Personal costs of the technological invasion

Are you caught up in a 24/7 work culture? Lifestyle expert and author Cheryl Richardson shares her view on the costs of burnout in today's pervasive workplace and offers strategies for coping with the technological invasion.

Whether you're in management at a large consulting firm, an employee of such a firm, or an independent consultant, burnout may be costing you time, money, and effort. We spoke with Cheryl Richardson, lifestyle expert and author of Take Time for Your Life, about the costs of burnout in today's pervasive workplace. She suggested several strategies that employees could use to fight burnout caused by the "technological invasion."

"Technology is a blessing and a curse," Richardson said. "It's great that we can now communicate with virtually anyone, anywhere, in a very short amount of time. The challenge with technology now is that it gives people more ways than ever to get at us."

Richardson said that IT consultants are just the type of people who fall victim to technology and the around-the-clock working hours that some have come to expect.

"Typically, [consultants] have very high thresholds for stress," Richardson said. "They keep going and going, like the Energizer bunny. They're very smart; they're challenged by new problems. They'll go in and get the job done. It will look just fine for a number of years."

The biology of burnout

Richardson said that when workers are constantly on alert to pagers, cell phones, e-mail, fax machines, etc., they place their bodies in a constant state of overdrive. The body's adrenal system, the hormonal system that runs the body's "fight or flight" system, remains on constant duty.

"So all of a sudden, that's the mode that we operate in nonstop," Richardson said. "It's interesting if you look at that symbolically. So many of us are running around with our adrenal system so tweaked, it's as if we're always on that danger-alert, defending ourselves against technology—defending ourselves against the world as if the world is an unsafe place."

Although the body can withstand this pressure for some time, it will eventually start shutting down, causing a host of health problems. Richardson said this commonly occurs around the late 30s or mid-40s, and can include insomnia, depression, chronic fatigue, frequent colds and flu, and "all the kinds of things that signal a depletion of the body's energy reserves and that can lead to serious illness."

Pervasive Workplace Conversation Series: TechRepublic is reexamining how work is encroaching on the personal lives of IT professionals via constant connectivity and ever-growing performance demands. Our Pervasive Workplace Conversation Series gathers TechRepublic resources, old and new, that examine how employers can help employees balance work and family demands and what strategies employees can use to save some time for themselves.

What are the costs to employers?

"An employer will never know whether an employee who has worked way too much is operating at top efficiency and effectiveness," Richardson said. "You might think it's okay because they're getting the job done, but what if you had a well-rested, on-the-top-of-their-game employee who could get the work done in half the time? What would that mean [for the company]?"

These frequent illnesses and depletion of energy can cost employers more than they think. Not only will employers suffer absentee and health-care costs, but they'll also bear the financial burden for errors, late projects, and perhaps most damaging, the loss of opportunities.

"It's the brightest, most talented, and most imaginative and creative employees that are having the breakthroughs," Richardson said. "You can't have imagination and creativity and innovation when you're burned out. It doesn't work. They don't go together. So there are opportunity costs involved."

Employers may also suffer losses due to the fact that the most talented of IT professionals can afford to "take a walk" if a particular workplace demands 24-hour duty. In that case, Richardson recommends, employers must weigh the costs of bringing new employees on board, training them, and then having to replace them after a short stint due to burnout.

Create boundaries between work and your personal life

So what can employees do to avoid burnout? Richardson suggests first taking inventory of your life and finding out what is most important to you.

"People who are driven tend to live work-centered lives," she said. "I see this a lot with single people and with self-employed people…they get all their juice from working. They get all their needs met there—their need for excitement, intellectual stimulation, and community. If you're getting all your needs met at work, that's where you're going to keep turning back to. That's fine in the short term, but in the long term, it's going to cost you. One day you're going to wake up and think, ‘I'm tired of working like a crazy person, but home is boring.'"

If you need to put the allure back into your personal life, Richardson said you must invest time and energy into creating a life outside of work. For some, this might be strengthening a marriage that's on shaky ground due to too much work. For others, it might be taking up simple activities like reading, fishing, rollerblading, or community-related activities. Basically, she advised you do something—not work related—that brings you joy.

Work smarter, not harder

Another way to protect yourself from burnout is to work in smart ways that maximize your efficiency. Richardson suggests the following tips to get the most from your work time:

  • Delegate more.
  • Put a "do not disturb" sign on your office door to minimize interruptions.
  • Use the "do not disturb" function on your phone.
  • Create periods of time to accept phone calls and e-mails, as well as time for focused work, to keep yourself more organized.
  • Take a lunch break every day—no matter how busy you are.
  • Make yourself leave work by 6 P.M. every day.

If you have trouble implementing these changes due to client or a supervisor's expectations, Richardson suggests you ask for his or her support while you try an experiment in maximizing your efficiency. She worked with a woman who tried this tactic, and soon her boss was asking for her secret so he could leave work at a reasonable time, too.

Explore your options and be willing to make sacrifices

Richardson said that sometimes we are our own worst enemy when it comes to setting healthy boundaries between our work and personal lives because we close ourselves off from our options.

"Too often people say to me, ‘That's not going to work. You don't understand. That's not how it is here,'" Richardson said. "And I say, ‘You might know that for an absolute fact, but just explore some options. Give it a chance.'"

Richardson said you also have to be "financially healthy" before you can truly begin to take control of your work habits. If you're not, then it's likely that your work habits don't stem from your personality but rather from financial burdens.

"You have to be willing to make some sacrifices if you want to reclaim your life," she said. "You've got to be willing to risk losing business to set better boundaries."

If you're willing to take those risks, you can tell your clients you won't be available 24 hours a day anymore. While that may seem a radical change, Richardson reminds us that we have to keep things in perspective.

"I guarantee you that if you wait an hour or two hours to respond to something, chances are no one's going to die," she said.

If you have to come to an agreement with an employer regarding your work schedule or availability before you can implement any changes, Richardson suggests working with a career counselor to work out the best language for the conversation. You may also have to take a pay cut, become an independent contractor, or switch to part-time work.

"The important thing is to explore all your options," she said. "Open your mind beyond what you think is possible."