned dominant responses — they are not thinking; they are responding."

Quick says he has personally seen it happen twice: At the Hospital Corporation of America in the 1980s, where a leveraged buyout was the end result; and more recently at UTA, when it lost one-third to one-quarter of its student body.

Large number not really there

Jim Loehr, EdD, PhD, CEO, and chairman of LGE Performance Systems, headquartered in Orlando, FL, has seen the impact of stress from a number of different angles. His company began by working with athletes, then started to get requests to work in other high-performance, high-stress areas such as law enforcement (FBI, anti-terrorism), Special Forces, and then medicine, including many physicians and surgeons. He also has worked with some of the largest companies in the United States. "I just had this situation described to me in a very interesting way," he relates. "Someone described the employees in his work situation as beaten sled dogs.’"

Loehr goes on to explain that when he begins working with a company, he conducts what he calls an engagement survey. "For us, engagement is the condition that leads to the ignition of talent and skill," Loehr says. "Today, the levels of disengagement are massive and increasing because workers are doing the work of two or three people, and everyone is running scared to see if the P&L [profit and loss statement] will allow their department to exist. It’s a very austere environment of angst; nothing is being taken off their plates, they continue be stretched to the limits and never really given any kind of indication this will change."

In the surveys his firm is conducting, Loehr says that only one in four employees is really fully engaged, and 19%-25% are actively disengaged. "That means their energies are antithetical to the direction of a corporate entity," he explains. "That’s a very big number."

Learning the indicators

Speaking of numbers, there are measures to quantify just how close individuals and companies are to the edge. Certain trends also can be important indicators.

"One very rough measure of how people feel about where they work is the turnover rate," notes Sean Sullivan, JD, president and CEO of the Institute for Health and Productivity Management, Scottsdale, AZ, a 6-year-old nonprofit research, development, and education organization founded to demonstrate the value of employee health as an investment in business performance. "Companies are also doing more and more employee satisfaction surveys; if the workers trust the company and answer candidly, you can pick up indicators," he continues. "Also use of the EAP [employee assistance program] can be an indicator. You want them be used to intercept things like depression, but a sudden surge may indicate the environment could be placing more than optimal stress on employees."

"It is a matter of evidence, but it’s not a simple matter of evidence," adds Quick, "Because stress as it is identified medically is a systemic response. This means the particular indicators vary some by individual and organization."

In his recent publication, Fast Facts — Stress and Strain (co-authored by Cary L. Cooper, Health Press Limited, Oxford, UK; 2003), Quick cites two diagnostic instruments for stress and stress-related disorders. The first is the Stress and Coping Inventory, from Health Assessment Programs Inc. The second is ASSET — An Organizational Stress Screening Tool ( In addition, an earlier work, Preventive Stress Management in Organizations (Quick JC, Quick JD, Nelson DL, et al.; American Psychological Association; 1997) enumerates more than 30 indicators.

A matter of energy

Having initially worked with athletes, Loehr employed the term "overtraining" to describe what in a corporate setting might be called burnout. "As individuals become less and less able to balance their workload, they are less able to do what they can do best," he notes. In the corporate setting, exactly the same process can occur, Loehr continues. "We came up with four principles and have taken those same principles and applied them pretty much across the board within every arena of application," he says, noting that each one is critical. They are:

Physical energy: "In the corporate world, no one pays attention to the body, yet all energy comes in through nutrition," he notes.

Emotional engagement: This entails feeling the right emotions. "You get the best results when people are mobilized from opportunity-based emotions, rather than from fear or anger," says Loehr. "When you get beyond the edge, you start to get angry, impatient, stop eating and sleeping properly. This breeds disengagement everywhere."

Mental energy: This entails focusing energy on what is relevant. "Multitasking is the enemy of engagement," Loehr asserts. "That’s what happens when you are in a lot of stress; then, you’re not being extraordinary at anything."

Spiritual energy: This, more than anything else, leads to extraordinary performance, asserts Loehr. "When an individual can attach the right meaning to what they are doing, it adds an unbelievable sense intensity; your energy is boundless when you’re on the right track," he notes, adding that spiritual energy can refer to issues of integrity, character, courage, and honesty. "When corporations don’t link what they’re asking the employee to do with their own beliefs, the whole thing comes crashing down."

