The Limits of Overworking – Understanding Peak Performance

My 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.  Because a team of half-asleep zombies pretending to be productive but 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 stronger results.

It is essential to know how to recognise the first signs of wear and tear and how to help. Consistent high achievements over years require 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.

So, peak performance, 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. But quality also is.  The widely-accepted Yerkes-Dodson law 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 flat-lines; 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 flat-lines again.   So we need to be challenged but not overwhelmed. At the top of performance, we are in a state of flow.  In a nutshell, too much going on (whether in quantity or quality) for too long and you are likely to make the wrong decision, give up or crash.

Other factors found inside and outside the company can affect performance at work.  Our attention tends to be more and more fragmented due not only to the multiplicity of tasks we are trying to perform at once (and yes, multi-tasking is a myth, the brain cannot do it!) but also due to our constant use of technology.

Disrupted sleep is also another unhelpful factor: 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.

So who do we break the vicious circle?

A first idea could be to start by 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…

 And then of course, we need the practical stuff!  I work with a mind-body training technique for performance and wellbeing called Sophrology.  Widely used on the continent, it is gaining strength is the UK.  Related to the better-known mindfulness, you could describe it as super-charged, super-fast mind-body meditation.  So what would Sophrology suggest to attain healthy performance?  I will leave you today with a few simple short techniques to get you started:

  • 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 are tired!

Slow down, speed does not always mean efficiency but can lead to major mistakes.

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