Are you protecting your top performers from burnout?
High Performers are prime movers in every company, delivering 400% more productivity than average performers. But due to their eagerness and ability to excel, the company ‘rock stars’ are often pressured to take on unsustainable workloads which leave them more susceptible to burnout. These Type A’s often sacrifice their personal lives in order to be successful at work, and over time, exhaustion can set in. Companies are wise to remember that even High Performers have a breaking point.
War stories from the workplace
The following is a true story. Names have been altered to protect identities.
Bill is a wealth manager who invests in securities on behalf of his clients. Renowned for his shrewd instincts and uncanny ability to time the market, Bill’s dogged work ethic is legendary in the business. Bill relentlessly researches target companies, gathers information, reads financial briefings, and assesses and interprets complicated financial information. At 52 years of age, Bill plays as hard as he works, spending most of his $500K/yr on cigarettes, expensive scotch, and parties in his uptown penthouse.
Judging by appearances, Bill is the picture of success, a smooth operator with nerves of steel. But for years he’s been vaguely aware of something lurking below the veneer, gnashing and gnawing its way to the surface. Under constant stress to manage large sums of money and demanding clients, Bill often uses drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. This worked well enough in his 30’s and 40’s, but didn’t seem to help anymore, leaving him defenseless against what lies beneath.
On the eve of an important presentation, he takes a handful of sleeping pills to calm his mind. Insomnia has become a constant companion and is causing him to forget words and names. The forgetfulness in turn is triggering anxiety and he spends much of his days berating himself for stupidity. But tomorrow’s important, he tells himself, so a good night’s sleep is a must.
He awakes to a shock the following morning. The alarm was no match for the heavy dose of sleep meds, and so he curses and stumbles out of bed, barely coherent. Racing to the office, his mind thick like molasses, he strains to remember his talking points while weaving a path through city traffic.
Out of breath and his heart pounding like a drum, Bill tries to compose himself before stepping into the closed-door meeting. The faces surrounding the boardroom table are cold and severe, showing little interest in hearing any excuses. Bill hurries to apologize but the words get stuck. He clears his throat but to no avail. Then comes a tightness in his chest and a sensation of falling before Bill’s world went black.
When Bill comes to, he’s startled to find himself in the hospital. A doctor tells him he fainted and then asks Bill to describe the symptoms leading up to the episode. The doctor asks more questions, listens, and nods. Before leaving the room, the doctor tells Bill that a staff psychologist will be in shortly.
Bill seemed invincible before the panic attack. The man is a legend after all. Accordingly, no one noticed that Bill hadn’t taken a vacation in years, was sending emails at 3 in the morning, and was becoming exceedingly forgetful and short-tempered. Had someone caught on to these flags, they could have been the net to break his fall.
Bill’s superiors, the owners of the boutique investment firm, are now in for a terrible wake up call. Bill’s been diagnosed with acute burnout, severe anxiety, and will require extended time off. The shame of collapsing in front of his clients, and then waking up in a hospital, had severely damaged his self-worth. He’ll need time to reflect and rebuild.
While Bill’s off work he’ll earn $450K/yr (90% of $500K), $98K of which will be his employer’s responsibility. The Maximum Per Claim Cost (MPCC) will limit the amount charged to the employer’s accident experience, but nonetheless, the claim costs will likely be a serious burden for the boutique investment firm.
When Bill eventually returns, chastened, many months later, he learns that his client-base has largely deserted. On strict orders from his doctor, Bill is to work only a few hours a day and must avoid all contact with clients until further notice. Meanwhile, his employer is now in dire straits as they continue paying Bill high wages without the corresponding revenue from his management fees.
The last word
The concepts of modified work and accommodation are not new. Stats show that ~80% of injured workers are placed in modified duties while they recover, and the majority of those workers will return to their date-of-accident employment. But under the new WCB legislation, offering your injured worker modified work is no longer an option, it’s a responsibility. Employers are also required to hold the worker’s pre-accident job (or similar job with the same earnings) until they’re well enough to perform the essential tasks.
In the above case, Bill’s employer would be well advised to make a claim of undue hardship, informing the Board that accommodating Bill’s high salary poses an existential risk to the firm.
What else could this employer have done? As in other parts of life, a good defense is the best offense. In this case, because the wealth management business is known to be extremely stressful, due diligence requires that this employer have a robust game plan for managing ‘hot illnesses’ (i.e. burnout, depression, anxiety) triggered by chronic stress. There’s also very compelling financial reasons to preempt, or at least to control the costs of, expensive psych claims.
First off, employers ought to write a detailed policy on preventing mental injuries in the workplace. If nothing else, a written policy shows evidence of due diligence. Next, this investment firm should have been conducting regular one-on-ones with all their employees, including stars like Bill. Per recent legislation, employers now have a duty to inquire into the physical and mental well-being of their employees, so it’s not enough to claim ignorance. In Bill’s case, considering his vulnerable state, it’s possible he may have opened up to someone about his troubles. Not to pretend that this dialogue would have ‘fixed’ Bill, but an early intervention may have prevented his anxiety from spiraling into full-blown disability.