Preventing a Five-Alarm Fire

By Thad Plumley

Someone I know told me about a recent meeting that didn’t go so well with their manager. The boss wanted to add a task and the employee responded by loudly listing how many hours they were already working, all of their recent weekends worked, and how often they have to take work home.

Think my friend is on the verge of burning out or rather someone who is already a five-alarm fire?

Burnout reminds me of what every safety manual states about heat-related illness—when you see the symptoms, it is too late. The person is already suffering.

Obviously, burning out is not good for an employee—mentally or physically. But it’s also not good for a company. A burned-out employee is not one you want interacting with your customers and they can quickly scorch the morale of a company.

So how did we become a society of stressed-out workers? With hard work.

The book The Power of Full Engagement detailed in 2003 how measuring the engagement of a company is a way to measure its productivity. So employers began looking for people regularly willing to go “above and beyond” and regarding them as their most engaged staff.

What was considered above and beyond? There were things like working long hours, working on weekends, and taking work home.

I’m sure you know where this is heading. Yep, that became the new normal. A 2012 survey involving 32,000 employees around the world found high engagement as it had been traditionally defined no longer ranks as the highest level of performance for them.

That means above and beyond is really out there now. It’s in a region that’s not safe, one that burns out employees.

Take a look around your office. Look for signs from your employees and coworkers. Sometimes they’re not as obvious as my friend sounding off. Perhaps someone is not performing like they used to, lacking enthusiasm, having unexplained absences, or leaving early or showing up late.

If so, talk to them. And most importantly, if you’re a boss or manager, talk with everyone. Communication is the best way to avoid having a team of five-alarm fires.

Employers should regularly hold staff meetings and one-on-one meetings. Let employees discuss their workload and environment. Managers must be clear in their expectations, recognize good work, and emphasize the positive impact employees are having on their company.

Find out what makes an employee tick and use that to motivate them. Encourage everyone to take breaks—and most importantly, lead by example.

Tony Schwartz, a coauthor of The Power of Full Engagement, wrote in The New York Times last year companies today really need to be measuring how consistently energized employees feel. That means measuring not only if they’re making an impact but regularly feeling rested and refueled.

That’s a huge philosophical change from where we’re at now.

But if it will prevent a five-alarm fire at your company, can you afford not to make it?

Thad PlumleyThad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at and on Twitter @WaterWellJournl.