Psychological Fatigue Is The Silent Productivity Killer—But Extreme Teamwork Can Subvert It

A head full of stress is as dangerous as one full of booze, even if that's rarely acknowledged in a work environment. Here are three ways to get you--or a colleague--back in the clear.

Imagine this scenario: your four-year-old daughter wakes up vomiting at 2:00 a.m. She's flushed and sweating. You pull out a thermometer: 103 degrees. Off to the emergency room you dash, where the on-call pediatrician decides it's a situation in need of close monitoring.

You stay vigilant at her bedside through the night until finally the doctor says she's out of the woods; her temperature is down and she can go home. Unfortunately, today is big pitch day at the office.

A game-changing potential client has flown into town for final due diligence before they make a decision. With thoughts drifting to your daughter all day, you suffer hour after hour of number crunching and question peppering. It doesn't go well. At 6:30 p.m. they pull the plug on the deal.

You're exhausted. You've been up for almost seventeen straight hours. You just want to go check on your little girl. As you roll out of the parking lot, your mind is clogged with should'ves, could'ves, and what-ifs. You don't recognize it but you're in the same condition as someone leaving a bar after hitting the bottle (with no designated driving pal to snatch away the keys).

Heaven forbid you get into a car wreck. If you did, though, an opposing insurance company would be quick to explore sleep deprivation in assigning fault. Medical facts and crash statistics would support their position empirically. It's not news that our litigious society relies on hard data to judge human error, performance dips, and undesirable outcomes. But physiology isn't the only contributing factor. There's an element at play we call "psychological fatigue." We need not be tired for it to drop a deuce on us.

Psychological fatigue is an erosion of enthusiasm caused by obstacles, roadblocks, or added rules and constraints. Not to be confused with sleep-related brain deficiency (haziness or memory loss, for example), Psychological fatigue is a diminution in emotional, spiritual, or attitudinal components of our skills, our contributions, and our output.

Continuing with our fictitious ill-child situation, traffic ticket likelihood would still be heightened without the seventeen-hour drag. Even working off full rest, had your daughter instead been rushed to the ER at 6:30 p.m., just as your prospective client deep-sixed your proposal, the weight on your mind would take a toll. Psychological concessions to your ability can be equally as potent as those resulting from sacrifice of a full night of slumber--for the same reason cell phone use while driving is dangerous.

The insidious part of all this is a lack of accompanying perception. Biologically, research reveals that at low to moderate levels of fatigue (both physical and psychological), people tend to be unaware of the hits they're taking. ("I'm fine; I can make it to the next exit.") Even when conscious of their suboptimal faculties, people are conditioned to keep it to themselves. Socially and culturally, the prevalent ego atmosphere in sports and business dissuades admission of diminished capacity. It's a competitive sin to disclose weakness.

Demonstrating we're in control, showing grit no matter what--those are the dominant behaviors most teams reinforce. To such a degree that people are widely reluctant to so much as suggest to a teammate that grinding it out might not always be the best way to go. Reflect on how long it took our society to finally accept it as a necessary practice to tell a friend he or she is too inebriated to drive. Do we do the same when someone is too tired or too distracted to drive? Hardly. That feels too much like treading into a territory of making accusations that they're not capable or not responsible.

This confluence of factors makes psychological fatigue a silent barrier to exceptional work--and teamwork. When conditions arise along the lines of those in the scenario we sketched above, customary collegial "support" is a pat on the back, an admonition to hang in there, or a cap tipping of sympathy:

  • "Sorry to hear about your daughter . . . sounds like a rough night."
  • "Oh man, I've been there before. I know what you're going through."
  • "Keep your chin up."
  • Or even the rhetorical offering, "Is there anything I can do?" We all know how that question is answered ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
Interchanges of this variety sound good, but they lack performance-transforming substance. They blow "you can do it" smoke, maintaining the cultural standard that everyone should be able to handle matters themselves. Or worse, they foster a manner of social comparison. They imply, "I have to deal with it; you should too."

