Why You Might Be Overtraining Your Team’s Well-Being and What to Do About It

It actually happens more than you might think. A well-intentioned personal trainer creates a training program and unknowingly overestimates what his or her client can handle. The trainer creates a program to challenge the client’s mind and body to optimally perform—to lose weight, to become stronger, to increase flexibility or to achieve some other performance goal. In the trainer’s efforts to do what’s best for his or her client, he or she accidentally or inadvertently does something that’s actually worse than never training the client in the first place. The trainer creates a program that does “too much, too fast, too soon”—that is, the trainer overtrains the client.

This surprisingly common yet little-discussed scenario creates a condition well known in the exercise prescription field called overtraining syndrome. You may already know that “training effect” occurs when you push a body and a mind past current limits (i.e., the process of progressive overload). But what you might not know is that if you push too far past the body and mind’s optimal training threshold all of the body’s physiologic systems shift gears. Instead of making gains in fitness and optimizing performance, the opposite effects occur: Performance suffers.

You may be wondering how overtraining syndrome has anything to do with you, or your office or your team—especially if you don’t work out regularly or you don’t work out with a trainer.

The Problem of Overtraining at Work

So, here’s the big reveal. As someone who has worked for the past 24 years with clients in both the weight room (early in my career, as a trainer of trainers in the yoga and fitness fields) and in the board room (currently, as a communication strategist and mindful leadership expert), I had an “aha” moment. I realized that overtraining syndrome doesn’t just happen in the weight room—it happens in workplaces, too. Just like a well-intentioned trainer can unknowingly push his or her client past that person’s training threshold, leaders do the same thing when they push their people past their optimal working threshold.

In the case of overtraining in the weight room, the process of overtraining happens when your body/mind passes your optimal training threshold; your body knows it is training too hard. Your body’s systems then start to protect you by slowing you down in some way: You’ll feel tired, you’ll have trouble sleeping or you’ll catch a cold. Interestingly, you may not know that you’re experiencing overtraining syndrome; you may just be feeling these symptoms and not know why. The whole process is brilliant, although it doesn’t feel good and it’s not fun. Your body is literally slowing you down because you did “too much, too fast, too soon.” It wants you to rest and recover, and it won’t take no for an answer.

But in the case of the board room (or any other workplace context), overtraining is a lot harder to recognize and address. Leaders and/or their team members may experience the feelings of being exhausted, overwhelmed and/or overburdened while not realizing that these aren’t just par for the work course: They are hallmark symptoms of chronic stress conditions such as burnout or compassion fatigue. Making matters worse, as these workers strive to get their work tasks done, the leader and/or the team regularly push through these symptoms and may also ignore their own personal needs for exercise, sleep, balanced nutrition and/or time with family and friends. Ironically, these high-driving workers make these choices in their best efforts to optimize their performance—to get the job done —but in actuality they are compromising their performance. The problem is especially pervasive in high-stakes, high-consequence and/or high-stress fields such as emergency response, cybersecurity, military service, higher education and healthcare but can happen in any field that operates in a “24/7” way.

The Complex and Unpopular Solution—Catching Up To Yourself

In the weight room, the best way to prevent and/or address overtraining syndrome is to take time to either slow down, or even pause, the training process until the body and mind have a chance to rest and recover. It may make sense, but it’s a hard sell. Not all high-performing athletes like to slow down, and they usually have to be convinced that it’s in their best interest to do so.  Their bodies literally need to catch up—to get healing processes back on track and prepare for additional performance training.

In the board room, or any other workplace for that matter, it’s a similarly “hard sell” to convince a leader to slow down his or her own work and/or the work of their team. In fact, I’ve had CEOs, clinicians, military officers, emergency responders and teachers laugh out loud to me when I presented something that to them seems to be such a ludicrous idea. How on earth can they slow down in their 24/7 job, in our 24/7 world?

