How to thrive under corporate stress

BY Jayashantha Jayawardhana

Opening their illuminating Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled Managing the High Intensity Workplace, Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan make an important observation: “Tales of time hungry organisations from Silicon Valley to Wall Street and from London to Hong Kong abound.”

“Managers routinely overload their subordinates, contact them outside business hours and make last-minute requests for additional work. To satisfy those demands, employees arrive early, stay late, pull all-nighters, work weekends and remain tied to their electronic devices 24/7. And those who are unable or unwilling to respond typically get penalised,” they note.

Many organisations pressure their employees to become what sociologists call ‘ideal workers’ or people who are totally dedicated to their jobs and always on call. This is mostly prevalent in professional and managerial settings, and has been documented in depth at tech startups, investment banks and medical organisations.

Any suggestion of meaningful outside interests and commitments can indicate a lack of fitness for the job. Such employers expect you to be a workaholic committed to your job around the clock – they dissuade you from pursuing personal interests unrelated to your work.

Sharing their key research findings, the authors reveal that employees follow three major strategies to cope with their employers’ unreasonable expectations for them to become ideal workers.

ACCEPTING Most employees manage the pressure for total dedication to their work by simply yielding and conforming. At a consulting firm they studied, 43 percent of the people interviewed fell into this group. To succeed in their jobs, they prioritised their work identities and forewent or significantly suppressed other meaningful aspects of who they are – even when those personal interests and commitments really mattered to them.

An architect explained: “For me, design is 24/7. My boss emails me at all hours of the night and I can never plan my time; and I’m forever at his beck and call.” Accepting is fine as long as the job is rewarding and fulfilling. But if employees feel imposed on and the situation becomes too demanding, they will burn out and quit sooner rather than later.

PASSING Another group of people (‘passers’) manage to maintain their ideal worker reputation and even earn praise for their exemplary performance while successfully pursuing outside interests completely off the organisation’s radar. At the consulting firm, this group accounted for 27 percent of the study participants.

Although people across professions develop ways to pass, how they do it varies. Some consultants choose to save their travel time by working only with local clients. Some always manage to hide their true whereabouts so they can safely spend the saved time on their personal projects.

REVEALING A few people don’t want to or can’t pass. Or perhaps some passers eventually grow tired of it and reveal their personal interests. But requesting time off can often result in serious damage to career prospects. At the consulting firm, this group made up 30 percent of the study participants. Even if revealing is far more ethical than passing, it will inevitably lead to heavy penalties in an ideal worker culture.

A consultant who asked for paternity leave when his wife was eight months pregnant was severely reprimanded by one of the partners at the firm. He’s reported to have said: “You have a choice to make. Are you going to be a professional or an average person in your field? If you want to be a professional, then nothing else can be as important to you as your work. If you want to be world-class, it’s got to be all consuming.”

Over time, being penalised for pursuing meaningful outside interests or meeting important personal commitments leads to resentment and causes most people to quit.

Reid and Ramarajan stress that there’s a better way: they recommend three steps to elicit the best performance from people by bringing about an optimal degree of work-life balance. They say that these steps can be implemented at team level.

Firstly, as a leader, you have to develop your own multifaceted identity. You can begin by pursuing some meaningful personal interests outside work, which will help you see the benefits that such a move will bring to the workplace. It will also help you put things in perspective.

Secondly, stop overrating face time at work and look instead at the quality of output. This way, you will know who really fudges at work while clocking in even more time than what’s required.

The third step is to protect employees’ personal lives. For instance, you can institute mandatory vacations, regular leave and reasonable working hours for all members of staff.