Overworked employees have a bottom-line cost

Your people may not die on the job as they burn out, but the mistakes they make in their fatigued state are costing far more than you might imagine

I just read an article by David Schepp, the “10 Most Dangerous Jobs in the U.S.” It included the usual suspects (e.g., offshore fishermen, lumberjacks, roofers, etc.), no surprise here. What I found surprising was a common denominator in the cause of injury or death for many of these professions — long hours.

It reminded me of some work I had done for a startup in Silicon Valley a few years back. They were producing state-of-the-art, high-tech equipment. It was so leading-edge, their customers wanted it, despite their high failure rates.

There was nothing else like it, but when it failed, the results were catastrophic. Even so, incredible performance at low prices is a powerful motivator, and their growth was exploding. I was recommended by one of their customers to help solve this frustrating problem.

It seemed every device they had shipped the year before had had to come back to the factory for repairs at least once. I’d never worked with anyone who had had a 100 percent return rate before.

This company was on the legendary startup path. Many of the people were working 10- or 12-hour days, six or even seven days a week, and some had done it for eight years or more. Of course, there were lots of Porsche brochures as well as luxury yacht and jet airplane posters throughout. These were the trinkets these devoted employees intended to buy when they became millionaires in the eventual IPO, but these people looked haggard nonetheless. Tempers were short, the pressure was high and despite the promise of luxury and good times ahead, life was pretty miserable.

A realization

I remember one meeting with the CEO and his staff; it was about 9 in the evening. Everyone was nodding off, except he and I. One dozing VP’s face was just inches above an unfinished slice of pizza. I seized the opportunity and asked the CEO if he might be working his people too hard.

“That’s the way it is in startups. If you don’t want to work these kinds of hours, don’t come to a startup,” he said.

“When do you think they made the mistakes that are causing all those returns?” I asked, referring to his staff. “Do you think it was early in the morning when they were fresh or later in the day/evening when they were exhausted?”

He had bragged at how he always got the most out of everyone, but was he really? There was an incredibly long pause as he internalized that his modus operandi might be tragically flawed.

This was in 2008 after the crash. The IPO was just not in the cards, and the venture capitalists wanted out. They were forced to sell out for around $200 million, far less than the billion or more they had expected in an IPO. I remember one engineer telling me his share was only about 80 grand, far less than he needed to buy the Porsche pictured over his desk for inspiration.

The overtime stopped immediately with this realization. In fact, many didn’t even want to work 40 hours. We had already solved the problems causing all the returns. Interestingly, a new set of problems causing the next wave of returns never materialized. Could this be just coincidence?

Are you the kind of manager who wants to get the most out of everyone? Do you require 24/7 responsiveness? With every layoff, the survivors are expected to pick up the workloads of those who have left. Are they doing too much?

Your people may not die on the job as they burn out, but the mistakes they make in their fatigued state are costing you far more than you might imagine.

In fact, hiring a few more people to ease the load might actually render a significant cost savings.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque@myfairpoint.net.