Good question. I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years trying to figure that out and developing interventions to help leaders and their teams to do so, too. The process I have created isn’t perfect; it’s not going to rid you or your team of the problem, and it may or may not actually slow your work process down. But it does encourage you to not deny that overtraining can quietly compromise your team’s optimal performance, and it does help to buffer against the ill effects of the syndrome itself (i.e., fatigue, exhaustion and the feelings of being overwhelmed). We have to name and face the problem in order to protect ourselves from the risks associated with it. The process that I present in great detail in my book Well-Being Ultimatum is essentially threefold:

Assess your (and your team’s) well-being. If you want to know how to optimize your and your team’s well-being, you have to know where your well-being is now as compared with where you want it to be. And, you also have to measure any efforts you undertake in order to both optimize and protect your and your team’s well-being. I have a comprehensive well-being survey here on my website. You can also use other surveys out there to assess well-being, engagement and/or quality of life.

Protect your well-being with the 3 S’s. In my book and in my keynote talks, I encourage leaders to remember they really set the tone for their team and the cultural norms of well-being practice for their team. So both for their own well-being and their team’s well-being (by their example), they need to practice what I call the 3 S’s: Self-care daily, social support weekly and services monthly. This means that I encourage leaders to a) do at least one thing for themselves daily (just like you water a plant, you also have to give yourself some time to rest and recover), b) take time for social support weekly (to spend time with people who don’t just know you as a leader, but who also know the real you and can help support you as you recover from the daily challenges you face) and c) make time for “services” monthly. The last (services) recommendation encourages you to open up to the idea that it’s important for you to take time to receive help from other professionals and/or experts, too. Leaders, educators, clinicians, military officers, emergency responders and others in high consequence fields often have one thing in common—they want to help others and they usually don’t like to receive help. But that is also what sets them up for compassion fatigue and burnout—not being in the “receiving role.” Services don’t have to be “paid for” in order to work well; for example, a teacher may tutor a friend’s child in exchange for a credit to get a well-deserved massage.

Foster a workplace that openly discusses well-being. I’m not just talking about wellness programs and health fairs—although they certainly can help. Go beyond that, and bring up well-being at your next conference call, in-person meeting, corporate event or off-site retreat. Encourage your team to practice the 3 S’s noted above. Give people an open floor to share the challenges that they face with regards to their well-being (and give them an opportunity to share anonymously to encourage honest dialogue in this area). You might begin this dialogue by asking them: How do you define well-being? How has your well-being been over the past two weeks? What is your perception of the team’s well-being? If you had a magic wand and you could improve your well-being, how would you use it? What can I do as your leader to support your well-being? In my work with teams I have found a full-day off-site to be especially helpful to unpack and discuss these and other similar questions, to discover what is and isn’t working with regards to well-being and to create a team-informed plan to really improve it.

By assessing, fostering, and protecting your and your team’s well-being, you will be buffering the exhausting effects of overtraining in the workplace and possibly preventing the syndrome from showing up in the first place. You will be engaging in activities that experts recommend to cope with stress. Perhaps most importantly, you will show your team that you value self-care, social support and the experience of being helped (services). In this process, you will not only support your and your team’s resilience, you will also foster your and your team’s ability to perform optimally in work, life and play.

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Master Coach, Well-Being Scholar, and C-Suite Advisor

Dr. Suzie Carmack, Ph.D., M.F.A., M.Ed., ERYT is a scholar, strategist and speaker in the areas of work/life balance, behavior change, mindful leadership, and health communication. She is the author of the Well-Being Ultimatum (2015) and serves as a Health Communication Lead for the Center for Transforming Health at the MITRE Corporation, a federally funded research and development center serving in the public trust. She will present a keynote talk: “Be the Change: How You and Your Organization Can Transform Workplace Health, Wellness, Welfare and Well-Being” at the 7th Annual Maryland Workplace Health & Wellness Symposium presented by BHS on June 10, 2016.