Preventing Burnout on an Investigative Research Team

By Daniel Greenberg, Vice President & Christopher Darroch, Associate Director, Forward Risk and Intelligence

Under the Hood: A Discussion Series for Investigative Professionals

A bevy of articles have been published in the past two years discussing the effects of employee burnout and ways to prevent it. Little if any such writing has been tailored to the world of corporate investigations, but the sector poses special challenges that should be addressed head-on.

Investigative professionals are not usually the first group that the public will think of when discussing burnout. Nowadays, white-collar workers can typically do most, if not all, of their work remotely, or as it is sometimes phrased: “from the comfort of their homes.” At the national level, it is certainly appropriate for the conversation to focus far more on healthcare professionals, teachers, and others facing extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

But if you personally work in the field of corporate investigations, or if you rely on the work of investigators for your business’s success, then the work conditions in this sector are likely important to you. Investigative researchers must contend with tight deadlines, high expectations, and the ever-present knowledge that a single mistake can have deleterious consequences. In short, the conditions for burnout are all present. Fortunately, there are several approaches leadership can take to prevent burnout on an investigative research team.

Mitigate Feelings of Over-Work

An investigative researcher who is dedicated and passionate about their job can still burn out if they are overworked. As explained by a May 2021 New Yorker article (“Burnout: Modern Affliction or Human Condition?” by Jill Lepore), the term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger, who put in long hours at a free clinic in New York. Freudenberger wrote, “You feel a total sense of commitment… until you finally find yourself, as I did, in a state of exhaustion.”

The previous article in this series discussed how investigative team leaders can mitigate feelings of overwork and burnout by creating a functional work environment, thinking ahead, and setting boundaries. In addition, leadership can consider the following approaches:

  • Mix up project types: Working on the same type of investigative project over and over again can lead people to feel overworked even if their hours are reasonable. After a researcher completes a big project, try to assign them something different for at least a day or two to break things up. Similarly, if a researcher has been assigned a number of smaller projects in a row, consider giving them a longer-term case to work on. Overall, watch out if someone ends up becoming your “go to” for a certain project type: is that something they actually want?
  • Avoid “speed up” pressures: According to the New York Times (“Young Workers Disrupt Key G. M. Plant” by Agis Salpukas), in January 1972, General Motors assembly line workers in Lordstown, Ohio famously went on strike in protest of “being asked to work too hard and too fast to be able to turn out quality automobiles.” Investigative researchers may be familiar with this general sentiment. Be cautious when reducing “hours per case,” unless you have a well-thought-out plan. Genuine efficiency gains come from changes to techniques or approaches, not simply pressuring researchers to “speed up,” or meet an arbitrary “utilization rate” that fails to measure the objective quality of their output.
  • Cut down on distractions: If your researcher has 10 days to complete a project, but they are on conference calls and responding to emails for half that time, then they really only have five days. The phrase “that meeting could have been an email” is ubiquitous but only tells part of the story; emails and chat messages can also be disruptive. Good research requires intense focus on the subject of your investigation. Leaders who respect this need for focus and structure their internal communications carefully can minimize unnecessary distractions and empower researchers to hit ambitious targets.
  • Encourage employees to utilize work from home advantages: While something of a mixed bag, working from home comes with novel advantages. For example, workers save time without their morning commutes and are more able to tailor their work environment to their specific needs. However, the high-stakes nature of the investigative field can cause some employees to question their use of these benefits; taking a walk around the office feels perfectly natural, but taking an equally-timed break while at home can feel lazy. Encouraging employees to reap work from home benefits can not only help counter burnout, but also increase trust between employers and employees.

Connect Researchers with the Purpose of their Work

MIT Sloan Management Review (“What You’re Getting Wrong About Burnout,” by Liz Fosslien) recently emphasized that overwork was only one of the causes of burnout, with other causes being lack of meaning, feelings of ineffectiveness, and not receiving emotional support. As such, the following points may prove helpful:

  • Investigators who believe in the purpose and importance of their work are less likely to feel burnt out. Managers should regularly remind their team why their work has value to the client and often to society as a whole. Perhaps more importantly, managers should also take the time to learn about each investigator’s values and beliefs, and help them connect their day-to-day work to an end goal that has meaning for them.
  • A researcher’s sense of purpose can dwindle over time if leaders are neglectful. Some investigative projects are inherently meaningful and interesting; digging up evidence of fraud and stopping a scammer in their tracks is usually going to feel satisfying. Unfortunately, in many cases, the ultimate goal of an assignment cannot be fully shared with the researcher. In other cases, a researcher may come to feel – often mistakenly – that the assignment is “routine” and not fulfilling any larger purpose. It then falls to leadership to actively communicate why the work is in fact meaningful.
  • Leaders can emphasize the link between high-quality research, client satisfaction, and workers’ career objectives. If an investigator clearly sees that high performance on a project will result in advancing their own career and the goals of their team, they will feel more of a connection to the project. Often, a sense of purpose can come from helping a colleague or hitting an important benchmark.
  • Researchers can also find innate value in the mastery of the investigative skill set. At Forward Risk, we often advocate for investigators to see each project as an opportunity to develop and apply creative methods and techniques, which often uncover hard-to-find information. Regardless of the ultimate end use of the case, a sense of purpose and progress can be found within any assignment, so long as the researcher believes in the value of the investigative craft.

Avoid Seeing Burnout as an Individual Failing

Managers typically have a lot of competing priorities and duties and may be tempted to view topics like burnout, motivation, and purpose as something that each researcher should handle on their own. They may think, “if someone is feeling burnt out, why don’t they just take a vacation?” Vacations are one part of the answer but far from a complete solution. Researchers should be energized by their work, not drained from it and in desperate need of recovery time.

In addition, what some managers may fail to recognize is that, while working from home, an already fragile work-life balance can quickly take over a researcher’s life. The lack of the concrete distinction between time spent in the office and time at home leaves some employees in a state of limbo, never fully leaving their workplaces. Managers should regularly check in with their researchers to ensure that their work does not bleed over and dominate their personal lives. Such bleed over will only serve to increase employee burnout.

The benefits from employee engagement and retention vastly outweigh the costs of preventing and mitigating burnout, in terms of both quality of investigative services, and financial considerations. The above suggestions are just a few examples of actionable steps that leaders can take to prevent burnout, although it is a task that is admittedly easier said than done. While this article does not have all the answers, we hope that you found some value in this discussion.

This post is the second in a series about workplace challenges facing investigative professionals and other white-collar researchers, focusing on practical advice and lessons learned from our own experiences. While tailored toward the investigative and intelligence industry, we hope that these articles are also valuable for others in the professional services sector, while also providing a behind-the-scenes look at Forward Risk’s values and operating practices.

If you have any questions or comments, or would like to suggest a topic for further discussion, please email our Vice President Dan Greenberg – dan [at] forwardrisk.com.

Daniel Greenberg is a Vice President, and Christopher Darroch is an Associate Director at Forward Risk and Intelligence LLC, a corporate investigations firm with offices in Washington, DC and New York. More information can be found at www.forwardrisk.com.