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Overwork in America: How to stay alive

When I read about someone dropping dead after intense periods of overwork, it makes me wonder -- did anyone try to step in?

In a society in which overwork has become the norm, and work life balance a constant struggle, is it our responsibility to prevent a co-worker, friend or employee from working himself sick.

It's tricky from a boss's perspective. A boss wants his employee to be superstar. It's a boss's  own best interest for someone to put in longer hours and get more work done. But at what expense?

As I wrote in my Miami Herald column today, on rare occasions, decisions to ignore or defy excessive work stress can reap unknowing consequences. There are a few horrific examples: 

-A Wall Street intern who worked through the night eight times in two weeks, including three consecutive nights, before he collapsed and died in his apartment in 2013

-A Skadden Arps associate who died in 2011 after months of intense pressure and rumored 100-hour work weeks,

- A copywriter for an ad agency who in 2013 suffered heart failure and slipped into a fatal coma just after sipping energy drinks and tweeting “30 hours of working and still going strooong.”

Because we live in a culture that applauds overwork, stories of people working themselves to death or collapsing of exhaustion force us to look at what has become the new normal. Employers are asking almost all workers to take on higher workloads. But when multiple 15-hour workdays get met with a pat on the back rather than a look of concern, we need to figure out our role in workplace well-being.

The signs of burn out are rather easy to recognize — hair loss, weight loss or gain, fatigue, the popping of stimulants to combat anxiety or exhaustion and extreme over-reaction or irritability.
 
Intervention can be complex. For some workers, getting ahead is their priority. It is not only what they spend the majority of their days doing, it represents a core part of their identities. They choose to tip the work life balance scale in favor of work.
 
 
But there are ways to help. Here are a few approaches:
 
  • Push it. Leah Carpenter, CEO of Memorial Hospital Miramar says as the company leader, “you have to push it a little,” with those who may not realize they need work-life balance. I tell them, “We are no good to the patients we treat if we don’t take care of ourselves.”
     
  • Set an example. “I have to put myself in check so they won’t follow.” Carpenter says she won’t send out emails past 9 p.m. and she conscientiously takes vacation days: “I don’t want to send the wrong message about expectations.”

     
  • Show a general concern. If pointing out a lack of balance or extreme overwork leads to resistance, workplace expert David Torrance, CEO of Renaissance Executive Forums Dallas, recommends another approach: a more generic show of concern such as, “Hey, are you doing OK? I see you’re working long hours. I’m concerned for you. What’s going on?”

 

  • Use good judgment.  In most workplaces, co-workers are most tuned in to a peer’s exhaustion or anxiety and often reluctant to get involved. “At first blush, it’s no different from me going to a colleague and saying, ‘Not married yet, what’s going on with that?’” said Nikki Lewis Simon, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig in Miami. “Working around the clock is a personal decision, not unlike the decision to have kids, marry, be openly gay. Some people don’t know what to do without work. If you forced them to go home, they would be in a funk.”

 

  • Offer to pitch in.  Simon said she would show interest as a friendly overture: “I might say, is everything OK? I see you’re working hard, is there something I could do to help?”

 

  • Point out health concerns. Sometimes it takes a health practitioner to convey the message that changes behavior. While balance can be a struggle for all, Simon says people need to need to be told: “You must unplug and rejuvenate because your body will not forgive you forever.”


 

 

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