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I am a manager (indirect to this person) in a small UK based company and work with a fantastic colleague/friend who is rapidly approaching complete burnout. The job is non-physical, involves data/statistics and is conducted primarily whilst working from home. They seem unable to switch off from work, always trying to be available, assisting other employee's tasks during their own non-working hours, frequently working very unsocial and unsustainable hours (e.g: sometimes 20 hours at a time). They do considerably more than what is expected of them. I appreciate that they are an adult and their decisions are their own, but I am very concerned about their health.

They book holiday but don't really take the time off, instead they are checking emails, company messaging apps and accessing parts of the system in order to provide stats and answers to other employees, or just continuing their own work.

Direct management and myself have tried on many occasions to discuss with them about their working behaviour, that it isn't necessary and we don't want them putting so much of a strain on themselves, but the message doesn't seem to be getting through.

How can we further assist this employee to actually disconnect from work? We've tried stocking them up with additional PTO to compensate for the additional hours of work being provided, but believe the employee just typically works through those as well.

We are at the stage where we're considering suspending email/system/contact apps for the duration of their booked holiday time to forcefully prevent them from accessing work, but we wouldn't want that run foul of any potential employment laws. It may seem a be dramatic/over the top, but would that be in our rights? Any other answers, or recommendations to not do that are also welcome.

edit, additional background info:

Conversations with my colleague about why they are working so many hours focus around priority and a self-determined urgency. They are a manager themselves (but this sense of urgency/"now now now" is thankfully not distributed to their team) but are always way too critical of their own work, for example they express that "they could have done better" or "could have done this sooner". This does not mirror the feedback they receive on their work, which is typically very positive.

I believe they want to over-perform in all areas, even those in which they should only be involved to a minor extent. Trying to establish why they are contributing such huge efforts has been difficult, as they have admitted they don't really know where they want to go in terms of progression, or if they even necessarily want to "progress". I personally do not believe any level of promotion would adjust the way they work, they constantly want to produce all work to the highest standard possible, which isn't feasible.

They have a very strong work ethic, which whilst typically a good thing, is contributing to their problems. In recent conversations they are self-aware of this and even agree, they just find it incredibly hard or seemingly impossible to stop.

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    First, I find it really solicitous of you that you care about your indirect subordinate! What did they reply when you told them_"..that it isn't necessary and we don't want them putting so much of a strain on themselves.."_?
    – iLuvLogix
    Feb 21, 2023 at 12:38
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    @iLuvLogix Previously they seemed to brush off those kind of comments as generic workplace banter and just reply "it's not so bad"/"i don't mind". More recently they have become more self aware and also agree that they cannot seem to detatch from work, whilst simultaneously continuing to work rediculous hours... Their agreement on this is fantastic to be honest and a bit of a breakthrough. Feb 21, 2023 at 13:34
  • Do they get paid for those ridiculous hours, or do they do it on their own time?
    – nvoigt
    Feb 21, 2023 at 16:18
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    @nvoigt entirely their own time as far as i'm aware. Compensation in time off in lieu is attempted but I don't think very successful. Paying for unlimited (and unrequested) hours I think is a very dangerous precedent to set. People need to rest, there will always be "more work". Feb 21, 2023 at 20:46
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    Have you tried actually having a conversation with this person about the matter, describing the concerns you mentioned in your question (burnout, etc)? It could be helpful to point out that people truly on top of their game are able to regulate themselves with a sense of balance - for example, Olympic athletes follow a disciplined routine rather than simply pushing themselves harder and harder until they break. It could be that the driving force for this person is something more akin to obsession than the desire to be a well-rounded worker.
    – Mentalist
    Feb 23, 2023 at 19:48

5 Answers 5

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For some people, remote access to work can be as addictive as any other social media. They enjoy feeling connected and helpful, and access via phone especially just makes it too easy to pop in when bored or lonely.

This isn't always a problem. An addiction is only a problem if it consumes more resources than you can afford to spend on it. Many of us are addicted to caffeine -- or sugar, for that matter -- but most are able to manage those habits with minimal side effects, and many enjoy the emotional boost enough to put up with the cost and the crash afterward. It's not ideal, but it's manageable.

For many engineering types, problem-solving can be a similar emotional boost. Add the fact that many of us are introverts and borderline ADHD or ASD, and productive online chat can become very attractive. That's why some people become active here on Stack Exchange, and it can apply as well to remote access to work. Maybe more so. If it's really being done for fun, it may not even lead to burnout. But it does take time away from other activities, from reading to exercise to in-person interactions, and those costs are real too.

