I was stunned by a recent headline about a Japanese woman who died from karoshi: death from overwork. The article reported that Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old journalist who was covering elections, logged 159 hours of overtime in just one month before succumbing to heart failure. The article went on to say more than 2,000 Japanese workers committed suicide because of work-related stress from January to March of 2016. It is amazing this story came from the same country that popularized the LEAN management system.
LEAN is not just a set of tools and methodologies such as Gemba Walks, Value Stream Mapping and Kaizen Events; it also embodies a management philosophy. One of the philosophical tenants of LEAN management is that good leaders must respect their employees by holding the dignity and well-being of every employee in high regard. Accordingly, grossly overworking ones employees is highly disrespectful of them. The quality of any company is derived from the quality of its people, and therefore employees are a company’s most important asset. When leaders hurt employees or allow them to be hurt, they inadvertently hurt the company. The damage is usually not discerned in the short run, but over time it does show up in error rates, customer defections, high turnover of the best and brightest employees, inefficient and ineffective processes that drive costs up and quality down, inability to attract the best talent, and the death or heavy curtailment of new ideas and innovation. Usually these problems never get linked back to leadership failure, and in fact are often addressed by blaming employees and cracking the accountability whip even harder. It is analogous to victimizing the victim.
Not just In Japan
Ruminating over this disturbing Japanese problem, it occurred to me that in the U.S. we are often careless about how we overwork employees during large projects such as electronic medical record (EMR) implementations. A major EMR conversion is a massive undertaking that can completely change the way a health system operates and is therefore an extraordinarily complex dance that requires many employees to work extraordinary amounts of overtime under unrelenting stress. The stakes are high in these multi-million dollar projects, essentially the survival of the health system, and because of that the pressure on IT and operational project team members can be overwhelming.
I am aware of one EMR conversion project where tears became a common occurrence as employees struggled to cope with conflicting personal and professional priorities. Job stress ended several marriages, and other family units fell into dysfunction. Children were reported to hate the sight of mobile devices and laptops that constantly occupied the attention of their parents who were home in body only. Some employees developed stress-related illnesses and others who could not maintain the pace left the organization.
The kind of people who go into this type of work are typically very driven individuals who love what they do and derive great satisfaction from their heroic efforts. Their passion causes them to not know when to stop. For others, they hope to prove their value to the organization through unchecked self-sacrifice, and in some companies there is a culture of proving dedication by overworking, just as the article described to be a norm in some Japanese companies.
Tips for leaders
Hard work is a good thing, and fast-paced highly demanding projects can be exhilarating. Many good employees thrive in the pressure cooker of high stress IT implementations; but too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Great leaders know that everyone has a limit, and the limit is different for each person; therefore, leaders must know their people. Great leaders show respect for their employees by maintaining a watchful eye over employee stress and burnout. Here are some ways.
Produce a burnout report. This monthly report lists employees by name and how many hours they worked each week. Based upon pre-determined thresholds leaders know when to intervene. For example, if an employee works more than three consecutive sixty hour weeks, the leader may insist the employee take a day off. The company might even pay for a couple’s weekend getaway.
Perform stress detection rounds. Leaders should walk the floor often to check in on employees, and if some employees are remote workers use video conferencing to assess how they are doing.
Staff properly. When it comes to preserving a high performing workforce, a dollar spent increasing staffing to prevent employees carrying unsustainable workloads will produce ten dollars of commitment and quality work later.
Eliminate low performers. Low performers create disruptions, increase the workloads of high performers, reduce the respect high performers have for their leaders, and amplify an already stressful environment. Work with Human Resources to convert them or eliminate them.
Familiarize yourself and your employees with the signs of burnout. Encourage employees to take care of one another, and make them feel comfortable letting you know if one of their colleagues needs an intervention. Some common signs of burnout are personality changes, inability to concentrate, memory loss, uncharacteristic number errors, frequent tears, loss of enthusiasm, slow to understand complex problems, or dramatic changes in physical appearance.
Consider making healthy high energy snacks available. In one organization the high point of the day was when the CIO’s assistant rolled out the free snack cart. It provided brain fuel, encouraged employees to take a break, provided an informal place to touch base with colleagues, and made employees feel their leaders cared.
These are just a few ideas, but the best way to develop your plan for dealing with this very real problem is to invite employees to participate in the process. Work demands are what they are, but thoughtful leaders can still respect and protect employees from unnecessary harm.