Preventing Disaster: The Insidious Culture of Overwork

A culture of overwork has come to characterize many professions in the US and around the world.  This includes humanitarian aid organizations where overwork can take the humane part out of the equation.  More and more, organizations are placing so much work pressure on their staff that in order to succeed, many see no other way to go forward save compromising personal life and happiness.

This can have many negative effects, including stress, anxiety, depression and physical illness, including the largest killer, cardiovascular disease.

Drs. Peter Schnall and Marnie Dobson with the University of California, Irvine, and Dr. Paul Landsbergis with SUNY Downstate Medical Center co-authored a recent paper in the International Journal of Health Services. “We conclude from more than 30 years of epidemiological research that cardiovascular is a disease of modern industrial society and not the natural result of aging,” said Schnall.

There is now strong evidence that psychosocial job stressors associated with work can produce chronic biologic responses like hypertension, promote an unhealthy diet, impede sleep and exercise, and result in behaviors that increase risk to wellness.  Ironically, aid workers on the brink of burnout don’t feel they can take the time out to go to a therapy session not realizing that burnout can lead to a much more significant and lengthy break from work

These job stressors include long and continuous work hours, excessively high demands, pressure to work after hours and on the weekend, lack of control over work content, and lacking the resources to get the work done well.

In other words, a culture of overwork.

All too often in today’s day and age, we hear that no one has any time. The truth is that we have the same time we ever did.  What has changed is our concept of time and our allocation priorities.  This coupled with the perceived inability to set limits and fear of standing up for one’s personal needs is a recipe for disaster.  The way in which we have been all to eager to fill up our time with work demands is worrisome. The ease with which we give up our weekends or bring work to the dinner table is of extreme concern.

And as the research like that noted above makes clear, this emphasis on extreme work is literally killing us.

It’s time to begin to get familiarized with flourishing and a more holistic approach to staff care and development.  How we feel is the cornerstone of our being and overloading ourselves only detracts from our work output.  Our mood affects how we approach the day, whether we come across as inviting or repellant to others, how we interact, our decision –making and judgment and so much more.

When we feel well, we work well, we play well, we live well.

If we don’t make time for emotional health and wellness, we are going to continue down the path of human-made disaster.

We can and must take charge of our emotional health as individuals.   Organizations must do their part as well.    Here are some relatively easy steps organizations can take to reduce stress and overwork and its health and productivity costs:

  • Establish and enforce a reasonable time to go home (5 p.m.)
  • Discourage working in the evenings or on weekends.
  • Managers should role model work and life balance and set reasonable norms.
  • Ensure that staff take their leave and discourage working while on vacation.
  • Train multiple staff to perform each job so that an employee can go on a vacation without feeling forced to check and respond to email.
  • Provide ready access to health care services, including mental health services.
  • Provide opportunities for training, networking and other professional development.
  • Maintain effective communication about organizational goals and expectations.
  • Provide regular feedback on employee performance including self-care.

I was at a conference on this topic earlier this month when a mother turned to me during a conference and said her son’s first spoken sentence was this:  “Mama blackberry away.”

Even a 2-year-old can see the impending disaster that we are facing when it comes to taking care of our interpersonal relationships.

Will the humanitarian aid sector heed it’s own message?  If aid organizations can’t help their own staff, how can they be effective at helping others even more in need?

Shouldn’t we prevent the disasters that are preventable?


Kavita Avula

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