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Why CEOs should stop expecting their high performers to overwork

How CEOs can help their top performers work at their best, stay engaged and avoid burnout by reducing their toxic work experiences.

One of the puzzling features of the 2022 working world is the extent to which overwork has increased rather than decreased. For example, about a third of Microsoft’s 100,000 employees are now working a ‘triple peak’ day. The traditional peaks before and after lunch have been joined by a new peak in the hours before bedtime, with most activity around 10pm. While this may be partly due to increased flexibility, overall, working hours are not reducing. That’s stretching rather than flexing.

We seem to be operating in parallel universes: in one, continuing to dial up the pressure to overwork, and in the other, providing wellbeing programs to help people ‘cope with the pressure’. There are unnecessary costs for both people – burnout and health problems, and organisations – disengagement and turnover.

CEOs rely on high performers to work on the hardest projects, compensate for weaker team members and help out on efforts not related to their work, making burnout more likely for them. You can better manage the pressure high performers experience by prioritising their work enjoyment. Replace ‘toxic days’ – too much pressure, too little autonomy, too much conflict, with ‘ideal days’ – stimulating work, low conflict, moderate time pressure, and this can give you a competitive advantage.

Endless rise of overwork expectations

In 2020, there was a huge surge in activity to respond to the pandemic, and since then waves of the virus have necessitated further adaptation and innovation. In mid-2022, as the prospect of endemic rather than pandemic status nears, one might expect that we have less need to surge.

However, I know of just one organisation where work expectations and pace have ‘relaxed’ to pre-pandemic levels. That CEO has consciously and deliberately put the brakes on, and people are breathing a sigh of relief.

For many others, puzzlingly, not only is there no relaxation, the pace is even greater than before.

A professional services firm reaped a 15 per cent productivity bonanza when workers no longer travelled or commuted during COVID-19. Yes, more work is what high performers tend to do when they ‘have more time’. But as this firm considers its hybrid work arrangements, it’s trying to find a way to have everyone back in the office and keep that productivity gain.

To have such expectations means ignoring the fact it’s humans doing the work; that’s a recipe for burnout, and physical and mental ill-health. The tacit expectation has gone from overworking to over-surging, which increases the chances of a toxic work culture.

Support your high performers by reducing their toxic days

CEOs can help high performers to perform at their best, stay engaged, avoid overwork and burnout by reducing their toxic work experiences.

Researchers who reviewed 11,000 surveys from employees’ work experiences rated them according to whether they were one of these five kinds of days:

  • Toxic – low freedom, high obstacles, lots of conflict
  • Disengaged – low in stimulation and obstacles, ‘check out’ days
  • Typical – average in stimulation and excitement
  • Ideal – high in stimulant factors, few obstacles, moderate time pressures
  • Crisis – high stimulant and obstacle days, in effect ideal and toxic days wrapped up together but usually with positive conflict, where people debate together to get the right outcome

Eight percent of days were toxic, 10 per cent disengaged, 34 per cent typical, 30 per cent ideal and 19 per cent crisis.

Toxic days are low in freedom, challenging work, resources, team support, supervisor encouragement and organisational encouragement, and high in obstacles: time pressure, political problems/contention, and low risk/conservative attitudes. Too many of these and you have burnout.

10 ways to detoxify your workplace

  1. Doing the following can help your high performers experience their ‘ideal days’.
  2. Make it explicit. Tell your people that you want the best for them; tell them why it matters to you.
  3. Ask what works. Take the time to ask high performers what makes their ideal day, remove obstacles, and increase freedom and healthy challenge.
  4. Show you care. ‘I care about how you experience work’, ‘I want the best for you’, ‘I know that you can do this’, and sometimes, ‘I’ll take care of that for you’.
  5. Make it safe. Set a safe context to share information, raise mistakes and voice concerns: ‘I’ve got your back’.
  6. Give them hope. Let high performers know what your ideal climate for the organisation is, make it inspiring. ‘We do/can do such amazing work together’, ‘Imagine what it will be like when we…..’
  7. Call it in. Take people aside to let people know if/when/what they contribute to toxicity, help them to commit to removing obstacles.
  8. Call it out. Share progress and setbacks publicly. Let people know you’ve noticed when things are toxic, and what needs to change.
  9. Call it great. Make news out of progress, ‘We did this!’ ‘It’s getting better’, ‘We’re improving every day’.
  10. Jettison the worst. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch and there’s only one course of action: be clear about what/who needs to go, and do it.
  11. Make it count. Tell the story of the change, add chapters to share progress and successes, share the story with team newcomers, and repeat.

Karen Morley is a distinguished executive coach, an authority on leadership coaching and a thought leader on inclusive leadership. She is the author of FlexAbility: how high achievers beat burnout and find freedom in an overworked world, Beat Gender Bias, Lead Like a Coach, and Gender-Balanced Leadership.

Read next: Knowing the difference between stress and burnout will save your career

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