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Do Your Employees Feel Overworked? They're being asked to do more with less, so make sure their efforts don't push them to the breaking point.

By Marcus Erb

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Are U.S. employees hitting the wall? As the recession ran its course, people rallied to work longer hours and produce more with less. These efforts lead to productivity outputs not seen since the end of World War II, jumping approximately 7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But these higher levels of productivity are showing signs of faltering. Productivity levels are beginning to show declines, falling 1.8 percent during the second quarter of 2010, the largest decline in four years. In addition, various experts cite increased evidence of employees feeling overworked, burned out and stressed. As a leader, how do you sustain your employees' effort without pushing them past the breaking point? Here are four innovative practices from the leaders of the best workplaces:

Thank employees and their families
It's important to recognize the stress of high workloads, both for employees and their families. Showing appreciation tells employees their leader understands the stress of their situation, sees them as people not just workers, and helps gain support at home. When two managers at Robins & Morton, a Birmingham, Ala.-based construction contracting firm, were transferred to projects hun¬dreds of miles from their fami¬lies, their senior managers sent gift boxes of toys and other goodies along with a handwrit¬ten note to their wives and children to thank them for sharing their fathers' time with the company. This gesture was small considering the families' sacrifices but went a long way with the employees, their spouses and their children.

Create ways to take a true break
Leaders can help employees ease stress by providing fun and quick ways to step away from their work. Dixon Schwabl, a Rochester, N.Y.-based advertising and PR agency, has a weekly ice cream delivery, where the neighborhood ice cream truck makes a stop at the office to offer free treats to all employees. The agency also hosts Acoustic Thursdays during the winter months, an event accompanied by ice cream sundaes and an "unplugged" performance from the agency rock band, JobOrder. If employees need an impromptu break, they can take advantage of the firm's dedicated Scream Room, a space intended solely for venting.

Keep an eye on people's hours and take action
If long hours and burnout are concerns, measuring and managing them are little different from other critical areas, such as sales, profitability, or customer satisfaction. At Intuitive Research and Technology Corporation, a privately owned aerospace company based in Huntsville, Ala., senior management monitors the number of hours worked to ensure employees generally work no more than 80 hours every two weeks. The company strongly believes an individual consistently working more than 80 hours means either that the work is not being managed well, the employee is not working efficiently, or an additional person is needed to handle the work. Believing that this is detrimental in the long run to employees, customers and the company, Intuitive's leaders hold managers accountable for employee hours, and also has "closers" -- designated employees assigned to lock the building at close of day. These employees leave at 5:30 p.m., meaning everyone else has to leave at the same time.

Send the right messages
Perhaps the most crucial steps to prevent burnout are the messages leaders send, both through regular communications and through their actions. After discovering that many staff members were not taking all of their allotted paid time off, leaders at McMurry, a Phoenix-based marketing communications firm, took a series of steps to communicate the importance of time off and to support its usage. The topic was addressed during an employee town hall meeting, followed by a series of articles in the company newsletter featuring vacations and "staycations" of individual staff members. Managers followed up by emphasizing quality and efficiency in recognition efforts and adding taking PTO to individual performance plans -- for both managers and staff.

As the economy continues to recover, many workforces have reached new peaks of productivity. At the best workplaces, this effort is matched by a healthy and sustainable level of stress. Among employees at these organizations, 89 percent report looking forward to coming to work, and 88 percent say their workplace is psychologically and emotionally healthy. These positive experiences suggest leaders of the best workplaces are poised to sustain their productivity gains well into the future.

Marcus Erb is a senior research partner and senior consultant with the Great Place to Work® Institute. He focuses on the financial services, manufacturing and health care industries.

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