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February 2010 – The Anti-Burnout Guide

Workforce Learning
Alice Waagen - Workforce Learning

Are you feeling productive?

If not, you aren't alone. As we begin 2010, more and more of my clients are reporting that they are overworked, stressed, and they fear that soon their productivity will suffer.

But consider this: Just last November, in a Wall Street Journal article entitled, "Productivity Soared in Third Quarter," reporters John Hilsenrath and Luca Di Leo wrote:

The Labor Department said the output per hour of nonfarm workers rose at an annual rate of 9.5% in the quarter, more than four times the average productivity growth rate of the past quarter-century. When taken together with the second quarter's 6.9% rise, it was the strongest productivity growth rate over a six-month period since 1961. Click here to read the entire article.

Amazing, right? Statistically speaking, the US workforce is actually more productive than it has been in years – despite the rash of layoffs and workforce reductions we saw in 2009.

But here's my question: Can fewer workers produce more output, and sustain it? If so, what toll will it take on their health, their lives, and ultimately their companies – not just today, but in the future? See my thoughts and suggestions below.

Advice for the weary: Because I'm so passionate about this topic, I wanted to get an expert opinion on the psychological impact of feeling overworked. On the right, you'll find my interview with therapist Anne Lee, of Bethesda Counseling Associates, who deals with issues of burnout on a daily basis and offers ideas on how to cope with workplace stress.

Take a break: Since reading is the way I relieve my stress, I can think of no better book to share on the topic of burnout than Wayne Muller's "Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and Delight." His thoughtful suggestions are not to be missed.

I hope all of this food for thought brings you a welcome respite from your busy day. As always, I invite you to share your management experiences and ideas with me.

Wishing you much warmth on this freezing February day.

Best regards, Alice

Contact me by email:
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Give me a call: 703-834-7580


Can fewer workers be as productive as a larger team – and still stay sane?

By Dr. Alice Waagen, president
Workforce Learning,

My background is in management, not economics or psychology, but when it comes to productivity and burnout in the workforce of 2010, I can tell you what I'm seeing: Everyone is working harder to stay employed and in business. And if this extra work and effort enables us to build a healthier economy, I am all for it.

But what price are we paying? At what point do the long hours, anxiety and stress result in burnout? You can only assess this for yourself, but I think every person at work needs to evaluate his or her levels of stress and burnout and set a course to find a healthier balance.

The problem = not enough time

One way to deal with the "too much work" monster is to assess what you can change and what you can't. So if you feel that you have too much to do and not enough time to do it, step back and realize that there is a finite amount of time in each work week. It is the only truly fixed commodity in the business world.

What we can do is get loans or lines of credit to ease cash flow crunches, adjust deliverables to reduce work volume, and remove projects based on shifts in priorities. But we can't add hours to the day or days to the week.

When I start feeling overwhelmed by the dwindling hours in a day and feel at risk of burning out, nothing gives me more solace than the adage: "Work smarter, not harder." So the next time you are faced with a mountain of assignments and deadlines, apply these strategies.

How To Work Smarter, Not Harder

1. Relentlessly challenge your priorities. If you have multiple #1 priorities, ask yourself what are the true "value-added" criteria? What would you like to achieve with this work? Will it generate additional work by creating even more assignments? Will it serve as a good reference for prospective clients? Will it generate a substantial amount of goodwill with your clients that will result in paying work in the future? Or is this a one-shot contract? These value-added criteria always allow me to determine the priorities that need my attention.

2. Practice "what-if" failure scenarios to analyze the impact of errors or mistakes. This is a way to generate what I call "negative" criteria. When I contemplate reducing the length of an analysis or research phase and evaluate the impact, I discover that the degree of analysis that was "required" was self-imposed and would have minimal impact if reduced. Sometimes the feeling of being overburdened comes from our own need to be perfectionists – not from the client or even the demands of the project.

3. Avoid postponing deadlines. Postponing a due date may feel like it is buying you time, but more often than not it simply pushes the work into an already overloaded future. Again, time is a fixed commodity. Pushing a deadline to tomorrow simply ensures that you will be facing that same time crunch at a future date.

4. Rid your schedule of artificial deadlines. We seem to be working in a culture where everyone wants their deliverable "yesterday." I recommend you push back and take control of your deadlines. Ask your boss or client what decision or action will be made once you complete the deliverable. If the decision or action that the work produces cannot be made at the stated deadline, then the deadline can effectively be adjusted closer to the decision point. This creates realistic timelines for deliverables, and helps everyone on the project keep their eye on the right ball.

Take charge of your life. I believe that the main driver for anxiety and stress is the feeling of being out of control. There is no work, no job, and no profession worth your ruined health. Faced with deadlines and deliverables, take a moment to honestly assess strategies for prioritizing the work you are doing to make sure that you are in control of what you do – and how you do it.


Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and Delight

By Wayne Muller
Review by Alice Waagen

I can think of no better book to remedy life stress than Wayne Muller's "Sabbath." This is a quiet book, and Muller's message is unhurried and subtle, as anyone who celebrates the Sabbath would expect.

