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When Overworking Leads to Underperforming

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 24 September 2009

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

596 words, 2 minutes reading time

The Boss Is WatchingI was headed to a conference last week and I knew it would be a long drive, so I brought an audio tape. This time I listened to an older one, curious to see if business had changed. The author of the 1985 publication promises to deliver street smarts and to train listeners on “what they don’t teach you at Harvard business school.”

One of his recommendations in particular didn’t shock me because it is somewhat typical, but it really is shameful when considering its full and inadvertent consequences.

This executive declares, “I like it when I call the office at 10 at night and people pick up. I like it when I call on a Sunday afternoon and people are there. I like it when I come to the office on Monday morning and people know the results of sports team in distant parts of the world [his business is sports-related]. To me, this shows commitment.”

Counter-Productive Expectations

Employers still holding such expectations are in for a rude awakening. When individuals are encouraged to work virtually every waking moment, there is little opportunity for them to get a nutritious meal or enjoy a workout – two ingredients that can help boost productivity. No surprise our country is plagued by simultaneous epidemics in obesity, in physical inactivity, bringing along with them a long list of serious diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and atherosclerosis – to name just a few. The US Surgeon general declared that over 300,000 Americans die prematurely each year due to lack of physical activity and poor nutrition.

Being overworked also impedes the ability to get sufficient sleep. According to scientist William Dement, “sleep deprivation is now the most common brain impairment.” Hence, when work impedes sleep, the unintended consequence is reduced performance.

Personal lives also suffer from work-life imbalance. Feeling depressed is now so common that the World Health Organization finds depression to be a leading cause of disability. Anti-depressants are now the most common drug prescription. Since psychological well-being is a good predictor of productivity, lack of work-life balance is clearly counter-productive in the long-term.

Downward trend

Downward trend

For the CFOs and other “show me the money” readers, let’s take a look at the numbers. Right now in the US, health care costs are increasing faster than inflation, incomes, GDP or average organizational revenues. Hiring more employees therefore weighs heavier on the wrong side of the balance sheet and enterprises have a hard time growing as a result. As if this weren’t enough, Dr. Ron Goetzel, Director of Cornell University’s Institute for Health and Productivity Studies warns that presenteeism costs can outweigh an employer’s medical costs – ever been on Facebook during work hours?

Downward Spiral

With increased costs and reduced productivity, employers are hard-pressed to increase performance, which seems to reinforce the need for long hours. Employees get blackberries so they can respond to email 24/7. Multi-tasking is now the name of the game, but it augments stress more than it does productivity. As anxiety increases, so do our depression rates, our waist lines and, our health care costs.

Now of course overworked employees are not solely responsible for these conditions, and clearly there are times where a little extra push is necessary. But overall, employers would be better served being part of the solution, not the problem.

Sustainable Success

For an organization to be successful and sustainable, contributors at all levels have to thrive long-term. To the extent that everyone’s contribution is necessary, everyone’s physical, emotional, mental and relational energy matters.

Good health is an intrinsic part of good performance. That’s what I’d like to see added to the curriculum of business schools.



Blair, S. (2009). Lecture presented at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Boyle, M.A. & Long, S. (2007). Personal Nutrition, Sixth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Dement, W. (2000). The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep . New York: Random House. Quotation above from p. 231.

Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Shaar, M.-J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.

Wright, T.A., Cropanzano, R. Denney, P.J. & Moline, G.L. (2002). When a Happy Worker is a Productive Worker: A Preliminary Examination of Three Models. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science.

Images are courtesy of Marie-Josée Salvas for one-time use with this article.

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Sarah Hanley 16 November 2009 - 3:12 pm

Marie-Josee Salvas,
I was wondering if you knew of any companies that are already taking the time and money to “refresh” workers? If so, what are some specific examples of this. Also, being a college student, do you think these same concepts of workers being overworked could also be applied to current students in college and even graduate school?


Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 16 November 2009 - 8:08 pm

A lot of companies are spending money to refresh employees. I’m sure you’ve heard of executive retreats (may not always apply), on-site fitness centers, compressed workweeks and job sharing programs – these are examples that have been around for a long time. Most companies that are on Fortune’s list of best companies to work for offer these benefits. Visit Genentech’s website for one concrete example (www.gene.com).

To answer your second question, yes, the concept of being overworked can absolutely apply to college students. And it doesn’t need to be imposed by a boss or a prof – it can definitely be self-imposed, too! Since students tend to be younger and so they have generally speaking higher energy (and maybe also because quite a few students like to socialize and have fun – no stereotype intended), we don’t see it as often in them, but they are definitely not immune to the phenomenon!

Work hard, play hard, rest a lot!


Amanda Lingle 27 November 2009 - 11:24 pm

Hi! I enjoyed your article but have a quick question. How could these findings be applied to time off or vacation time? Is a loss of productivity also seen in employees who are not given paid vacation time or not enough time off? Or, what about adequate time for breaks? Could multiple breaks during the workday interrupt the much sought after state of flow in an employee? Thanks!

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 28 November 2009 - 7:30 pm

Very good question, Amanda!

Research shows that taking vacations helps productivity in a few ways:
– people who take their vacation time are less tired, depressed, anxious and overwhelmed
– they report feeling more interested in their work and feel more productive
– they are less likely to have a stroke or suffer from coronary heart disease.
Quite important, right?

About taking breaks, it all depends on frequency of breaks. If you take a break every half hour, of course your productivity risks being diminished. On the other hand, the human brain and body tend to follow what we call ultradian cycles, which last between 90 and 120 minutes. After that time, people start feeling tired, fidgety, hungry, or otherwise have a hard time concentrating. So flow is then very difficult, and taking a break won’t interrupt it. To the contrary, giving yourself a little rest period is the best thing you can do to get back in flow afterward. (Now I’m not saying exceptions aren’t possible, but that’s the general pattern!)

Hope that makes sense!
All the best to you,



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