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The Growing Burden of Workloads in the Workplace

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Escalating workload is an issue facing all of us, as individuals, managers, and employers, and it's getting worse in this challenging economic environment. The stress is building for employees lucky enough to have a job, who are putting in longer hours, having to do more with less, and under increased pressure to perform. As we celebrate National Work and Family Month, it's important to consider how to begin tackling workload, which is the biggest barrier facing organizations that are committed to workplace flexibility and work-life effectiveness as a win/win business strategy. In March 2009, WFD Consulting conducted a Workload Issues Survey among a wide range of organizations to learn more about the state of workload, its impacts, and what organizations are doing about it. Not surprisingly, we found that increased workloads and stress are indeed taking a toll on employees and the business. For example:
  • Eight out of ten respondents report that managers' and employees' workloads and stress have increased in the last 12 months.
  • Almost 80 percent of respondents say employee morale has decreased in the same time period.
  • Half of the respondents report that employee motivation, energy and endurance are slipping.
  • Respondents to our survey report that in the past year, work pressures have grown due to expectations for speed of execution and the increasing demands of managing globally, while the number of employees is shrinking.
We have found that employees in every industry consistently report spending at least 20 percent of their time, essentially one day per week, on "low-value work" - the kind of work that is redundant, that feels like a waste of time and is not a priority to the business - things that have a negative impact on an employee's effectiveness. When you think about the stress caused by heavy workload and the time spent on frustrating, non-value added work, it's often the "tipping point" for people and truly saps any energy they have left and potentially erodes the quality of their work and personal life. When we asked employees to identify the key drivers to workload and low-value work, not surprisingly, "the lack of adequate staffing to meet work demands" was the biggest factor. Tied for second, was "conflicting priorities about what is really important", and "poor communication, coordination, and cooperation among different functions". Other common drivers of workload and low-value work were "information overload - too much email and internal communication that makes it hard to filter out what's really important", "ineffective business processes and systems", "client and customer demands, particularly those last minute urgent requests and commitments", and "too many unproductive meetings". Most of these things can be addressed by organizations, managers and workgroups to reduce low-value work, enhance individual and team effectiveness and improve quality of life for employees. At the organizational level, providing employees with some flexibility and control over where, when, and how their work is done is very important to helping employees manage their workload and reduce stress. Formal flexible work options and opportunities for occasional day-to-day flexibility enable employees to meet job requirements and personal responsibilities and helps take the pressure off. In addition, organizations need to identify the factors in the work environment, work practices and processes that contribute to overwork, stress and burnout through targeted assessments and establish strategies to reduce low-value work and enhance work-life effectiveness. Some of the most effective strategies to tackle workload are happening at the team/workgroup level. When managers engage employees in structured discussion and planning sessions as a team to improve the way work is done within the context and realities of their work environment, powerful solutions are implemented that make a real difference! I've seen how empowering it is for teams to discuss ways to improve communication, teamwork and work-life effectiveness and then establish team operating principles and agreements to improve the work environment. When teams identify and discuss the key causes of excessive workload and target the things they have some control over, they develop "quick wins" and action plans to reduce non-value added work and enhance team effectiveness and productivity. As a result of these discussions for example, teams often develop email protocol, guidelines to enhance meeting effectiveness and a plan for handling unexpected, last minute requests and emergencies. Establishing team work priorities and focusing in on the critical few, saves precious time and helps ensure that team members are focused on what's really important to the business rather than wasting time on the things that aren't. Employers and managers need to understand the impact that unrelenting heavy workloads, long hours and stress are having on employees and the organization and make a commitment to tackle the issues head on. Involving employees at all levels of the organization in identifying the causes and developing solutions will improve the quality of work and life and ultimately business results. To read the full results of the survey, go to www.wfd.com.