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Stop working too much—and letting your team overwork, too

Employees are working too much, leading to burnout and disengagement. Here’s how managers and employees can both work on solutions.

Stop working too much—and letting your team overwork, too
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Since the pandemic began and many employees began to work remotely, balancing or blending work and life has been a challenge for many. As we previously reported in Fast Company, an April 2020 survey by Blue Jeans found that remote workers were adding roughly three or four more hours to their workdays at home in the early weeks of the pandemic, increasing the risk of burnout.

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A new report sheds more light on the motivation behind employees working long hours from home. Achievers’ fourth annual Employee Engagement and Retention Report found that more than half (51%) of employees are worried that their manager thinks they’re not being productive enough working from home. So, 44% of them respond by working longer hours. That’s a problem because it contributes to burnout. In addition, one in five employees says they feel underappreciated for their contributions. One in four said that the top reason they’re looking to change jobs is better work-life balance.

From burnout to turnover, it’s in the best interest of both employees and managers to rein a culture of overwork, especially as remote work is likely here to stay at many organizations. Here are some actions both can take.

For managers

“As a leader, it’s an art to empower and support your team without getting too overreaching, but at the same time be tuned-in to when your team may need you to step in. This is especially important when your team is overstretched,” says Jane Scudder, executive coach and creator of The Growth Stack, a card deck that facilitates more effective conversations with your team.

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Scudder advises reviewing the circumstances. Is this a temporary “crunch” period? Or is there a chronic issue? If the latter, it’s critical to get clear on organizational and team priorities and empower your team members to make decisions related to those priorities. She uses a series of open-ended questions to identify divergences in vision or obstacles that are making the most important areas of focus less clear, possibly leading to overwork. They include:

  • What do you see as our team’s collective top priority?
  • What do you see as your personal top priority at work right now? (It’s not bad if the priorities are different, but it’s good to be aware of that as a leader.)
  • What’s getting in the way of you prioritizing the right things?
  • What is your biggest obstacle right now?
  • What can I specifically do to support you?
  • How would you like me to check back in on this?

This series of questions takes the employee through the thought process of what their priorities are, the obstacles they’re facing, and the support they need. By discussing the answers, you can help everyone get clearer on the most important areas of focus. Reinforce the message by letting your team members they can follow up with you personally, Scudder says. Because the questions are open-ended, it’s also important to listen and explore any unexpected areas that come up. You may find areas that you can clarify or where additional coaching or training are needed to help the employee be more successful in less time.

It’s also important for managers to focus on impact rather than process, says Natalie Baumgartner, PhD, chief workforce scientist at Achievers. “Setting clear expectations around what success looks like is critical,” she says. That way, team members know where to focus to make the greatest impact and may be able to delegate or eliminate tasks that don’t matter to organizational priorities.

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Modeling the behavior you want to cultivate is also important. One interesting phenomenon that Baumgartner has seen is that, because digital tools may show when various people are online and available, people who report to leaders putting in long hours may stay at their desk longer, too. Make clear to your team what your expectations are and do your best to be an example of that behavior, even if it includes turning off your visible availability on platforms like Slack or Teams. Take your vacation time. Communicate these expectations to your team.

For employees

Employees also need to take some responsibility for their workload, speaking up when it gets to be too much and cultivating good habits to organize their time. Mission creep is a real problem, especially as companies try to get by with fewer resources, says communication expert Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. Assuming you have a good relationship with your boss, it’s important to check in regularly to discuss what you’re working on and ensure that your expectations are similar, she says.

Headlee also suggests establishing good work habits. To the extent possible, choose your most productive times of day to get work done. Monitor how you’re spending your time to ensure you’re not wasting it on distractions, unnecessary meetings, or other non-essential tasks. If you are, eliminate as much as possible. Make sure you know how to use automation tools and other time-saving tools. If not, ask for training. And regularly check in with your supervisor to work on collaborative problem-solving if there are scheduling issues you can’t fix on your own, she says. And watch the “work as a habit” issue, which can be a problem when you live and work in the same space.

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“We have been brainwashed for [hundreds of] years to believe that what gives us all our value is hard work and long hours,” she says. When your work is just in the other room, there’s a temptation to spend more time at your desk to try to “get ahead.” But if you’re not taking breaks, you’re likely not going to be as sharp or productive as you could be.

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About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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