Florence Parot: The limits of overworking – understanding peak performance

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Wellbeing Week 2015My own experience as a super-achiever who went into burnout at age 23 led me to question what it means to be successful; what it takes to “get there” and how we can achieve our goals without crashing and burning in the process.

For a company, it is crucial to be aware not only of the performance level of the staff but also of the physical, mental and emotional state of the individuals in the team.

A team of half-asleep zombies pretending to be productive but really just adding up long hours will take a company nowhere. Today, new solutions for the workplace and the individual are needed to achieve clear minds in alert bodies for ultimately stronger results.

It is essential for HR practitioners to be aware of the state of the individuals in the team, to know how to recognise the first signs of wear and tear and how to help. Consistently reaching high achievements over several years requires more than willpower or a “keep going” attitude. To be at the top of your game, you need strategies, techniques and knowledge of how you function at your best.

Peak performance

So, how does it work? Why is over-working not a good idea and when do we reach negative performance results? Many studies show that working more than 40 hours a week actually decreases productivity and that if you keep doing it for more than three or four weeks, your productivity then turns negative. Not to mention extreme exhaustion and potential burnout. The most recent research places the optimum somewhere between 30 and 60 hours of work per week, so quantity of work is a factor.

Quality, however, is where it counts. The widely-accepted YerkesDodson law (named after the two scientists who created it in 1908) says that the optimal level of stimulation for highest performance is moderate. At low levels of stimulation, the person is so disengaged and uninspired that performance flatlines; as stimulation picks up, performance strengthens, rising steadily to peak performance and as stimulation continues to intensify, performance drops off, descending rapidly.

At its most intense, the person is paralysed with stress: performance dies again. This shows that we need to be challenged, but not overwhelmed. At the top of performance, we are in a state of flow. In a nutshell, if there is too much going on (whether in quantity or quality) for too long we are likely to make the wrong decision, give up or crash.

Causes of fatigue

Other factors found inside and outside the organisation can also affect performance at work. These days, our attention tends to be more and more fragmented; not just because of the range of tasks we are trying to perform at once (multi-tasking is a myth, the brain cannot do it) but also because of our reliance on technology. While writing this, I have to nudge myself to close my email box and put my phone on silent.

Eliminating digital distractions is easier said than done, but may be essential for increased productivity. I know that my ability to focus and have a clear mind will be reinforced by these actions and hopefully help me produce a better article for you to read.

Disrupted sleep is also another unhelpful contributor to mental fatigue. Working without having slept enough is like working under the influence of alcohol; not something you would be likely to recommend to your team. Of course, stress and overworking can lead to difficulties sleeping and decreased productivity which in turn may generate more stress.

Breaking the cycle

A good start to breaking the cycle would be tracking performance. By measuring not only time but also perceived levels of stress, tension and wellbeing, levels of memory, attention span and best-performing times of the day we would get an interesting picture of the whole and unearth the individual’s main problem areas.

The practical elements can then be introduced from there. I currently work with a mindbody training technique for performance and wellbeing called Sophrology. Widely used on the continent, it is gaining strength in the UK. Related to the better-known mindfulness, it could be described as super-charged, super-fast mind-body meditation. The following techniques provide a simple introduction to Sophrology and its impact on productivity in the workplace.

  • Switch off for a few minutes every two hours: close your eyes, unclench your jaw, let your shoulders drop and breathe out loudly
  • Take a break before you become physically or mentally tired for a faster recovery
  • Slow down. Speed does not always mean efficiency but can lead to major mistakes

Remember, “inspiration cannot be found sitting in front of a desk 100 hours a week. The most successful people have come so far exactly because they possess the skill of being relaxed in the midst of hectic activity.“ (Winning without Losing, Martin Bjergegaard & Jordan Milne.)

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