Most of us have heard the phrase “There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’” and in terms of spelling the word ‘team’ this is true. But the individuals who make up those teams do have feelings and emotions that they bring to work. This is especially true in the professions where, even those people working in client-focused professional careers – lawyers, accountants, management consultants – have impressive academic qualifications, they can still feel vulnerable at work when they are exhorted to only ‘bring their best self to work’. These same people who have attained highly at school and university, and then competed for coveted places in top professional services firms have been described as ‘insecure overachievers’ – a term that is recognised by many of the partners in these firms. These firms recognise that the over-achiever is ideal for their business model. They will work harder to deliver excellent client service and strive to be good enough to keep up with their peers who are also on the track to partnership. They will worry about mastering specialist subject-matter and eventually they will worry about their business development targets and their ability to feed their teams. Their self-doubt will then lead them to worry about whether they are really worth the huge salaries that are paid to successful Partners.
Laura Empson, a professor at Cass Business School has researched professional services firms widely and has interviewed leading figures within the legal, accounting and consultancy sectors. They all recognise the characteristics of the insecure overachiever and value the facets of this personality trait when it is directed towards client-facing work. But the flip-side of the coin can lead to excessive anxiety, overwork and sacrificing home-life for work and possibly burnout, or worse. This can be catastrophic for the individual and highly detrimental to the organisation where they risk losing some of their most motivated and hard-working employees. Stress can also lead to bad-decision making by employees and this can prove to be disastrous for organisations and lead to reputational risk. Organisations also owe employees a duty of care and must not ignore the signs of stress and burnout. Ignoring this could lead to a personal injury claim, particularly from those who might be most at risk of burnout – lawyers.
What can an organisation do to help tackle this problem? Many organisations are now addressing work-place stress and talking openly about the importance of good mental health. This has been aided by campaigns to highlight mental health more broadly in society in the last two years. But many employees feel that there is a stigma attached to flagging up stress or burnout to their managers and HR.
Some organisations have put in place Employee Assistance Programmes that may incorporate a telephone based counselling component for employees to speak to a trained counsellor in confidence. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction but more needs to be done to help employees who are grappling with work-place stress, anxiety and burnout. Sometimes the signs are difficult to spot as employees may be travelling frequently, and move from one project team to another quite frequently. The growth of hot-desking and increased use of electronic communication can cause isolation and less empathy with colleagues.
We believe that talking works. The old adage of a problem shared is a problem halved is simplistic, but true. Talk therapy can work to help provide self-insight and explore decision making with people. Even through our inductive research interviews, where we have provided time, space and confidentiality to people to talk about workplace issues, many have reported that they found the interview therapeutic and has provided an opportunity to make sense of their situation and has led on to further one to one interventions. One of the most effective ways that an organisation can tackle workplace stress and burnout is to start talking openly about the issue and provide support to employees. Let’s start the conversation.