When people are worked to excess, all those levels of energy start crumbling, Loehr says. "You notice it at the physical level; the first thing that starts to surface is fatigue. People are unable to face their demands — they don’t care as much, they don’t give as much, they put messages in voicemail or e-mail rather than meeting one-on-one, they come home and appear to be disconnected," he observes.

There is an erosion of joy, Loehr continues. "All recovery mechanisms begin not working; you don’t sleep as well, your appetite goes crazy in one direction or another. People just stop taking care of themselves in the most important ways; they may be attracted to excessive alcohol to lighten their spirits, or to break the doldrums and monotony of work when they see no way out. They’re more likely to get sick, because their immune system is compromised. The big thing is they are not performing; their memory is not as clear, they are critical and short with people. That’s where mistakes are made, sometimes with tragic long- and short-term consequences."

Surveillance aids prevention

Of course, the best way to deal with burnout is to prevent it from ever occurring. To do that, says Quick, requires vigilant surveillance.

"Good prevention hinges on good information and good surveillance indicators to let you know you are crossing the line," he explains. "With one of my clients, for example, when we did some assessment conversations we realized that none of them had put together the fact that there was a fairly common symptom in the workplace, which was headaches. What is required is a real attention to the functioning of the organization and the individual, and looking for those symptoms or surveillance indicators that say, I’m getting to the edge.’ For instance, one female executive we interviewed said she always knew she was getting to the edge when she heard the door slam behind her when she went into her office." (For an outline of prevention strategies, please see the illustration.)

The Stress Process

The illustration above, excerpted from Fast Facts
— Stress and Strain
(second ed., Quick JC, Cooper CL, Oxford,
UK: Health Press Limited; 2003), depicts the stress process.

"Pressures, demands or stressors are in the box at the top [left]," notes James Campbell Quick, MBA, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior and director of the doctoral program in business administration at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) and co-author of the publication. "They trigger the stress response in the second box. That response, we think, is one our best God-given assets for dealing with crisis and achieving peak performance, but it’s not designed to be on all the time. It should fire up, help you get the job done, and then you recover."

The box at the bottom — distress, or strain, can occur both at the organizational level and at the individual level. "That’s where we usually pay attention to turnover rates, absenteeism, productivity declines," Quick explains. "In individuals, that can be manifested by backaches, headaches, substance abuse, cardiovascular problems, and so on."

The primary prevention stage, he asserts, is ideally where stress should be addressed. n

Loehr adds these three recommendations for preventing burnout:

Balance engagement with strategic disengagement. "You have to find times to turn off the system when it doesn’t matter that much," he says. "Let’s say you have three or four minutes to disengage; you may close the door, go through deep-breathing exercises, hydrate, eat some mixed peanuts, or listen to relaxing music."

To build capacity, you need to push yourself beyond normal limits. "To build the capacity to deal with these brutal conditions, you need to be pushed outside your comfort zone," Loehr says. "But then you also need high-quality recovery. Otherwise, it will end up breaking you. Burnout, on the other hand, is forced recovery."

The creation of positive rituals. Rituals become automatic and drive you to do the right things at the right time, says Loehr. This could include good eye contact, focusing, mental preparation routines, and time for personal reflection. "That’s what helps you manage this massive level of stress," he concludes.

[For more information, contact:

James Campbell Quick, PhD, Department of Management, Box 19467, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX 76019-0467. Telephone: (817) 272-3869. Fax: (817) 272-3122. E-mail:

Jim Loehr, EdD, PhD, CEO and Chairman, LGE Performance Systems, Orlando, FL. Telephone: (407) 438-9911, ext. 111. Web:

Sean Sullivan, JD, President and CEO, Institute for Health and Productivity Management, Gainey Ranch Center, 7702 E. Doubletree Ranch Road, Suite 300, Scottsdale, AZ 85258. Telephone: (480) 607-2660. Fax: (480) 832-5154.]