Leadership Renewal & Finding Inspiration
The end of extreme effort to improve work outcomes
By Woodrie Burich

ork-life has been busy and stressful for a while. Even pre-COVID-19, the average worker in the United States worked more hours than those in the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and most other industrialized nations, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation. Excessively long work hours are defined as regularly working 48 hours or more, according to studies by the United Nations International Labour Organization, and they are tied to poor health outcomes, lower productivity and performance, and a host of other negatives. The average US-based full-time salaried worker already exceeds this limit by working on average 49 hours per week, says Lydia Saad in Gallup article The 40-Hour Workweek Is Actually Longer—by Seven Hours.

My personal experience as a consultant and executive coach validates this trend: most professionals I’ve witnessed (especially in the managerial/leadership ranks) exceed fifty-hour weeks, and many work much more. Recent technology advances and 24/7 access to work seems to add to an overall sense of urgency and our consistently high workloads. Those late evening texts, emails, and weekend/vacation work-creep are rampant in most leadership positions. COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem by blurring lines between our personal and professional boundaries. This blur has become a reality and created additional work burdens.

Yet with every crisis comes opportunity, and we are seeing some silver linings. Mental health is no longer pushed to the sidelines. There is collective recognition in the fact that working parents need serious support and that our childcare structures are close to breaking. Since the boundaries between personal and professional life have been severed, the need for serious stress-relief and true support for teams is finally coming to the forefront of leadership conversations.


Addressing work stress has become a necessity for organizations to function. The science and research on supporting staff is clear, but now we are starting to see the impact of what happens when people are not supported. The Great Resignation is but one indicator, with burnout, employee retention, and poor work outcomes being others. On the flip side, the opportunities for organizations that step up to this challenge are huge—including improvements to creativity, decision making, and complex problem solving to name just a few.

The benefits of shifting our corporate cultures and leadership styles toward a more sustainable path are immense. Consider research out of Harvard and Yale that shows consistent time pressure can drop creativity by a whopping 45 percent. Creativity is at the heart of innovation and competitive differentiation, and it contributes significantly to problem solving. Imagine if we could reduce time pressure and increase creativity by just half that amount. What impact on work outcomes would that have?

For more good news and promising opportunities, look at the recent research conducted with elite forces in military branches by Dr. Amishi Jha. Her expertise is on the neuroscience of focus, attention, and mindfulness, and her research, as published in Mindfulness Training as Cognitive Training in High-Demand Cohorts: An Initial Study in Elite Military Servicemembers, shows that the simple daily practice of breathing and focus increases a person’s ability to discern key information under chaotic situations and improves working memory. In other words, it leads to increased performance and complex problem-solving skills under stressful situations. The idea that taking a pause in the midst of a busy day, relaxing with some focused breathing, to improve performance is downright exhilarating in a sea of exhaustion. What leader doesn’t want improved results along with gaining some personal relief?

Since the boundaries between personal and professional life have been severed, the need for serious stress-relief and true support for teams is finally coming to the forefront of leadership conversations.

We are at a crossroads in leadership, and our teams and our organizations feel the strain of it. We are in desperate need of a shift in our orientation to work—and we are in desperate need of people who can model healthy, successful, and boundaried work lives. People are going to have to choose how they move forward. Those who align themselves with the research and science will reap the rewards, and those who ignore the signs will continue to struggle as we shift collectively into this new era of work.

What to Do

Recognize that work culture is shifting. Multiple factors are contributing to this, including the transition of generations in the workplace, COVID-19-related personal and professional stressors, the recognition of mental health (seen in high performing/striving athletes and professionals alike), and the outdated and broken “over-striving/over-worked” leadership cultures we have been contributing to over the past few decades. We have reached the law of diminishing returns in relation to work hours, productivity, and positive outcomes that originate from “striving.” We need to back off, step back, and shift our approach to work if we are going to meet the challenges of tomorrow. It will demand more creativity, strategic visioning, and complex problem solving—skills that all thrive when cultivated through providing ourselves space and time for both personal and collective reflection and inquiry.

Take Action: Familiarize yourself with recent trends and research on work stress and ways to combat it. Some favorites include the following: 1) Dying for a Paycheck by Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, organizational behavior professor at Stanford University, 2) Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte, New York Times bestseller, award-winning journalist, and director of the Better Life Lab at New America, and 3) the International Labour Organization’s World Employment and Social Outlook Trends report for 2021.

Where to Start

It’s important to support yourself and your teams. Self-care and wellness programs are not enough. While self-care is important (largely because it improves our energy levels that in turn increase physical, emotional, and mental reserves), self-care alone doesn’t change the structure of how we engage work. I often use the example of “bubble baths and Friday night unwinds.” While they feel great, they won’t shift our workloads. For the structure to change, we need to implement work boundaries and honor others to do the same.

