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1/14/2015
09:23 AM
David Wagner
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Burned Out Workers Are Dangerous

Employees suffering from job burnout are more likely to give in to impulse, and that can be hazardous to your company.

It is obvious from the term that job burnout is not a good thing. But a recent study shows that burnout results in more than employees not performing their best. It also means they are far more likely to do something impulsive and dangerous to your company. That means right now, you've got some ticking time bombs walking around your office, and defusing them is shockingly in your control.

The study, from the University of Surrey, was presented last week at the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference in Glasgow. The researchers asked over 250 workers across multiple professional fields a series of ethical questions about business. For instance what, if anything, would they do if they saw a colleague smuggling out secret documents?

Those who exhibited signs of burnout were far more likely to show "spontaneous and irrational decision-making" and were far less likely to make a decision at all. In other words, the burned-out employees were far less likely than others to protect their company, and possibly more likely to hurt it.

[You weren't just imagining it: Read We Literally Can't Live Without Our iPhones.]

Granted, I see some specific problems with the study. For one, how someone responds to a survey and what he or she does in real life might be different. If I'm suffering from job burnout, I might tell a surveyor, "Screw it all. Let the guy take the papers. He might hurt the company the way I'm dreaming of hurting it." On paper, it's easy to feel that way. But if faced with a real-life situation, would I feel the same way? Maybe. Maybe not.

That said, from an earlier study we do know that tired people struggle more with ethics and rules-compliance than people who are well-rested. What this tells me is that you can be tired in the sense of not getting a good night's sleep, or you can be exhausted emotionally. Your ethical decision-making can be affected by long-term as well as short-term fatigue.

So, now we know all those people who need a vacation in your office are a danger. They could witness unethical behavior and not respond. They could act impulsively and become a danger to your company. Or they could fail to decide at all and miss key business or ethical opportunities. What to do about it?

You can't just give everyone who is moping around a vacation. Everyone will mope.

Here's the same old thing we've been telling managers for years. Work-life balance matters. If you are overworking your employees, you are not merely making them miserable. You are setting up the company to be the victim of a horrible mistake or intentional attack. How much evidence do you need before you figure this out?

Switch people around in their jobs more. Help them work reasonable hours. Pay attention to the emotional state of your team and work to build an atmosphere of appreciation.

If you don't, someone is going to do something crazy. The evidence is overwhelming. When are managers going to start doing something about it?

What do you think? Is preventing employee burnout part of your job? Can tired employees pose a serious danger? Comment below.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/16/2015 | 12:41:32 PM
Re: Burned Out Workers Are Dangerous
@technocrati- I guess the quickest way to get burned out is to have no idea what you are doing. If you made me a neurosurgeon, I'd be exhausted, too. :)


David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/15/2015 | 11:51:57 PM
Re: Burned Out Workers Are Dangerous
@Broadway- Probably true. I suspect that organizations that work like that don't last long.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/15/2015 | 1:11:32 PM
Re: Burned Out Workers Are Dangerous
@Broadway0474- Wow! That might be the dumbest thing I've ever heard and yet I totally agree with you that many managers feel that way. Too many people think innovation is something that happens in the shower or when you're walking the dog and at no other time. CEOs and other execs probably do spend a huge amount of their lives thinking before and after the day and simply reacting during it. So maybe they don't get that our days are different by necessity.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
1/14/2015 | 5:09:06 PM
Re: Burned Out Workers Are Dangerous
@zerox203- My apologies if I'm beating a dead horse. But as science mounts and management ignores it, I feel compelled to bring it up. It felt especially valuable in the days of 8% unemployment. Even at 5% unemployment one questions what all the busy work is for. I feel like so many people are working harder without working on things that demonstrate an ROI. More time to think may lead to more ROI. At the very least, it will lead to fewer security breaches and impetuous actions by employees.
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