Much has been written in other places about reducing or breaking a social media habit. The same techniques could apply here. Make signing in harder to do on impulse, remove access via phone or tablet, limit session lengths,encourage them to find something else that they find engaging, remove that individual's remote access entirely....

But remember the joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb: the light bulb had to want to change. And not every light bulb has to be changed.

(I have managed to mostly kick myself off FB, but haven't quite been able to convince myself to lose my password since there are a few things there I want to keep half an eye on. I should be trying to reduce my SE time.)

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    It's funny but a simple change in language can make you think about something so differently. I had very limited luck in (my admittedly poorly worded) searches for things like "force employee to not work/take holiday". But simply considering it as a form of addiction is something is somehow hadn't considered, thank you this has opened up a completely different train of thought. Feb 21, 2023 at 20:50
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    Workaholics exist. If said employee is experiencing some type of marital fallout, going to work may be compensation of an external problem. If this employee is valuable, it may be possible to budget for counselling sessions to deal with their external (non-corporate) issues.
    – Nelson
    Feb 22, 2023 at 0:46
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    Just remember that one of my points is that a workaholic who knows their limits may be no more of a problem -- for the company or for themselves -- than a caffeine fiend who knows theirs. It's good to be aware of this, sanity-check it, and be prepared to help if they need help... but it's also good to leave room for personal variation; some lucky folks are just getting a tremendous kick out of their work. I know if at least one major Apache tool that was started because the original developer was out sick and decided to spend that time on something business-related but fun...
    – keshlam
    Feb 22, 2023 at 14:21
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    I knew one person who did this. He worked 16 hour days and was winning awards. Everyone was amazed at how much he got done. He ended up in rehab. He moved away and has an entirely different job now. From the little I see on FB he looks genuinely happy. Ideally this employee wouldn't need to crash that hard to stop this habit. Being aware of where it might lead could be useful. Feb 22, 2023 at 19:50
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    I'm accepting this answer because I think it'll help the mindset the most, however I believe this particular problem will likely involve steps from probably every answer on this page. If anyone's finding themselves in a similar situation i'd heavily recommend not stopping here and reading through them all. Feb 23, 2023 at 17:20
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Double Check Labor Laws

First I am happy to see you are concerned for the mental health of your employees. I understand your concern about wanting to not run foul of any potential employment laws by restricting their access to company systems. However, you are at risk if not already running foul of labor laws with this employee putting in so many hours.

UK has strict labor laws with regards to total hours worked per week. If this employee has not signed a waiver to opt out of the working time regulations your company could face legal trouble with an employee working on average more than 48 hours a week.

As such double check the labor laws for your area and make sure that you the company and this employee are both complying. If you have to restrict their access to your system(s) to ensure compliance with labor laws then that simplifies the problem. It is no longer "Could you stop putting so many hours in?" To: "No, you legally cannot work more hours." And if they fail to comply then lock them out of the system(s) outside of business hours.

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    Thanks for this take, I believe UK labor laws state that an employee cannot be asked (not that they are) to work for more than 48 hours a week but you're absolutely right on this part, we'll definitely be investigating this further in a more official channel than StackExchange! Feb 21, 2023 at 20:38
  • You may be interested to know that in the UK Finance industry, post Nick Leesom (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barings_Bank), it is mandatory for employees to have two weeks vacation where all systems access is suspended.
    – deep64blue
    Feb 22, 2023 at 12:56
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    Despite not being asked to work the extra time, if they can show that it was in some way "required", then it can remain a problem for the employer. Document the times you've asked this person to take a break, and what you did to encourage them to actually stop working. Should any claim be made, then at least you have some documentation to the contrary. Feb 23, 2023 at 9:59
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A lot of the answers overcomplicate this.

The fact of the matter is that you're their manager.

Tell them to stop replying to work messages outside of their set working hours.

Tell them they have to take their holidays and are not permitted to work on them.

If the issue is other people trying to contact them out of hours, tell them that any out of hours contact requests have to go through you.

It really is that simple. If they persist anyway, you can either go down the disciplinary route or ask your IT guys to lock their account out of hours. I doubt there's any labour law that stipulates that employees must have access to company IT systems.

