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Is the Antidote to Burnout Actually Harder Work?

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We face a problem of abundance -- too much information, too much to do and too many growing demands on our finite time. Much of the technology that promised to make our lives easier is actually leaving us overwhelmed, exhausted and feeling burnt out.

Seventy percent of American workers claim to either hate their job or be completely disengaged from it, according to a Gallup poll. ComPsych's 2012 national survey of 1,880 workers found that 63 percent say they have high levels of stress at work, with extreme fatigue and feel out of control. Thirty nine percent cite the workload as the top cause of stress.

But, we also struggle with a concurrent problem born of scarcity. While the information floodgates open wider and work cycles spin faster, resources to get the job done rarely keep pace. Not seeing a way out of this perpetual "more with less" scenario, corporate managers and leaders in the social sector dole out more work, often spinning it as a prized promotion or as "professional development." But, doing more of the same type of work doesn't increase intelligence. It is just exhausting. If we are to perform at our best and grow capability, we need harder work.

Several weeks ago, I was on a late-afternoon conference call with one of my favorite clients, a chief operating officer of an innovative technology company. We were discussing the conditions under which people do their best work and why people need to be given harder work, not just more work. I was on a speakerphone in my home office, and the conversation apparently caught the attention of my 10-year-old son, Joshua, who was sitting on the other side of the room, supposedly doing homework. Eager to make a point, he chimed in unannounced, "That's what I keep saying about homework. They should give us less homework, but the work should be more challenging. That way, you learn new things." We laughed at the young interloper, then I gave him that look like, Is your homework done yet?

Josh's experience is a microcosm of the larger debate about the purpose of homework currently raging in education policy circles. Should homework be repetition of what kids already know how to do? Or should homework actually be especially designed to be hard? Annie Murphy Brown, learning researcher and author, cites fascinating research to support this and suggests, "When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort expended signals the brain that this knowledge is worth keeping."

While this debate ensues, homework continues to be a source of stress and has dubious effects on real learning. A Stanford University study of 2,700 high school students found that 2/3 were "often or always" stressed by homework. More than 5 percent of these teens complained of headaches, problems sleeping or exhaustion; 25 percent said they used stimulants like Red Bull or No-Doz.

Meanwhile, professionals across business and the social sector have their own form of "homework" as they stay glued to their mobile devices in a desperate attempt to keep up. Is all this work the cause of burnout in our corporations and schools? Or is it perhaps more precisely the more subtle combination of too much busy work and too little challenging work?

Whether it is in our corporations or in our schools, the problem is the same. More of the same is exhausting. Taking on new challenges with the right amount of stretch is exhilarating.

In our research for the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, we assessed hundreds of executives across a variety of industries and found that, on average, managers are utilizing just 66 percent of their people's capability. When we repeated these studies in education for the book The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, we found the levels were approximately 10 percent lower. As we studied the leaders who were able to use virtually all of the capability of people around them, we found that they operated as challengers -- inviting people to solve problems that they hadn't yet encountered, creating a vacuum that drew their staff into a learning zone.

Most managers and leaders face a two-sided conundrum -- how do I get more done with the resources I already have and how can I create a work environment where people are exhilarated not exhausted? When wise leaders avoid the temptation to pile on more work and instead offer stretch challenges (sized just a level or two up from the person's current capability), they may find they achieve both.

More of the same too often leads to burnout. Instead of giving people more work, try giving them harder work. They will light up rather than burnout, and your organization will be on fire.