Take Action: Understand how self-care, awareness/attention, and boundaries intertwine and work together. Self-care and awareness are the first steps towards setting boundaries, and they work in tandem. We need both the time and space to tend to our own needs, as well as the time and space to reflect and focus our attention on solid solutions for our situation. It is not enough to practice self-care outside the office; we need tools and strategies to support people directly within the corporate setting. We also need to honor time between meetings and cultivate the space needed for true strategic and creative work—something that will benefit individuals and organizations alike.

It is not enough to practice self-care outside the office; we need tools and strategies to support people directly within the corporate setting.

Case Study: Work boundaries arise when we combine strong self-care with a commitment to internal reflection and awareness of our situation. Work boundaries require both. The challenge is often we start with self-care and as soon as we start to feel better, we stop. A good example of this is seen with the example of Mary (the subject’s identification for the study, changed for confidentiality purposes). Mary averaged fifty-hour weeks and her days were intense. She had planned well and organized herself in advance so she could claim a well-deserved vacation. She was able to “mostly unplug,” but still took the occasional call and checked email out of her concern for being overwhelmed upon return (a common scenario for many professionals; we work on vacation simply to avoid being inundated after the break). She was able to find some much-needed downtime and it offered her relief. She had a joyful time and even identified some personal life epiphanies. However, upon return to the office, that feeling of space, calm, and joy vanished. She was right back in the “rat race,” and despite her epiphanies, had trouble shifting her day-to-day work patterns.

Mary’s story is much too common and reflects a clear pattern. Self-care (in this instance a vacation) begins to provide us energy. When this energy is combined with reflection time, we often stumble upon some new awareness (epiphany). The challenge in Mary’s situation was she stopped short after her discovery of the epiphany due to the inability to maintain her self-care and space needed for reflection/awareness. Many of us can likely relate to this concept. We simply end the reflection/awareness process too early, resulting in a sort of never-ending cycle of short-term relief with no long term solution. In order to actually shift our work lives and begin to implement changes to how we work, we need a continued commitment to this process. This means we need to find, protect, and maintain boundaries that allow us to commit to our own self-care and reflection/awareness process.

Expect Pushback and Get Creative

It will take time to shift our work cultures. Many of us have become inured to overtime and weekend work, and we’ve come to expect others to always go the extra mile. Make no mistake about it, striving for excellence is still vital and critical at different stages and moments throughout our career. However, if our trend lines show that the striving is constant, and extreme effort has become the norm, something in the structure of how we work is broken.

Take Action: Reflect on how you and your teams work regularly. Consider hours worked, breaks incorporated, boundaries honored, or not. Consider whether team members have manageable workloads, whether they are required to multitask, and to what extent multitasking is expected (note: multitasking is shown to cause permanent brain damage, drain energy reserves, reduce productivity, and significantly increase errors in the workplace). Be sure to also reflect on time pressure and the levels of stress with project- or industry-specific deadlines (note: consistent time pressure is linked with up to 45 percent drops in creativity). Reflect on whether you personally feel the pace of work has increased, remained the same, or decreased over the past five to ten years. Then, consider the magnitude of all of this—the real prevalence of overwork and how it shows up within our work cultures and for us personally. Finally, explore the opportunities and the possibilities that arise from shifting this for yourself and your teams.

Case Study: Bill (the subject’s identification for the study, changed for confidentiality purposes) led the hiring process for his organization. Their application process stressed the importance of independent work, a strong work ethic, and the ability to respond to the intensity and high workloads common within their industry. As a result, the company’s interview questions included a segment on an applicant’s ability to multitask effectively—both how well the applicant multitasked and their ability to effectively work in high-pressure situations. After learning about the ill effects of multitasking, Bill chose to remove this question from their application and hiring process. In addition, he and company leaders reflected on how to support manageable workloads and segment tasks more effectively among staff moving forward.

In Summary

The benefits of supporting ourselves and our teams with work boundaries are immense. On the one hand, we can look at the statistics and recognize we are in a moment of “work crisis.” On the other hand, we can also look around and recognize the opportunities and creative potential that is, as of yet, largely untapped within our work structures. It’s an amazing notion to think that by relieving our stress and claiming more space and time for ourselves, we will benefit personally and professionally. In a time where we feel exhausted, depleted, and drained, it’s an inspiring thought to realize that work outcomes can improve and our creativity can be enhanced by reducing our workloads and eliminating our extreme efforts.

Woodrie Burich is a national speaker, executive coach, and owner of the Integration Group, which empowers professionals to create sustainable and thriving work lives that enable them to enjoy more, stress less, and connect with their communities in positive and meaningful ways.
Woodrie Burich smiling