Do read it thoughtfully, though, and challenge yourself with some of the practices that Muller outlines. When you do, I am confident you will slowly learn how to create rest in your life.

Here's why: Muller defines Sabbath in the way it was originally meant – as rest. Rest is different from relaxation or recreation. It is the natural counterpart to action and is required for a balanced life. He explains that embracing the Sabbath is a conscious effort for one must find the rhythm between work and rest. Without rest, he insists, action builds on action until we become exhausted, frenzied and overwhelmed. Who can't relate to that?

I carried it with me and picked it up in short bits, reading one chapter at a time. That was not difficult for "Sabbath" is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on one aspect of rest – such as time, happiness and rhythm. The sections of each chapter are a scant two pages and culminate in recommended practices, short thought pieces or activities that help bring a key concept into our lives.

One of my favorites ideas comes in the section on "fear of rest," for Muller asks us to consciously practice silence. "Go for a walk or visit with a friend and do not speak," he writes. "Be aware of your resistance to silence then see how it changes how you experience the situation."

Such sage advice makes me regularly return to the book again and again for each passage that I read provides me with a sense of renewal and ease – something I tend to lose sight of when I am on the treadmill of work and life.

Parting thought: Action balanced by rest creates a sustainable life and one easy to obtain if we consciously adopt the behaviors expected on the Sabbath.



If you are feeling isolated and overworked, here are some useful tips on how to manage workplace stress

An interview by Dr. Alice Waagen with therapists Anne Lee and Jessica Kramer of Bethesda Counseling Associates

Alice Waagen: As we said in the main article of the newsletter, workplace productivity numbers are up but the workforce has been reduced. In my experience, I find that people are working harder and spending more time in fear of losing their jobs. Are you seeing the resulting stress and burnout in your practice?

Anne Lee: Absolutely. We have a client right now who is struggling with stress like you've described. She was hired three years ago to be part of a six-person team responsible for some highly technical and skilled work. The team is now down to three who are still handling the same workload they had with six. In order to get the work done, they've eliminated team meetings and collaborative efforts.

Jessica Kramer: Another problem we're seeing is that increasingly more people are working by themselves and feelings of isolation are taking a toll. Plus, they are putting in long hours and often have crushing deadlines. This client, in particular, has developed serious health issues as a result of dealing with the stress.

Alice Waagen: Has overall production been hurt by cutting the team in half?

Anne Lee: No, but the resulting health issues are the real price workers are paying today. And the really frightening part is that no one knows if workforce numbers will increase as we pull out of the recession.

Alice Waagen: I understand that another serious effect of the downsizing is "survivor guilt." How does that play out in terms of what you are seeing in your practice?

Jessica Kramer: That's absolutely right. When large numbers of staff are laid off, the remaining staff feels guilty that they've retained their jobs. This guilt keeps people from talking openly which results in an uncomfortable work environment.

Anne Lee: And since many of our knowledge-work jobs require interaction and a free flow of ideas between staff, the work suffers. The overall feeling is "good —I am still on the boat but, unfortunately, the boat is sinking."

Alice Waagen: So what do you recommend guilty survivors do to deal with the stress?

Jessica Kramer: We strongly advocate that people take proactive measures to build a strong and supportive network. When we lose coworkers due to downsizing, we often can't maintain the working relationships. If the person let go was a confidant and friend, it can be even more painful.

Anne Lee: That's right. People should start now to build a strong and supportive network both within and outside their organizations. And the good news is that the internet is giving us ways to build supportive communities virtually.

By blogging and joining discussion groups, people can feel connected and can gain resources that will transcend the chaos they are seeing in their workplace.

Alice Waagen: What advice do you give to combat stress and burnout?

Jessica Kramer: The first thing is to remember to take care of yourself. Self-care sounds pretty simple but when people get stressed, they tend to let go of those activities that can help them cope. Also, really monitor things like eating habits and sleep. Take care of your body. Exercise. And monitor your self-talk.

Anne Lee: Another important step is to try to focus on the short-term and not get wrapped up in negative thoughts on the unknowns in your future. We like to also encourage people to articulate the worst-case scenario.

Ask yourself: What would really happen if you lost your job or had to increase work responsibilities? Then create a Plan B to deal with the worst that can happen. This sense of control over your future can go a long way to reduce stress.

For more information about managing workplace stress, contact Anne Lee at
Bethesda Counseling Associates – (301) 654-1583.


I happen to think that I have the best clients in the world. They allow me to work with their leaders to create positive work climates that support staff growth and opportunity. In the last two months, I was privileged to work with:

  • Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, IT division. I helped them identify a useful workforce strategy.
  • The National Education Association, Member Benefits division. We created a multi-tiered leadership model.
  • The National Resource Defense Council. I held several focus groups to identify management skills for a skills training program.

Published by Inkandescent Public Relations, Hope Katz Gibbs: Editor

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