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    I think this is correct, but first I'd have a super frank conversation: "I need you to stop doing x" is the language ask a manager often suggests. Then mention why: "I am sufficiently concerned about you burning out that this is a workplace safety issue" is a valid framing. Get them, in the first instance, to use the tools that teams gives them to stop messages coming through on their phone after hours. Make sure they understand this is a serious thing. if they fail to respond, then start getting IT to lock down access out of hours, that kind of thing.
    – lupe
    Feb 23, 2023 at 14:23
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    This is the very pragmatic way about resolving the situation. It is the nuclear one as I think starting a disciplinary route would almost definitely result in a the employee leaving the company. I appreciate it's only a single person, but they've been with the company of a considerable amount of time and are a significant investment for us, so even though this may be the "right" answer it's the answer we'll attempt last! Also I believe locking them out of company systems whilst still being employed may be potentially misconstrued as constructive dismissal, although it's all very wooly. Feb 23, 2023 at 17:16
  • @SubjectCurio - Locking them out outside of business hours is definitely not constructive dismissal. It's no different to requiring employees to leave their company laptops in the office overnight, which plenty of companies do if there's no good reason for them to take them home (assuming company systems can only be accessed with company devices) Feb 24, 2023 at 12:56
  • @ScottishTapWater We assumed so too, but finding official HR resource willing to commit to the same level of indemnification as yourself hasn't been successful! As it rarely is. Feb 24, 2023 at 16:09
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There's one thing missing in the question which is any clear indication of why you think their health is suffering?

If there is some compelling symptom of strain - rather than just the assumption that such long hours must be gruelling - then it seems like the conversation ought to be oriented around acknowledging and solving those.

If there is no symptom of strain, then beyond making enquiries and providing reassurance that they can rest, it seems impossible to insist they do less work.

Also, in terms of solutions, is it possible you're dealing with a very work-oriented person who doesn't have much of any relationships or interests outside of work?

If so, the suggestion to work less may not be realistic - no more reasonable than telling the average person they need to spend more time in bed, when they want to be up and about.

So long as the person has total or near-total control over their working hours and tasks, so long as the tasks themselves are not individually intense and arduous, and so long as there is a reasonable sense of security, then it's unlikely the person will push themselves to collapse.

Also, if there is so much work to be done, is it a possibility to hire a deputy or a second colleague to cover the workload that exists?

Or are you effectively saying that the long hours and additional tasks are of low value, and you'd sooner they were not done at all, than have someone else do them?

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    Even if the employee could handle 80+ hour work weeks does not mean they should for multiple reasons. It sets a bad precedent for other employees who may feel their performance is compared to that. If the overtime is unpaid it makes it harder to accurately calculate costs for future projects/work.
    – Anketam
    Feb 21, 2023 at 19:01
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    Thankyou for exploring this particular avenue. I do not want to go into very specific details about why their health is suffering, hopefully it's suffice to say I have known this colleague for a long time (>5 years), I have confidence without doubt that they are under a significant amount of stress just from daily work & personal interactions. They are a very work-orientated person, I don't believe there is "too much" work being given to them, there's technically infinite work that could be done (as in every job), and they're attempting it all. A 'deputy' is a very good idea. Feb 21, 2023 at 20:29
  • +1 for the deputy/2IC - I think the only way to stop someone like that from working, is to stop the work from hitting them. Feb 21, 2023 at 20:31
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    @MLeFevre, I think definitely the conversation should be frank about those health matters and symptoms then. If you're satisfied that the work being done is reasonably valuable (and not makework), then it's possible that the underlying demand for this person's labour (in conjunction with a conscientious personality and other features of the person) is what is driving the overly-long hours and preventing their disengagement. If that perspective chimes, then it's interesting to wonder, rhetorically, who you thought would do the work which you were asking your friend not to do.
    – Steve
    Feb 21, 2023 at 23:35
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    On the 'to much work to be done' part: For complex work like this it is very possible that an employee could finish a given task in say 5 hours or in 20 hours. The result after 20 hours is objectively better but it is hard to measure by how much. Management might feel the 5 hours solution is good enough and only plan 5 hours of time for it. But the employee just does the 20 hours solution.
    – quarague
    Feb 22, 2023 at 8:12
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I suspect that any attempt to block out-of-hours communications would result in a very strong emotional backlash; if a large percentage of their time centres around these communications, restricting them will be seem like a major (and arbitrary) punishment.

Have you considered the extent to which yourself & your colleagues are unwittingly incentivising this unwanted behaviour? If the person sends a work email at midnight, do they get the gratification of a response early the following morning? If the task didn't need to be done at midnight, do they really need to receive a response by 9am?

I'd suggest just slowing the communications down a bit, which won't just benefit the person concerned, but other employees as well. Of course if something is urgent, it needs an urgent response, but other items are flagged as non-urgent, and are treated as such - everyone knows that a slower (and well-considered) response is not only acceptable, but is desirable. Good work is praised, but not immediately; a weekly or monthly review will suffice.

This reduces the incentive for out-of-hours communications, without imposing strict limits that might backfire badly.

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