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At a glance
Turnabout: For years, email and smartphones allowed bosses to place greater demands on white-collar workers. Now some companies are beginning to set limits.
All work and no play: Employers are recognizing that successful employees must be able to escape from work and are focusing on how to keep employees left after the recession’s job cuts from burning out.
Examples: Volkswagen turns off some employees’ email 30 minutes after their shifts end. Goldman Sachs urges junior staff to take weekends off. BMW is planning new rules that will keep workers from being contacted after hours.
Associated Press
Shirin Majid and her husband, Will Townsend, play with their 9-month-old daughter, Ella, at their home in New York.

Employers step in to prevent worker burnout

Majid’s employer makes the whole company stop working during a quarterly “blackout” week.

– Volkswagen turns off some employees’ email 30 minutes after their shifts end. Goldman Sachs is urging junior staff to take weekends off. BMW is planning new rules that will keep workers from being contacted after hours.

This surge in corporate beneficence isn’t an indication that employers are becoming kinder and gentler: It’s about the bottom line.

After years in which the ease of instant communication via email and smartphones allowed bosses to place greater and greater demands on white-collar workers, some companies are beginning to set limits, recognizing that successful employees must be able to escape from work.

“Industry is now responding,” said Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University.

The imperative to be constantly reachable by iPhone or tablet is taking a toll on the work delivered at the office, he said. “Employees are turning up, but they’re not delivering anything.”

After seeing colleagues lose their jobs during the recession, workers are more inclined to come in to work, even when sick, surveys show. After hours, physical presence is replaced by the next best thing – a virtual one.

Many employees fear switching off, instead deciding to work on vacation, during dinner and in bed with the help of smartphones, laptops and tablet computers.

People also have more data than ever to process – whether they ask for it or not. Information overload cost American businesses nearly $1 trillion in employee time lost to needless emails and other distractions in 2010, according to Jonathan Spira, chief analyst of the New York research firm Basex.

The cost of replacing employees who leave in search of better work conditions is also a concern. A study from the Center for American Progress put the cost of turnover at more than a fifth of the employee’s salary for people making up to $75,000 a year.

That goes up exponentially for top managers, with turnover costs as high as 213 percent of salary for very highly paid positions.

After worrying about trimming staff numbers during the recession, employers are focusing on how to keep those who are left from burning out.

Job safety

One strategy, which Goldman Sachs has been trying, is to make people feel less at risk in their jobs. That’s not easy in most companies and much less so in investment banking, infamous for its competitive environment and grueling work hours.

To keep junior analysts from burning out in the attempt to prove their worth, the bank has decided to start hiring first-year analysts as permanent employees, instead of taking them on as contract workers.

It is also encouraging them to not work weekends.

“The goal is for our analysts to want to be here for a career,” said David Solomon, global head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Work conditions in banking came under scrutiny after an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London died from an epileptic seizure that may have been brought on by fatigue. The case prompted the bank to review work conditions for junior employees.

It isn’t just the junior staff. Last month, Hector Sants, a senior executive brought in to help London-based Barclays bank overcome a costly scandal, resigned after a leave of absence due to stress and exhaustion. The chief executive officer of Lloyds Bank, Antonio Horta Osorio, took time out in 2011. The CEO AkzoNobel, a Dutch paint and coatings company, did the same last year.

Human resources directors now talk about “regrettable turnover,” said Cooper, the professor.

“We cannot afford to lose our best people because we have fewer people,” he said. “We will lose them to companies with better work-life balance, where they don’t have to work 19-hour days.”

Input overload

Though technology has helped boost worker productivity over the past few decades, it has come with related costs – such as stress.

Technology, for example, is eliminating the downtime or slack that used to be built into the day, such as the time one took going to the library to do research that can now be completed online, says Edward Tenner, author of “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.”

Those minutes used to act as a buffer that prevented people from working constantly.

Though physical exhaustion in traditional enterprises was bad, conflicting mental demands can be more problematic, Tenner said.

That’s particularly true in the United States, he said, where professional workers often don’t have union contracts or the same legal overtime protection as hourly workers do.

“So it’s as the Red Queen said in ‘Through the Looking-Glass’: It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,” Tenner said.

Companies haven’t come to grips with how bad it is, said Spira, the analyst. Information overload has decreased people’s ability to manage thoughts and ideas. Fixing it means changing company culture – such as the idea that dozens of people need to be copied on a given email.

“Almost every organization is burying its head in the sand,” said Spira, the author of “Overload!: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization.”

It is hard for a company to control the amount of technology used in the workplace and at home since it is so integral to modern life. Volkswagen addressed the issue in a blunt, if effective, manner: by deactivating some workers’ email accounts once their shifts were over.

Rival BMW planned last week to unveil rules to foster a management culture that “values the limits of work hours and reachability.”

Tougher measures

Quirky, a New York startup that shepherds inventions to the marketplace, has instituted a “blackout” week once a quarter during which no one – except customer service representatives – is allowed to work, lest employees be tempted to check email.

“We all dropped pencils together,” said CEO Ben Kaufman, who figured he could bring the idea of reinvention to his own company. “People were getting burned out. They needed to see other things besides their desk.”

Having the message come right from the top was important for Shirin Majid, the company’s 39-year-old head of digital marketing, who laments not having enough time to spend with her husband and 9 month-old daughter, Ella.

In 17 years, she had never taken a vacation devoid of that dreaded call from the office.

Until the last week in November. No one could call her from the office – since no one was at the office.

“If you know that your boss is checked out, you’re going to relax a bit and not worry that you’re going to get an email,” she said. “You can just have a nap.”

All that blackout-inspired creativity is working out for them so far: General Electric just invested $30 million.

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