Dysfunctional Talent Model

The economist and work-life balance expert talks about dysfunctional talent models, brownout, and what managers can do to help stressed-out employees.

Published: Oct 26, 2009 11:33:56 AM IST

We are in the midst of the toughest down-cycle in a generation. How is top talent dealing with it?
Not well. Last year we found that 36 per cent of top-tier workers reported high levels of anxiety; 12 months later, the number had jumped to 89 per cent. A lot of people with top credentials are feeling very destabilized, and job insecurity is huge.   We’ve had so many rounds of RIF’s (‘reductions in the force’ -- the Wall Street lingo for mass layoffs), but I think it’s the repeated rounds that cause so much anxiety. Even if you survived the last one, will you survive the next?  Another big issue is loss of income. Bonuses are down more than 50 per cent, and in the financial services industry, a person’s bonus can be 80 per cent of their salary.  So real income is down significantly and at the same time, people’s savings are being depleted, with assets having dropped significantly in value.  In short, there’s a lot of anxiety around whether you’ll be able to pay your mortgage, or pay for your kids’ private school --whatever your big-ticket items are.

What are some of the negative coping strategies that people are turning to?
The classic things: addiction to sleep medications is big, because insomnia is off the charts. The other classic coping strategies are eating too much and drinking too much.

What does the current ‘dysfunctional talent model’ look like?
Back in 2006 – a time of boom and ebullient profits -- we completed a study of what we call ‘extreme jobs’: high-echelon jobs that have gargantuan demands but also gargantuan rewards.  At the time, there was a kind of equilibrium in place, because these ‘extreme workers’ were working really hard – on average 73 hours per week -- but at the same time, they were being extremely well paid. They also had lot of status and power, which can be very appealing, and often they were very stimulated and kind of ‘turned on’ by the challenges of their work. Whether they were developing a new video game, running an oil rig or developing a new derivatives product, the odds are that today’s knowledge workers are very self-actualized through their work. So despite the massive time commitment, the rewards of these jobs very much outweighed the burdens. As a result, people were opting into these jobs and enjoying them. 

Fast forward to 2008 and many of the ‘extreme’ burdens have actually increased: people may be working even longer hours, dealing with even more responsibility and a depleted team, but on the other hand, there is no bonus coming their way and they have to face job insecurity. The cost-benefit calculation has totally shifted around these jobs in the last two years, leading to what we call a ‘dysfunctional talent model’.

You have found that financial-sector workers are particularly stressed out. What are the key pressure points for them?

Sixty-five per cent of these workers believe that their extreme job is undermining their health and well-being, and 50 per cent feel it is undermining their relationship with their spouse or partner.  By far, the main cause of stress for workers in the financial-sector is unpredictability: a full 49 per cent cited this as the main cause of their stress at work.

Are there unique stressors for female workers?
Although women and men perceive work stress in much the same way, women disproportionately feel additional stress at home.  They tend to see a direct link between their long workweeks and a variety of distressing behaviours in their children – eating too much junk food, underachieving at school, etc. In focus groups, women talked poignantly to us about how their jobs needed to clear a very high bar in terms of value and fulfillment, because the time they spend at work is time taken away from a child or parent.

What interventions are needed to assist today’s workers?
A lot of companies – Pepsi and Time Warner are cases in point -- are expanding their physical fitness and wellness benefits.  Until recently, no one paid much attention to these offerings, but now they’re making sure to publicize them very well internally. Examples might include having a psychologist on call that you can go and talk to; or having an Employee Assistance Plan to help out with your child’s college tuition.  Companies are newly showcasing all of the benefits they have on the books that really do underpin lives and increase wellness.  These things are incredibly valuable to employees under stress, and they indicate that the employer cares enough to reach out with help.

You have found stark contrasts between the glamour and excitement that professionals say they experience on the job and what they describe happening in their private lives.  What are the implications of this?
Even in good times, extreme jobs squeeze family lives.  If you don’t get home until ten o’clock at night, it’s pretty hard to maintain a great relationship with your three-year old; odd are, he’s been in bed for hours by the time you get home.  In these tough times, using time as currency and giving employees’ unpaid time-off is highly valued, particularly if you go out of your way to stress that taking the time will not imperil a person’s job.  For instance, last December Cisco created a four-day work week for a month over the holiday season, just so that its workers could catch up with their families. Obviously, the employees had been working harder than usual this past Fall, so this gesture was welcomed – even though it was unpaid leave.  The key was that people felt they could take that Friday off without undermining their position or reputation. Of course, they probably also understood that the cost savings involved in what they called ‘four day furloughs’ probably saved a few jobs and meant that they didn’t have to lay anyone off over the holidays, so there was this kind of double message that really resonated with employees.

What is ‘brown out’, and how prevalent is it?
Brown out is the term we use to describe what happens to workers when they’ve been on the extreme-job treadmill for five years or more.  Many of these workers told us that in a cumulative sense, they had become seriously depleted: they weren’t ‘pumped’ any more, they had lost their creative edge, or they had basically ‘quit’ but stayed on the job.  What this points to is the widespread need for recuperative time.  Everyone should get two weeks of continuous vacation time and be allowed to truly get off-line for that period, so that they’re not just taking their Blackberry to the beach.  This kind of window allows a person to restore their essential energies. It’s very important -- but particularly in the U.S. context, it is very hard to do.  We have such an overworked society right now that people just aren’t taking consecutive vacation days to any healthy extent.  

In the face of dwindling salaries and slashed bonuses, what can managers do to relieve stress, rekindle commitment and reduce flight risk? 
I have a new book coming out later this year that will go into great detail about this.    In a nutshell, there are lots of things you can do to reach out to and nurture your people.  The key is to build trust within your team. Simple ideas work well -- having a drink together after work, an exercise session in the park, or inviting people over to someone’s home for a gathering.  This stuff is very important, because research shows that today’s employees don’t necessarily feel loyalty to their company, but they do feel loyal to their team. Anything you can do to enhance that sense of bonding on your team is hugely powerful in enhancing employee commitment.

The other thing I want to stress is that recognition is huge: if people are being asked to do more with less and are continuing to come through with major efforts despite the fact that they won’t be getting a bonus this year, they had better get some recognition for it! This is the only thing that will ensure that they repeat the behaviour the next time.  The recognition can be as simple as a handwritten note from the boss, which can be enormously effective in making people feel appreciated; or it can be a more public kind of recognition where certain teams or individuals are recognized company-wide. A free pass to a spa for a day or some other small prize that underscores wellness is always a great idea.  While it is a not exactly a substitute for a bonus, we have been finding that recognition can go a long way for employees.

Sylvia  Ann Hewlett an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy.  She also heads up the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University and is the author of Creating a Life (one of BusinessWeek’s ‘Best Books of 2002’), Off-Ramps and On-Ramps (Harvard Business School Press, 2007) and the forthcoming Managing Top Talent in Troubled Times (HBSP, 2009).

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[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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