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5 secrets to dealing with too much work

When work is crushing you, you need a road map for preserving work-life balance.

5 secrets to dealing with too much work
[Source photo: fermate/iStock]
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In order to become a Navy SEAL one must pass through what is called “hell week.” During this fourth week of basic conditioning, recruits train for five days and five nights with a total of four hours of sleep. Brandon Webb passed. While many people assume physical toughness is the secret to becoming one of the 10% to 15% who will graduate, Webb says, “What SEAL training really tests is your mental mettle.”

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Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath told us that researchers have found two archetypes of behavior in those who attempt to pass SEAL training. First are called the “taskers,” who look to complete each job during this week of torture and then rest when they can. The other group are called “optimizers,” those who imagine all the tasks lined up for them during the day and think about how much time and effort they should put into each.

If you had to guess, which would you say drop out more often: taskers or optimizers? McGrath told us, “The people who drop out are overwhelmingly optimizers. They focus on the big picture; and they don’t rest because they are always thinking about the next thing they have to do. The secret of success for the taskers is they take this monolithic thing and break it into chunks. It’s task, rest. Task, rest.”

Thus, we find that the first step in overcoming overload is to learn to eat the elephant one bite at a time.

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Next, it’s important to address a couple of misconceptions about overload. Most common: Many managers believe it is an individual failure, thinking Oh, he just can’t keep up. Consider that in the U.S. alone, research from global staffing firm Robert Half shows 91% of employees feel at least somewhat burned out. That shows the problem is more macro than micro. Focusing on just the individual diverts attention from fixing underlying issues with the amount of work assigned and the ways in which employees are expected to do their jobs.

Another misconception is that overload is good for productivity. In the short term, for crunch situations, that actually can be true. But crunch time has become the standard, causing excessive pressure on team members, which leads to wear and tear to our bodies, increasing the risk of age-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and dementia.

Leaders often fail to appreciate that constantly demanding more and more work in less and less time leads to employee frustration and distrust, rising anger levels, and burnout. Employees who report being burned out are 63% more likely to take sick time and 2.6 times as likely to leave their current employer, according to a Gallup survey. Helping employees cope before they burn out is therefore a great productivity booster. We offer a set of methods for helping your people better cope with workload expectations.

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Method 1: Create clear road maps

It is rare for us to find team members working from good, understandable road maps that provide clarity on what needs to get done in what timeframe (week/month/year). Mary Beth DeNooyer, chief human resources officer for Keurig Dr Pepper, told us that the company’s 20,000 employees operate daily from personalized frameworks that provide clarity and help reduce anxiety. In addition to specific individual work goals and targets on these road maps, DeNooyer explained that “they include our Vision: What are we trying to achieve from a macro perspective. We also include Company Values, how our teams work together; and Competencies, which are how an individual succeeds. When the world seems to be on fire (employees) can lean back and say, ‘Okay, does this new thing fit?’ If not, they probably don’t need to be working on it.”

Method 2: Balance loads

How can a manager ensure everyone on the team has the right amount of work? DeNooyer said that she monitors her team’s workload regularly and tries to create an environment where team members help each other during peak times to ensure no one gets overloaded too often. “I have weekly touch points with my team, and when I can tell that it’s getting too much, I’ll say, ‘Okay, what’s the list of things? And which ones do you have to do? Which ones can be shared with somebody else? Which ones can wait?'”

Method 3: Rotate people

“Changes of pace, changes of demands, and shifts into situations that may not be so draining enable people to replenish their energies and get new and more accurate perspectives on themselves and their roles,” counsels Harvard’s Harry Levinson. Change out of high-stress jobs now and then also helps people’s ability to look forward to a time when they can get out of tough assignments.

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Method 4: Monitor progress closely

Rather than viewing check-ins as wielding a stick, see them as a way to allow team members to share challenges that are developing in a timely fashion, so that you can work together to find solutions. As Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, tells his team, “If there is a problem and you tell me, it’s our problem. If there’s a problem and you don’t tell me, it’s your problem.”

Method 5: Help people prioritize

A young employee confided to us, “I would kill to have my boss take a few minutes now and then to help prioritize all that’s going on and maybe give me an idea of how much latitude I have to make my own decisions.” When it comes to overload, most of us are not good at articulating to each other what our priorities are and what we are working on.

With a new hire, prioritizing might be a daily custom with a manager and employee, not to be overly controlling but to offer help and guidance as they get settled. Managers may ask each morning, “What do you have going today? Okay, let’s now organize those tasks by level of priority to the team.”

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Adapted from Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done (Harper Business; May 4, 2021) by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. Copyright © 2021 by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. With permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton consult with organizations around the world on culture, employee engagement, and wellness issues. They are the New York Times bestselling authors of All In; The Carrot Principle; and Leading With Gratitude. Their latest book, Anxiety at Work, was published in May 2021 by Harper Business.