An article targeted at parents with the above headline hit the internet in 2010, published by Mario Vittone, to help reduce the number of children especially drowning. The point is scary as well as necessary: We cannot look for the expected dramatic signals when we are to assess if someone is at risk of drowning or not.
The article states that “Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life […] It is the number two cause of accidental death in children, age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents) – of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening. Drowning does not look like drowning.”
The same thing goes for drowning at work or in work. Employees who complain about work load, tough deadlines or declare themselves “stressed” or “pressured” are probably presenting a valid point, but they are not the ones to look out for. You can parallel this to the waving and splashing we’ve come to expect of real-life drowning. Colleagues close to drowning are most often awfully quiet. You barely sense they are there, like an invisible friend or someone who’s retracted a bit from the world. They sometimes don’t even know they are drowning themselves. They don’t have time for the coffee-chat or skip lunch repeatedly, or just eat in solitude at their desk, clearing up emails. Drowning in work is a quiet, undramatic event, until the rubber band snaps and the person bursts out in anger, tears or a melt-down. But then we are often at a point where a long recovery time is needed.
What can you do as a leader and a colleague? First of all, block out the drama- tune in and listen for the uncomfortable silences. Who in your team is here, and who seems absent while present? Who just dives in and seem capable of endless productivity yet never takes the time for breaks or office chit chat? Who stays too late or works too hard too long yet never complains or breathes a word of discomfort? Those are the ones you need to follow closely.
Don’t get us wrong: Sometimes you just have a real work horse who loves the job and everything about it with no inner conflict, charging on the go. Fantastic. And sometimes you have someone complaining repeatedly who actually does have a point. We just want to clarify that the stereotypical path to burnout or drowning that we have come to expect is not the one we should fear. It is the silent demise of someone who will just take on a bit more, eating up her-/himself bite by bite you should look out for. Because as any life-guard will tell you: If you know what to look for, drowning does look like drowning.