“It’s better to burnout than to fade away,” Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note in 1994.
Then he shot himself.
Cobain stole the line from his friend Neil Young’s 1979 hit “Rust Never Sleeps.” A year after the song hit the airwaves; John Lennon had come out of a five-year fade away retirement, recharged and ready to rock. When asked about Young’s takeout on burnout, the former Beatle told Playboy in 1980, “I hate it…I worship people who survive.”
Nearly three decades later after Lennon blasted those who worship burnouts, the corporate world is catching on. Burnout has become a corporate epidemic. No one is worshiping the employee who believes working around the clock is a badge of courage. Burnout has become an unhealthy, deadly behavior that destroys employees and kills companies.
“Too many Americans are beaten down, burned out, and completely de-motivated. And if leaders don’t strive to change that—to create a positive culture that energizes people—there will be dire consequences,” says Jon Gordon, an NFL consultant and author of The Shark and the Goldfish:Positive Ways to Thrive During Waves of Change. “Culture drives behavior, behavior drives habits, and habits drive results.”
The late New York Psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the term ”burnout” for those frustrated, fatigued, frazzled in his 1974 book, ”Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.” Those suffering from burnout he said become discouraged, sloppy, and stop communicating,” he wrote. Burnout is caused by overly dedicated and overly committed employees and companies pursuing unrealistic goals, he wrote.
Companies and employees believe they have little choice but to work harder than they ever did before because if they don’t the job or company might not be there tomorrow.
Perhaps it is better to burnout?
“No,” Gordon says, “I prefer sustain,” he says. Employees and companies need to find ways to manage energy to sustain their workforce, he says.
A few years ago several companies are finding creative ways to retain and motivate staff:
- Rick Edelman, chairman of Edelman Financial Services in Fairfax, Va., provides a four-week paid sabbatical for employees after 7 years with the firm. He disconnects employee’s e-mail and forbid them to check voicemail. It’s expensive but his company makes up for it in low-turnover, and higher morale.
- Gaithersburg-based Sodexo vowed not to rescind the bonuses despite the recession.
Bethesda-based Marriott has created a flex staffing, allowing employees to cut hours, select projects and telecommute.
- Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications turned green by providing bicycle and tennis shoe reimbursements, a car-sharing program and parking discounts for hybrid vehicles as the company goes green.
In November 2010 burnout news only got worse. Unemployment rate surpassed 10 percent – and overall unemployment including those who are underemployed, and quit looking for work, rose to 17.6 percent – the highest in 26 years.
About 40 percent of employees report that their productivity has suffered since companies have downsized, according to a recent study by the Workforce Institute. Of that 40 percent, two-thirds said that morale has been negatively impacted and they no longer are as motivated.
“Even if companies haven’t literally lost their employees, many have lost them psychologically,” Gordon says. “Companies again will be asking employees to do even more – twice as much in some cases. They forget people drive numbers. Numbers don’t drive people.”
Employers can either watch the employees take the company down in flames or be proactive and turn a toxic environment into a pleasant working environment where employees boast about the perks.
Employees who feel they have a better work-life balance tend to work 21% harder than those that don’t, according to a recent study from the Corporate Executive Board. Some of those companies include:
Giving employees’ time to re-energize through a paid sabbatical, an extra week off, or leaving early can make a difference, Gordon says. “Life is not a marathon,” he says. “It’s a series of sprints. It’s about sustaining so we can go, go, go, again.”