Suppose, however, as you grabbed the files to go meet with your prospective client, juggling a cup of coffee and a bottle of NoDoz, one of your teammates came to you with this statement:

"I'm out the door right now. I'm going to pick up my wife. You know she's a children's doc, right? She's cleared her decks at the clinic. We're going to go spend the day looking after your daughter for you. We've got your back. You go knock this pitch out of the park."

A hug and a high-five follow. You both head off to get after it.

Psychological fatigue can be eliminated in a snap of the fingers like this--if you're willing to do what it takes to be an extreme team. Imagine how reenergized or relieved you might feel. Imagine how it might alter your facility to dial in, maybe identifying subtleties in your meeting you'd otherwise miss, or buttressing you from drifting off target a tad less, or clarifying your mission.

Big deals, like championship games, frequently hinge on nuances. An inch here, an ounce there is usually what separates number one in an industry from number two. You needn't worry about wholly eliminating psychological fatigue; a touch less is often a bottom-line difference maker.

So, should we fight against psychological fatigue?

Given the oft unrecognized, oft downplayed, and oft covered up by machismo nature of physical fatigue's first cousin, whatever is one to do to fight against psychological fatigue?
Don't. Don't fight it!



Turn it into an advantage. Psychological fatigue presents an incredible opportunity for extreme teamwork. Here's how to be one of those truly special teams:

Stop asking coworkers "How are you today?"

By that we mean the worn out, pass-by, rote greeting to which nobody really gives an informative answer, and nobody really pays attention to the reply anyway. Come up with a different hello catchphrase for everyday use, allowing you to reserve "how are you" questions for when you can pause, look your teammate in the eye, genuinely and presently listen, and get past surface stuff. If you cease taking "how are you" for granted, you'll interrupt the bad habit many organizations fall prey to of unintentionally shunning, and thus not noticing, psychological fatigue.

Be attentive to teammates' subtle posture shifts.

Head, eyes, shoulders, breathing, walking stride… when any are slumped slightly more than usual, that's a cue to infuse some emotional energy. Note, we didn't say sympathize or empathize or even problem solve. Those responses take energy. You should give energy. Smiles and pats on the back cost you nothing in expenditure but offer significant attitudinal benefits.

Feeling a little off your game yourself?

The best way to perk up is not a nap or coffee break; it's taking a timeout from focusing on your own little world and your own challenges to go do something nice to help someone else. In all our years of research and practice, we've found nothing creates more energy and positive momentum than does the act of helping. It gets your mind off an obstacle, or off fatigue itself, and puts it squarely on feeling great and accomplishing something great.

Excerpted from Help The Helper: Building A Culture Of Extreme Teamwork. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Kevin L. Pritchard and John F. Eliot, 2012.

Kevin Pritchard is the general manager for the Indiana Pacers. John Eliot is a professor and a consultant.

[Image: Flickr user Andrea Caligaris]

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3 Comments

  • Alex W

    Kevin and John: nice thought-piece, but what are the odds of this happening in most companies? Whether that's in a company that aspires to this kind of thing, or one, like most, that palpably doesn't? You seriously underestimate the mechanicity of much corporate culture if you think this is achievable in anything other than a tiny minority of setups.

    A (two weeks ago: 0230 to hospital with son's bronchial asthma; 0500 at airport for flight into London. Flexibility not an option)

  • Ben

     Alex W,

    It sounds like your lack of "flexibility" is due to having your priorities out of whack.  Of course this wont work for you, if your priorities are not in order.  2:30 to hospital, and 5 am to airport ?  Is that a joke?  No wonder you have problems.... Family FIRST, everything else tenth.  Otherwise enjoy paying for lawyers later to fight your sons drug possession charges and that other legal battle for flipping his car, while drunk, while skipping school.  Congratulations on becoming a drag on society.  People like you cost this country far too much money in far to many ways.

    Kevin and John: Thanks for the article! I'm so sick of having to deal with coworkers, employees, and even people I interview who think working intelligently is a bad idea.  Its time for America to evolve.  To those who choose to raise drains on society, and become less productive, enjoy my dust, and oh ya my money too since my tax dollars will be paying for the social programs in which your children are court ordered to participate.  "Deuce" rolls up hill, and its far past time parents and employees in this country realize it again. 

    Thanks Kevin and John,

    -Ben