Avoiding burnout

Seven tips for all fraud examiners

By Joseph Agins, CFE
joseph-agins-80x80   Career Connection: Building your professional future

As the director of investigations for a large organization, I’ve always said that I have one of the best jobs in the company. I enjoy what I do and the people I work with. However, as with other inherently taxing fraud examination positions, the job comes with a lot of stress plus mental and emotional fatigue. You can probably relate — we often see the worst in people, and we might not be able to resolve our disappointment, disgust and anger.

Of course, most have to deal with stress in their workplaces. Consider these statistics from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:
  • Twenty-five percent of workers view their jobs as the No. 1 stressor in their lives.
  • Twenty-six percent of workers said they were “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.”
  • Forty percent of workers report that their jobs are very or extremely stressful.
  • Seventy-five percent of workers believe that employees today have more on-the-job stress than those of the last generation.
As fraud examiners, regardless of where we work, we often have to face difficult adversaries who don’t want to talk with us. When we’re successful in our cases the lives of perpetrators, co-workers and victims can drastically change. Indictments and verdicts can rock our organizations. Add it all up, and the stress can creep into the danger zone.   

We’re taking about the potential for major burnout that will affect our jobs and lives. According to the Mayo Clinic, “ignored or unaddressed job burnout can have significant health consequences,” including, but not limited to, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, stroke and obesity. 

The American Psychological Association states that increased stress can lead to individuals “using unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, comfort eating, poor diet choices, inactivity and drinking alcohol to manage their stress,” and warns that “reliance on such behavior can lead to long-term, serious health problems.” 

I equate investigative work to playing chess, which can be mentally and physically exhausting. You’re feverishly plotting your strategy as you’re trying to guess your opponent’s next move. In an admission-seeking interview — just one component of a fraud examination — you and your subject often have entirely different objectives. You’re seeking the truth, and he or she wants to keep it from you. You both need to “win.” Exhilarating, yes, but thoroughly draining, especially when you have multiple interviews and investigations. Now carry that mental exhaustion into all areas of your job, and you’ve got a problem.
Let’s talk about seven ways you can relieve some stress in your office (for you and your employees) and have the enthusiasm and energy to tackle that next case. These suggestions might seem obvious, but I’m guessing we all need some reminding.   


1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Fraud examiners can be a somber bunch because they have austere jobs. However, you really don’t need to take yourself (or others) so seriously. Try to incorporate fun into the workplace. I’m not suggesting you hire a clown to come in on Fridays and make balloon animals, but a bit of levity can let off some steam, improve morale and increase productivity. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Laughter can activate and relieve your stress response. A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.”

A California State – Long Beach research study showed that employees who have fun in the workplace take less sick days, make better decisions, and are more creative and productive. (See “All Work and No Play Isn’t Even Good for Work,” by David Abramis in Psychology Today, March 1989.)

Work with your team members on incorporating occasional fun activities that can give everybody a break and some recuperative laughs such as potluck lunches and contests (most creative coffee mug, ugliest Christmas sweater, etc.). 

2. Recognize and reward good work
Hopefully, if you’re management you’re already doing this, but perhaps your efforts have diminished through the years. Of course, everybody likes a bit extra in the paycheck, but a little verbal affirmation goes a long way in relieving stress — theirs and yours. If you have good team members, tell them. (If you don’t, that’s another story.)

Saying “thank you” often will validate important work and can be contagious. 

Design an employee recognition program with the employees with such rewards as lunch with the big boss, jeans day passes, preferred parking and an employee-of-the-month perpetual plaque. 

3. Institute an open-door policy
I apologize for including this timeworn cliché (“My door is always open”), but employees need to know they can bring concerns to management. Those who work in an investigative capacity or in an ethics or compliance role know that they’re held to a higher standard. So, they may be less likely to come forward because they think they might look incompetent or weak. A written policy probably won’t encourage employees to talk with management; you might have to visit their offices to talk to them.

4. Foster positive relationships with other departments
During a fraud examination, we often get less-than-cheerful answers when we reach out to others in the organization. Even if the investigation has nothing to do with them, they still shudder at our emails or when our names appear on their caller IDs. They know we’re probably not calling to discuss the weather or to tell them how great their departments are. They know we’re likely to disrupt their workflows. However, we can do a lot to foster good relationships by conducting ourselves appropriately, fairly and respectfully and perform consistent and quality work. 
Of course, terse, stern phone calls don’t work. We can try to be empathetic and understanding. After employees help us in an investigation or compliance review, we’ll often tell their supervisors in the organization how helpful they were. (It boosts their morale, and they won’t cringe the next time we call or email.) Kindness is a great stress reliever for everybody! 


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